Seize the moment; effect meaningful political change

It took World War II, the deadliest in human history, to end all wars in Europe for three generations and usher in a peace that has now lasted eight decades. Likewise, the complete and utter failure of the current government and the apparent inability of the Sri Lankan state to overcome the current impasse has presented a unique opportunity to achieve system-wide change that has long been elusive. .

As Sri Lanka teeters on the brink of economic collapse, there is a sincere sense and desire, at least among the general public, to right the many wrongs that have brought the country to its current pathetic predicament. This awareness extends to the economic, political, social and cultural domains. With regard to the economy, it is clear that corruption endemic for decades, reaching unprecedented levels under the Rajapaksa administrations, has destroyed the competitive but socially just economy and created in its place a crony economy run by and for the benefit of a few select individuals.

On the social front, there is a clear unity of cause between the different communities that have mobilized to demand a change of government. The divisions that alienated communities have, to some extent, been reconciled. At least at a minimum, there has been a realization that many divisions created in the recent past have been fabricated and manipulated by political forces that have used them to seize power. In this unifying moment, there is a real possibility for change in the political sphere, which for decades has specifically discriminated against minority communities and the socially oppressed.

Minister Harin Fernando evoked this sentiment in a moving speech in Parliament calling on all parliamentarians to use this moment to bring about real change that the people are asking for. It is significant that days before the leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa, for the first time in his history, called for the abolition of the executive presidency, a cause that has consumed many reformers for at least 30 years. It is now clear that the executive presidency, instead of ensuring the stability of the state, actually weakens it by concentrating extraordinary powers in a single individual and preventing democratic transitions of power in situations such as the one in which we face today.

When it was written in 1977, many constitutional experts posed the rhetorical question of what would happen if the executive were invested with a lunatic. This question seemed to have been answered. The worst part of the current Constitution is that an incumbent president is effectively irremovable. The procedure laid down for the impeachment of a president by Parliament is so cumbersome that it is never seen to succeed in cases of intentional violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, misconduct or corruption.

Ironically, the 20th Amendment to the constitution, which strengthened the power of the presidency, diluting the power and independence of the judiciary, legislature and independent commissions to act as checks and balances, has now caused the worst crisis in memory of man. It is not just the executive presidency that is proving to be a bitter failure. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Sri Lankan state has failed for 74 years to create a form of governance that represents all of its peoples and reflects their aspirations. In this moment of unity, it is possible to seek consensus on the national question.

Whether the current public mood is a fleeting moment, driven by economic hardship more than a genuine sense of community unity and a sense of civic conscience, must be seen. However, this moment is unique and must be seized to effect meaningful change in the system and governance structure. If so, even this cloud of great frustration and despair will have a bright side.

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