Sri Lanka: Prevailing gridlock between Executive and Legislature

by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

St. Augustine’s City of God was perhaps the book President Sirisena was following since the beginning of his Presidency in 2015. A kind and calm leader from humble beginnings was seen trying to be righteous, yet appeared cornered, isolated and perhaps pushed to the wall by his coalition partners. That is why, it seems, he decided to borrow political ideas from another book which was banned as soon as it came into print. This book is another Italian masterpiece, Machiavelli’s Prince. This book had once helped Queen Elizabeth I to create a golden age while assassinating the people who went against her, a terror far worse than her father Henry the VIII’s time.

Machiavelli advised in the Prince that the prince be a lion and a fox at the same time; the former to frighten wolves, the latter to detect snares. Elizabeth I was a combination of both, turning adversaries against each other, keeping steady on the tightrope she walked with patriotism. In the same manner, President Sirisena appointed Rajapaksa – a move that the entire nation or the coalition partners never contemplated, dismantled and stripped the power of the former Prime Minister the same way as he treated Sirisena, according to a Presidential adviser who completely ignored advice of the President when making decisions in the bipartisan model.

Matching to the last trick, in 1571 the most elaborate plot was to assassinate Elizabeth I and install Mary Stuart on the throne. Florentine banker Roberto Ridolfi was planning this plot connecting Pius V, King Philip, and the Duke of Alba which Elizabeth’s spymasters tracked and exposed at the right time.

In the same way, the plot to assassinate President Sirisena was revealed with recorded conversations and investigations taking place at the same time, where another nation appeared involved, indirectly. The investigations will tell if there was such a real plot to assassinate the President. Just like in the ancient time, President Sirisena will use the exact words of Machiavelli to crush all his adversaries with the help of the man whom he contested against in 2015, and perhaps use the same nation who supported his election victory, calling and requesting assistance on the assassination plot.

So in an article titled ‘Leviathan’ (sea monster) authored a few months ago, I had appealed to the leader to follow the work of Hobbes who wrote of a central figure with authority than a weak figure at the centre who was seen by many as a puppet on strings.

President Sirisena, like Elizabeth I, was a strange leader who perhaps never took advice. Ambassador to Philip of Spain in England, Count de Feria wrote, “Elizabeth is a very strange sort of women…she is determined to be governed by no one.”

She was calm to the public even at the time of much rebellion and chaos, in the same way President Sirisena was calmly watching the success of his pet project, the Moragahakanda reservoir, opening the sluice gate while one of the gatekeepers of democracy, the Parliament, was in chaos and trending on social media and television screens.

The entire nation observed fist-fighting between the honourable representatives of the highest democratic institution.

Perhaps a question could be raised if political parties who are essential gatekeepers of democracy had given election nominations to the right kind of candidates to become people’s representatives?

While many leaders from history practised Machiavellian philosophy, another document keeps leaders from engaging in authoritarian acts.

The national Constitution represents that document with a long history from the time of Hammurabi’s code, which codified 282 laws to govern Babylon, to the modern-day English Protectorate introduced after the English Civil War by Oliver Cromwell.

But all Constitutions also have had their flaws. The US Constitution does little to prevent the

President from doing undemocratic things such as filling the FBI or other independent government agency with obedient subjects nor does it prevent a President from acting by decree when issuing Executive orders. President Trump is seen today exercising these undemocratic practices and further interfering with the Judiciary by calling his Chief Justice an ‘Obama judge’, while the judge denies this allegation.

So how does a democracy sustain its credibility? What keeps a democracy going is an adherence to the unwritten rules, and it thrives on two things according to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Mutual tolerance means that participants of a democratic system, that is, the political rivals to power should not brand each other a ‘enemies’, ‘traitors’ or ‘criminals’. In recent past, this axiom has been repeatedly undermined in the Sri Lankan Parliament.

In the 1960s in Chile, mutual tolerance began to erode between the two political camps. In August 1973 when the Chamber of Deputies declared the government unconstitutional, it triggered a military coup led by right-wing power, and for the next 17 years, Augusto Pinochet was in power.

There is a grave danger when mutual tolerance is lost and the political opponents are seen as traitors or part of a plot to assassinate the Executive.

In a similar manner, autocracy could creep into system with the gradual erosion of democracy. In Peru, when Alberto Fujimori failed to deliver economic progress through democratic means he took the law into his hand ignoring the courts and the Constitution. On August 5, 1992, he dissolved Congress and suspended the constitution. Fujimori’s transformation from a democratic leader to a dictator was piecemeal.

Institutional forbearance means refraining from actions that would undermine the spirit of democracy – even if the act is technically legal or not prohibited by the Constitution. For example, George Washington exercised this by limiting his term, serving only twice as President even when there were no set term limits in the Constitution. In Sri Lanka, institutional forbearance was lost when the past regime scrapped the Presidential term limit and took control of all independent commissions – an act which made the former President unpopular.

However, President Sirisena’s recent move to remove the Prime Minister was done on many grounds according to the President, but there was one point which made his case accepted. This was breach of national security by former Prime Minister during his conduct in office, seen by some as being an agent of another nation not working for the national interest.

In 2004, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga fired the same Prime Minister on the grounds of national security, after he signed an agreement with another nation without her consent.

The present situation has to return to normalcy at some point. I hope that the leaders would go back to the people to unlock the present gridlock between the Executive and the Legislature.

In the long run, a political culture of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance needs to be restored to preserve South Asia’s oldest democracy. Or else, Sri Lanka could drift towards a worse form of government, a dictatorship with its main gatekeeper of democracy – the Parliament – crippled and the Judiciary undermined.

President Sirisena should shelve Machiavelli and revisit the work City of God by St. Augustine.

It is important to understand that the dismantling of democracy can be a gradual imperceptible process that may elude our day-to-day priorities. But once begun, this drift can take a long time to restore and redo what is lost, which may take a very long time to rebuild.

 The writer is the Director General Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL

Post a Comment