One of the defining features of politics over the last thirty years has been the staggering of elections so that the ruling party could benefit. The process has always obtained under a Westminster style constitution, which I believe is one of its drawbacks, but consistent abuse of the process occurred only after the 1978 Constitution and its creation of two power centres, both of them equipped with executive power, unlike in other Presidential constitutions.
Since Ministers in Parliament exercise Executive power in addition to the President, if elections are held to the two institutions separately, there will always be one institution with power that can be used to influence elections. Jayewardene made it clear that such influence was to be exercised ruthlessly, when he amended his constitution to allow the President to call an early Presidential election. This was in addition to the Westminster practice of allowing early Parliamentary elections. Knowing that he was relatively popular, and having taken the precaution of knocking out his main opponent by taking away her Civic Rights, he held a Presidential election in 1982, 1 ½ years before he needed to.
But that in fact was not enough for him, because even though he could now use his Presidential powers for the Parliamentary election that was to follow, he knew he would certainly not get anything like the majority he had enjoyed under the First Past the Post system under which the 1977 Parliament had been elected. So he resorted to a Referendum, which he also fiddled outrageously, throwing the principal opposition protagonist into jail and then later banning the JVP so as to get over the legal challenge they had mounted.
The idea that other sources of executive power should be used for electoral purposes, and that to maximize their impact elections should be staggered, became entrenched with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the first elections to Provincial Councils. Jayewardene first held those he thought easy to win, before moving on to the more sophisticated areas, West and South and Centre, where he felt less secure.
Needless to say, the UNP was hoist with its own petard when the SLFP came to power. President Premadasa, who felt much more secure about his own popularity, did not engage in glaring manipulations when he held elections, but Chandrika Kumaratunga, like President Jayewardene, was more cautious, and made no pretence about having elections only when she thought it suited her. As we know, she was also appallingly careless about this, and managed to lose a year of her Presidential term, having taken oaths at the wrong time when she was re-elected.
President Rajapaksa has followed suit, and we now have Provincial Council elections held at totally different times, as we can see from the continuing uncertainty about when any of them will be held. He also went one better than Jayewardene and changed the Constitution to allow himself to contest another Presidential election, which can again be held at any time he chooses, after four years of his mandate have passed.
All this may seem very unfair to the opposition, though given that the practice was established by the UNP, I shed no tears for them. On the contrary, my tears are rather for the government, because I get the impression that manipulating elections has become more important now than actually ensuring that one is elected for some purpose. I am reminded then of the brilliant film about Casanova in which, instead of presenting a man satisfying his own desires, the suggestion was made that he had become a prisoner of his own reputation. He felt therefore a compulsion to embark continuously on affairs whereas he would much rather have preferred to relax on his own.
I was reminded of this when a panelist at one of the recent Liberal Party discussions on Reform mentioned that he hoped that the President would have an early election, so that he could then carry out several potentially unpopular reforms. The benefits of these would kick in only after a couple of years, so it was desirable to get a fresh mandate, which would allow the government to benefit from the positive effect later of tough measures which would be unpleasant now.
What had been forgotten was that the President in fact has 3 ½ years more, which is ample time for the reforms to have beneficial effects. Unfortunately, because it is assumed, following the Jayewardene machinations, that elections are due in a couple of years, the assumption is that it is too late now for the tightening of belts that the country needs. And because those who need to carry out the tough policies are themselves concerned with electoral politics, given our bizarre combination of Presidential and Westminster systems, they prefer to get the President, their cash cow as it were when it comes to elections, since none of them can match his popularity, to perform now.
It is this mentality that has led to the suggestion that the Constitution needs to be amended yet again, to allow a Presidential election to be held after three years have passed. What purpose this will serve, except to establish what everyone knows anyway, that the President is much more popular than any of his potential opponents, is not at all clear. Certainly it would make no sense to have an early Parliamentary election, given that the government would not do as well as it did in 2010, and given that the circumstances that led so many opposition politicians to join government will not recur.
The time to act is now, if the fiscal and administrative reforms we need are to be put in place before we lose this opportunity for rapid development. Already three years have been wasted in worrying about popularity. But sometimes it is easier, instead of governing, to just do what one knows can be done well, namely win elections with the cards stacked in one’s favour.