President’s Subservient Parliament

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 26 2021
Columns President’s  Subservient Parliament

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

I noted the reasons for JR’s inflated reputation even though, for instance, our financial decline happened in the years after independence when he was Minister of Finance – thrust into the Cabinet, as I have noted, by Dudley whereas an older and wiser generation did not trust him.

His nephew Ranil was like him in this regard, admired as an intellect and a shrewd tactician, though his successes were largely due to the comparative incapacity of his rivals. Indeed unlike JR he had been considered a mediocrity at school, but by the time he got into politics his upbringing gave him tremendous advantages over the less sophisticated individuals who began to dominate Parliament, and in spades after the electoral system was perverted, so as to remove the basic screening that parties had been able to implement on a constituency system.

But whereas JR amongst the much more capable peers of his days in power succeeded on his own, Ranil was immeasurably helped by the sheer folly of Mahinda Rajapaksa who thought him a pushover and helped him to remain at the helm of his party. He thought this was the best way to his own continuing ascendancy. But what he did not bargain for was the insidious nature of Ranil’s operations, how he could ensure attacks on his opponents, both Mahinda and those in his party he wanted destroyed, from unexpected quarters. 

Outpouring of grief

The UNP Government lost the 1970 Election by a landslide and Dudley Senanayake handed over the leadership of the party in Parliament to JR. But JR was not to the taste of many seniors in the party and, following the JVP insurgency, several of them protested at what they saw as JR’s subservience to the Government. Dudley who was still in charge of the party started to move against JR, but he resisted this and the two were reconciled. But then Dudley died, and the outpouring of grief at his funeral made JR understand that the UNP could again be resurrected.

Fortunately for him almost all the other senior members of the party also died. M.D. Banda and U.B. Wanninayake and I.M.R.A. Iriyagolle for instance, so though he was much older than Dudley he was very much the senior statesman of the UNP when he led it to a resounding electoral victory in 1977.  The only other senior Minister in the party, M.D.H. Jayewardene, was removed from his position in 1979.

Executive Presidency

JR used his majority to introduce a new constitution based on an Executive Presidency, to which position he elevated himself. But even though he had claimed when arguing for this change that the members of the Cabinet should be outside Parliament so they could devote full attention to their executive responsibilities, the new Constitution placed the rest of the Cabinet within Parliament. This is unique so far as Executive Presidencies go, but the reasons for this strange hybridity have not been examined by Sri Lankan political scientists. Indeed JR’s great friend A.J. Wilson, in his adulatory book called The Gaullist Constitution of Ceylon, does not consider this salient difference with the French Gaullist constitution, even though he cites JR’s earlier argument.

Right through his period in office, JR was never questioned on the provision in his constitution, unique where there are Executive Presidencies,  the rest of the Cabinet should be in Parliament. So one cannot be sure what his motive was. But one consequence, which he was shrewd enough to have understood though it seems to have escaped the notice of other commentators, is that it ensured Parliament was not really independent. Whereas in the United States and in France members of the legislature function only as legislators (and if they hold any other position, which is possible in France, it is not one under the Executive President), the case is very different in Sri Lanka. Here the leading members of Parliament hold executive office at the pleasure of the President and are therefore beholden to him in a manner that does not occur in those other countries.

Since JR endowed a great many parliamentarians in his party with executive office under him – and indeed enticed some from the Opposition with such office – he had effective control of Parliament. With the main Opposition party reduced to eight seats, which he reduced further, and only a few of the parliamentarians from the TULF able to contribute forcefully on national questions – though its leadership did its best, despite being shouted down by the serried ranks of Government – Parliament became a rubber stamp for the President. 

Letters of resignation

And JR set the seal on this, when he realised his Government was getting unpopular, by demanding undated letters of resignation from his parliamentarians. His chief instrument in getting these was his nephew Ranil Wickremesinghe, who went round the meeting of the group handing out the letters to be signed and returned, as the paper report of the incident recorded.

So his constitution and his parliamentary majority ensured that JR’s authoritarianism held sway. But he affirmed this further in different ways. First, he reconstituted the Supreme Court in his own image. He did this by the simple expedient of providing in the new Constitution that all Judges lost their positions, and then he reappointed only those he thought he could control, leaving out senior members whom he suspected of sympathy with the Opposition and demoting others to the Court of Appeal. Several of those JR got rid of such as Noel Tittawella had served in the Attorney General’s Department and were only in their mid- fifties when they lost their positions, but he cared nothing for the fact that the laws forbade them to practice now.

And then after that he set about eliminating Mrs. Bandaranaike from the political arena. As had been his previous practice he got various allegations made against her and when she said she would be happy to face an inquiry about them he set up a special commission of inquiry and handpicked the Judges to sit on this.  

Though he claimed to have followed Sirimavo’s request, when vicious allegations were made against her, for a judicial investigation, JR bypassed the Courts where fair play had a greater chance, and instead set up a Commission which functioned as he wished. Its raison d'être was of course to find her guilty and remove her from the political scene. 

In fairness to Ranil that was not something he engaged in, in 2015 when he came into power through Maithripala Sirisena and he and Chandrika Kumaratunga were determined to take revenge on the Rajapaksas. But perhaps it was simply that, though as vindictive, he was not as ruthlessly efficient as JR, and indeed his efforts to find the Rajapaksas and their friends guilty of misconduct backfired spectacularly because it led to Mahinda Rajapaksa returning to the political arena, just when the Government that had replaced him made its own dishonesty palpable.

Despite packing the Courts as best he could, JR realised the Supreme Court still had its dignity, so he could only find two Judges on whom he could rely. So the third Judge appointed to the commission he set up, K.C.E. de Alwis, was from the Court of Appeal. He was a bizarre choice, and subsequently a bench of the Supreme Court found that he was guilty of misconduct unbecoming of a judicial officer and should not function further as a member of the commission. The Chief Justice did not go so far, but was scathing about de Alwis with regard to the particular issue raised and observed that this ‘might undermine faith in the Commission’. 

Alwis then petitioned the President against the judgment and a Select Committee of Parliament was appointed to go into the matter. The Committee at the outset dismissed Alwis’ allegation that the judgment arose from a conspiracy to discredit the commission, and finally ruled against his allegation of bias on the part of the two Judges who had found him guilty of misconduct. And in the process of that inquiry it was found that all three Judges disbelieved an affidavit given by their Supreme Court colleagues, Sharvananda and Weeraratne.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 26 2021

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