Much energy has been expended in recent months in speculation as to whether we will soon have a new Prime Minister, and if so, who it will be. I was confidently told by an opposition Member of Parliament that 7 Ministers had applied in writing for the post, and opposition papers are having a field day in declaring that senior members of the SLFP are disaffected because their claims might be ignored.
All this speculation is destructive, not least because those about whom there is speculation feel both that they must defend themselves against allegations of untoward ambitions, and also against the possible untoward ambitions of others. Thus opposition politicians and media outlets will in fact contribute to fulfillment of the prophecies they make.
What is not taken into account in all this is that such speculation is inappropriate when there is no impending vacancy in the position of President. Given that the post of Prime Minister carries little power, there is no reason for anyone to want that appointment. Though it is true that both Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa did much as Prime Minister, they would have done the same without such a position. Conversely, the only person who succeded to the Presidency by virtue of being Prime Minister was D B Wijetunge, and he did nothing of any significance in that position.
I could understand there being frenetic anxiety now for the position of Prime Minister had we not had the 18th Amendment, but since that was supposed to put paid to the lame duck syndrome, it is unfortunate that speculation still continues, and in the process weakens the Presidency. One reason I thought the removal of term limits, which is generally not a good idea, acceptable in the Sri Lankan context is that I had seen what happened to Chandrika Kumaratunga towards the end of her second term. Indeed I was told by a shrewd political commentator around 2004, when I had been impressed by her courage in dealing with the harassment she faced as President when the opposing party was in power, that there was no point in wondering what she might do, for she was history.
Aided and abetted by the absurdities of the limits of her second Presidential term, and also I feel by her adverse reaction to the work of the Prime Minister with regard to tsunami relief while she was away, she ended up achieving nothing in the truncated period she had following the 2004 election that once again gave her a majority. My fear now is that, despite the relief provided by the 18th amendment, that should have stopped speculation about the succession, the same may happen to the present President if he does not firmly assert his authority for the rest of his Presidential term.
Unfortunately, though I am sure that he hopes the current Prime Minister will fulfil that role for the foreseeable future, the latter’s health will inevitably ensure that speculation continues. And while one hopes that he will continue to serve in Parliament for the rest of his current term, it is not fair either on so loyal and effective a servant of the SLFP in his day, nor on the country, that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is not in a position to contribute to policy or to decisions.
Even though this may suggest that the position is redundant, and certainly I personally believe we should move to an American style Presidential system with no necessary linkage between the Executive and those elected to the Legislature, while we have such a position in our Constitution, it should exercise influence and authority. Since this is not possible now, it would make sense for the President, as happened with the previous Prime Minister, to make a change while ensuring respect for those who had held such high office.
In making any fresh appointment, the President must of course ensure that he avoids controversy. It would be inappropriate to appoint a member of his family, and I am sure they would not want this, given the difficulties it would cause the President. The work of the Secretary of Defence over the last several years shows that one can achieve much through an executive position without involvement in the legislature or in political activity. I am sorry then that our Constitution does not permit greater use of outstanding capacities in similar positions, without piling on political responsibilities and the need to nurse potential voters and vote getters too.
What we would need then is a neutral personality, and it might be best for the President, given current speculation about problems within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the looming shadow of his predecessor, if he were to appoint one or other of the senior members of the SLFP. To me they have the added advantage of having made it clear that they stand unequivocally for a pluralistic society, and giving them a platform from which they can enunciate this ideal clearly and productively would do much to overcome the current gathering resentment of minorities against the government.
If however it is felt that the position of Prime Minister might give any individual undue advantage in seeking a Presidential nomination at some stage, far in the future though this will be, it would make sense to appoint someone with no claim at all to becoming the SLFP candidate for the Presidency. Certainly we have two capable politicians in harness still who also command international credibility beyond any other member of the cabinet.
I refer to Sarath Amunugama and D E W Gunasekara, who both also command the confidence of the President as the responsibilities he has entrusted to them over the last year indicate, despite their having been made Senior Ministers. And there is also a third individual who, while still engaged in active electoral politics, has recently made clear his commitment to pluralism, even while he commands the confidence of a nationalist constituency. I refer to Dinesh Gunawardena, who again is no threat to any other contenders for future promotion because he belongs to another party, but who can command both national and international confidence.
Though it may seem that doing nothing is the best recourse now, I do not think that, with speculation increasing and corroding trust, the President can afford to wait much longer. A clear assertion that he will continue in office without any change in the constitution, and that he will be the Presidential candidate of his party when the next election is held – I hope not earlier than 2016 – will help the country move forward, along with a new Prime Minister who can relieve the President of some of the burdens of policy making and implementation.