Dysfunctional governance directly linked to 20A
By Javid Yusuf (email@example.com)
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that there is a total breakdown in governance in the country. Notwithstanding the centralisation of power in the office of the Exe c u t ive Presidency and the Government’s two- third majority in Parliament, there is a sense of chaos in the country in relation to the delivery of basic services expected of the Government. Many news programmes on TV will reflect a snapshot of the woes of people trying to navigate a web of shortages, astronomical prices and standing in long queues to obtain basic necessities. The situation is so bad that even pro-Government television stations are compelled to show these travails of the people to ensure that they retain their viewers. Currently the Executive and the Legislature seem to exist in parallel worlds. The President seems to rely on task forces to govern while the Legislature discusses matters which do not get fed into the main seat of governance which is now the Executive Presidency. The Executive Presidency tends to foster a know it all mind set and does not encourage a process of consultation in governance. In fact the constant complaint by the constituent parties in the Government is that they are never consulted when decisions are made. In a situation where the holder of the office of President, like in the case of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is an individual who has no political experience and is not a product of the political system, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution tends to push him into the orbit of those who he is most comfortable with rather than those elected by the people. In the case of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa this explains his over reliance on the armed forces rather than the political forces that actually catapulted him into power. Such a situation gives meaning to President J. R. Jayewardene’s celebrated raison d’etre for the creation of the Executive Presidency under the 1978 Constitution. To President Jayewardene the justification for creating the Executive Presidency was to enable him to act “without being subject to the whims and fancies of Parliament.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to be doing just that much to the dismay of his supporters in Parliament. At present the Cabinet only seems to serve the Constitutional requirement of sanctioning legislation rather than collective decision making as envisaged in the Parliamentary or Cabinet form of Government. This is reflected in the Government’s management of the COVID19 pandemic where the decision making has been entrusted to the COVID Task Force rather than the Cabinet. The Executive Presidency promotes decision making by an individual rather than a collective of individuals like the Cabinet and is therefore more likely to result in errors in governance. This aspect is well reflected in news items and press releases which use the phraseology “the President has directed” that such and such be done rather than “the Government (or Cabinet) has decided that such and such be done.” This break in the link between the Executive and the Legislature, apart from being undemocratic, does not take into account the views of the peoples’ representatives, when it comes to decision making. This also results in the quality of governance being directly affected. Under the parliamentary system, Parliamentarians rub shoulders with the Prime Minister and have access to him not only in the Chamber, but also in the corridors of Parliament and in the Parliamentary canteen. This provides a two way benefit to the country in the sense that the Prime Minister has the benefit of different views from the peoples’ representatives and he can also “keep a finger on the pulse of the people.” Parliamentarians have the opportunity of asking questions, eliciting information on government policy and contributing to the shaping of government policy through their speeches in Parliament which are heard by the Prime Minister and ministers. Their speeches are therefore taken into consideration by the Cabinet, which is the main body directing the Government. The current President is further isolated by his over reliance on task forces whose views are not subject to public scrutiny. These task forces are unrepresentative of the people and their recommendations or advice is what the President goes by. When one takes into account the fact that the current President has no political experience whatsoever, it would have been prudent for him to give heed to those who supported him and have considerable political experience. However he seems to be doing the exact opposite and distancing himself from those with experience even within his ranks. Even his choice of ministers and State ministers reflects this attitude. The 20A restored all the powers entrusted to the Executive Presidency under the 1978 Constitution and the country is today facing the consequences of this colossal blunder. The lack of experience of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is showing in the dysfunction of the current Government. The Yahapalana dysfunction was due to differences in policy between the two main personalities President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was also blamed on the fact that there were two centres of power which in turn was due to the fact that the journey from the Executive Presidency to the Parliamentary form of Government was stopped midway and did not go the whole hog in completely abolishing the Executive Presidency. On the other hand the 20A reversed the process and centralised power in the Executive Presidency. The current President is therefore in no way hamstrung by the system but in fact empowered by the changes brought about by the 20th Amendment. He is further strengthened by the existence of a two-third majority in Parliament. The current dysfunction in the Government cannot therefore be attributed to two centres of power as in the case of the 19th Amendment. It is directly attributable to the all powerful Executive Presidency. It is predicated in the mistaken proposition that one individual placed at the head of the system of government is the repository of all wisdom in governance. The fallacy in this argument is there for all to see today. An agriculture sector in turmoil over an ill- advised decision to switch overnight from carbonic to organic fertiliser has seen a never before witnessed uprising of farmers whose livelihoods have been threatened. In the history of this country it has been the organised working class which has taken on the governments that took such negative decisions. Today we witness the informal sector, namely the farming community, for the first time in the country’s history taking to the streets and giving vent to their feelings. In addition to upsetting the usually peaceful farmers the Government’s decision has placed the country in danger of a food shortage in the near future, due to reduced productivity. The country has also got embroiled in a controversy with China over so called organic fertiliser containing harmful bacteria. The Executive Presidency led Government has created a seriesof queues and shortages that is unprecedented in this country. Sugar, milk powder, cement, gas and various food items are either not available or in short supply, resulting in long queues in many places. Government spokesmen keep talking about various mafias such as the “rice mafia” and “gas mafia” but do pretty little to control or curb these mafias which it claims is contributing to the shortages. On the contrary the Government issues gazettes on various matters only to reverse it a few days later. Such back and forth of reversing gazettes is not an isolated incident but has become the hallmark of this Government’s style of governance. It suggests that despite the enormous powers of the Executive Presidency and the two-third majority in Parliament, the Government is groping in the dark with regard to what it should do. The fact that decisions taken by the Government are reversed so often suggests that such decisions are not well thought out and are ill- informed. In the national interest, the sooner the Executive Presidency is abolished the better.