An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando, January 16, 2010
The groups engaged in monitoring the election have reported flagrant violations of election laws, the illegal use of state assets and the use of violence. They have noted that in Sri Lanka today the collapse of the electoral system on an unprecedented scale is taking place. The election commissioner’s own comments about the absence of cooperation between him and the government have also been very widely reported.
None of these observations would come as a surprise to anyone who has been an observer of the constitutional process in Sri Lanka. The collapse of public institutions has taken place over a long period of time and the debate on the 17th amendment to the constitution is merely a reflection of the extent of this collapse. The source of the collapse is the very nature of the constitutional arrangement in the 1978 Constitution, which has placed all power in the hands of a single person who holds the office of the Executive President.
The collapse of all public institutions, including the electoral process, is the necessary result of the political process initiated through the introduction of the executive presidential system. The existence of the executive presidential system in Sri Lanka and any form of democratic government, or even a rational government, are incompatible.
In the years to come, when the actual impact of the 1978 constitution is reviewed in a reasonable manner it will become obvious that what is usually spoken of as the known history of Sri Lanka, in recent decades, needs to be re-written.
The very nature of the conflict with the minorities, which is now easily spoken of as a conflict with the LTTE and a matter of dealing with terrorism, would reveal itself as rather a process of disintegration of the state through the operation of the executive presidential system which necessitated a situation of unrest within society. This was achieved both in the south, as well as in the north and east, by various conflicts, which prevailed. The escalation of some local conflicts into intense violence and into huge military conflicts was in fact a process which may not have taken place, if not for the existent of the executive presidential system.
In understanding violence in Sri Lanka as well as the resulting anarchy that is today experienced, the role played by the first Executive President of Sri Lanka, mostly for his own survival, needs to be more carefully and minutely documented than has been done up until now.
Knowing very well that the absolute power that he took upon himself would be challenged by many forces that were within Sri Lankan society, President Jayewardene diverted what may have become political challenges to his rule into all kinds of violence throughout the country by igniting these conflicts and pushing them to a point of no return from a democratic point of view. When one conflict was not sufficient, he then ignited more and each of these conflicts, in their own terms, had dialectics of their own. Thus, the dialectics of violence, initiated by the head of the state itself, penetrated into all corners of the country until the discourse became one of arms and violence.
With that igniting of conflicts and the use of the propaganda machinery by the state, the interpretation of virtually every problem within Sri Lanka took a different turn to what the real problems were. The need to re-interpret all these events in a more rational manner is now felt more than ever if the democratic process is to regain root In Sri Lanka.
Re-establishment of the authority of public institutions, including that of the election commissioner, and the regaining of the constitutional process within a system that effectively recognizes the separation of powers principles, would require understanding of the recent problems in a different manner.
The loss of the separation of powers within Sri Lanka is the root cause of the instability of public institutions in Sri Lanka, including that of the election commissioner. This loss is mostly felt in the area of the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary today is a destabilized institution which has been undermined severely from every point of view by many kinds of politicizations that have taken place in Sri Lanka.
Thus, today the country is facing critical times in every area. However, none of these problems could be resolved without dealing with the issue of the executive presidential system, which needs to be displaced as the first step towards the beginning of even the possibility of stability within the country. That process of re-establishment will also require re-interpretation of recent history from that same point of view.
About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.