End the Executive Presidency now! – CMU Statement

Sri Lanka workers’ union calls for end to executive presidency
Please see below a statement from the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers’ Union (CMU), which represents workers from the Sinhalese, Tamil and Tamil Muslim communities. In its statement the CMU exposes the hypocrisy of president Maithripala Sirisena, the anti-democratic move to shut down parliament, and the rampant corruption under his and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime.
Tamil Solidarity has consistently argued that all of the establishment political parties in Sri Lanka are rotten to the core. They defend the interests of the people at the top, their big-business backers, and the major powers they wheel and deal with. All this at the expense of the vast majority of working-class people, oppressed Tamils and Tamil Muslims, whose interests Tamil Solidarity campaigns for.
Over the years, we would not necessarily agree with every statement or act of the CMU leadership. However, we recognise the significance of this latest statement: it shows clearly the divide between the political establishment and the vast majority of the peoples of Sri Lanka – and the potential to build a movement across the communal divides against corruption, for decent homes, jobs and education, and for democratic rights, including the right of the Tamil people to self-determination.
Statement of the CMU on the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena
As night fell on Friday, 26th November, President Maithripala Sirisena, without any knowledge of the people of this country, hurriedly invited Mahinda Rajapaksa – Member of Parliament and the former President – to the President’s House to swear him in as the Prime Minister of the country. Sometime later, the incumbent, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was informed via a letter from the President that he had been removed from the position of Prime Minister with immediate effect.
In appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, President Sirisena was purportedly acting under the provision of the constitution that empowers the President to “appoint as Prime Minister a Member of Parliament who in the President’s opinion is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament.” When faced with the demand that Parliament must be summoned immediately to establish who commanded the majority of the House the President decided to prorogue Parliament until the 16th of November, effectively shutting down the House for 18 days.
The CMU considers both the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, as well as the suspension of the sitting of Parliament, to be anti-democratic and a blatant abuse of the powers of the Executive President. Ever since JR Jayawardena established the Executive Presidency in 1978, the CMU has steadfastly opposed it and repeatedly called for it to be abolished.
Contrary to President Sirisena’s claims that he took this decision “for the sake of the people and the country”, we wish to state categorically that these moves have nothing whatsoever to do with improving the lives of the vast majority of the people of this country, including millions of workers, who have, under this President’s government, faced untold hardships and seen a steady decline in their living standards. We consider his actions to be a politically opportunistic move to entrench himself in power as the Executive President, in the face of his rapidly waning popularity among large sections of the population including within his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, of which he is the leader.
By suspending the sittings of Parliament, the President was allowing Mahinda Rajapaksa time to entice sufficient numbers of Members of Parliament to crossover to give him a majority in the House, which he currently doesn’t command, by offering them ministerial positions and the attractive perks and privileges that go with them. It is widely believed that hundreds of millions of rupees in cash are now being offered to buy the support of opposition parliamentarians. Already several MPs who have switched allegiance have been sworn in as ministers, deputy ministers and state ministers.
In his address to the nation on 28th October 2018, President Sirisena stated: “I appeal to everybody to extend fullest cooperation to the new government formed by me with Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister to strengthen democratic governance, freedom of the people, human rights and fundamental rights and media freedom and take our motherland towards prosperity and make a better and decent society.”
Even if he is able to establish his majority in Parliament and succeeds in forming a government, we have no illusion that Mahinda Rajapaksa and the various political parties and collaborators who will constitute the majority will deliver any of the promises President Sirisena has held out. It is ironic that President Sirisena himself, in his letter to Mahinda on 13th August 2015, had this to say: “Your arbitrary decision to adopt the 18th amendment to the constitution led to a brutal suppression of democratic rights and freedom of the people. ….. With the intention of remaining the President for ever, it is appalling how you curbed the freedom and destroyed the dignity of the people …..”
During his Executive Presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa pursued economic policies no different to those of the present United National Front government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, dictated by financial institutions of global capital. His two terms were marked by the undertaking of several massive projects including the Hambantota Port and the Mattala airport. These dubious projects, which cost billions of rupees, have provided little or no value to the people of this country – least of all to the rural farmers of the surrounding areas. The projects were funded by foreign, largely Chinese, loans at high interest rates, and they have left the country with a huge debt servicing and repayment crisis, the burden of which has now fallen on the masses through increased taxes and the rise in the cost of living that they are now facing.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency was also marked by corruption on a scale the country has not seen before. According to an AFP report of May 9, 2018 “Sirisena has said up to half of all public procurement contracts under the Rajapaksa administration were corrupt, and his government has renegotiated several multi-billion dollar projects.”
From the point of view of the working people, President Mahinda Rajapaksa made no effort to exercise the powers of his Executive Presidency to implement the National Workers Charter, which he himself presented when he was the Minister of Labour. Nor did he end the utterly deplorable and exploitative practice of employing workers for regular employment under “Manpower” agencies with low basic pay, no paid leave, no medical benefits and no retirement benefits. These workers who are constrained to work throughout their working lives, for starvation wages and without adequate rest or leisure, have no hope of making life better for themselves or for their children.
Meanwhile the situation has only grown worse under the present government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
For all its promises of good governance and economic prosperity, over the past three years our trade deficit has gone up, external debt has grown and our growth rate has been around 3% – one of the lowest in South Asia. Importantly, for a government that promises to build a knowledge economy, spending on education, which is essential to lift people out of poverty and to build the skills needed for the future, is only 2% against the 6% that was promised. Meanwhile, almost 10 years since the war ended, spending on Defence next year will be Rs 306 billion, which is more than the combined spending on education and health. A new Counter Terrorism Act is due to be presented in Parliament to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the CMU had always opposed. While we question the need for such an act at a time when it is widely claimed the “war against terrorism” has ended, we have very little doubt the provisions of this law will be abused to curb legitimate democratic protest action against the government.
It is reported that the Auditor General has confirmed that the country lost a staggering Rs. 1.6 billion as a result of the notorious Central Bank bond scam. It is very telling that President Sirisena, who is the Head of the Cabinet, has denounced his own government’s scandal in his statement of 28th October 2018: “The robbery of the Central Bank dragged the country into a deep crisis ….. We had not heard of such a big fraud in the history of our country.” We see it as a weak and belated attempt to distance himself from the wrongdoing of his own government.
While the 19th amendment to the Constitution has sought to curtail the powers of the Executive President, it is clear that President Sirisena, and whoever else is elected to this position in the future, will continue to wield considerable state power. It is under these powers that President Sirisena decided arbitrarily to remove the Prime Minister, replace him with an MP of his choice and prevented Parliament from convening to challenge his self-serving political manoeuvre.
Over the years the near dictatorial powers of the Executive Presidency have been used mainly to benefit the President and his or her collaborators both in and outside the government. It has never been wielded to make life better for the vast majority of the population including working people, farmers, the fishing community, teachers, plantation workers, the unemployed, minorities and other exploited sections of the people.
Now is the time to end it!
The CMU will use the groundswell of opposition that is now building against this President to mobilise its members and join hands with other Unions and collaborate with other organisations to create a broad movement to do away with the Executive Presidential System of Government itself.