JRJ’s 117th Birth Anniversary: Open Economy and Executive Presidency



by Rajan Philips

President Ranil Wickremesinghe interrupted his busy flight schedule between conferences to issue a commemorative message on September 17 to mark the 117th birth anniversary of President JR Jayewardene. I am not aware of any special significance associated with #117, nor can I remember Mr. Wickremesinghe issuing birth anniversary statements in the recent past.

What is special this year is that Ranil Wickremesinghe is the incumbent President. The first time in 35 years after President Jayewardene retired from office, someone politically and personally close to him happens to be Sri Lanka’s Executive President. President Jayewardene was not only the founding father of the executive presidency, but also the political godfather and avuncular mentor of Ranil Wickremesinghe. So, the latter’s commemoration of the former is both special and significant. We can appreciate that.

There is of course the little detail that Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a president elected by the people, but by their representatives in parliament. Mr. Wickremesinghe was not even elected as an MP in the last election. He is a double beneficiary of the National List scheme and the constitutional provision for interim presidents.

Some might see the irony in the backdoor path that brought Ranil Wickremesinghe to the high office in contrast to the electoral sweep that brought JRJ to power with a five-sixths majority in the 1977 elections. Others might see the smooth working of JRJ’s 1978 Constitution through the tumults and crises brought upon the country by GR, the infamous Seventh Executive President. Now we have in Ranil Wickremesinghe the Eighth Executive President and the first unelected one. The titles sound more monarchical than republican.

President Wickremesinghe knows full well the dire circumstances that brought him to power without an election. And he will do anything to deflect any blame that may be aimed at JR Jayewardene for the country’s current situation. So, Mr. Wickremesinghe sweepingly said in his message, as reported in the media, that “if Sri Lanka had been able to sustain the socio-economic reforms initiated by the late President in 1977, the nation would be a developed country today.” That is understandable even though it is easily refutable. Quite apart from the formality of argument, the material evidence over the last four decades will give the lie to Mr. Wickremesinghe’s assertion.

What is laughable is the claim that followed: “neighbouring countries like India, China and Vietnam, which transitioned from closed and socialist economic practices, had studied Jayewardene’s approach and prospered by adapting their policies to the changing times.

” This is as laughable as what President Jayewardene once said on a public occasion that the American freedom fighters at the Boston Tea Party must have been drinking tea imported from Sri Lanka for inspiration. Pieter Keuneman characteristically chimed in to remind everyone that there was no tea or coffee in Sri Lanka in 1773. The tea that was the cause of taxation protests in colonial America was imported from China by the East India Company.

JRJ’s Long Legacy

The serious truth of the matter is that President Jayewardene was able to launch his political and economic initiatives on the very morrow of his massive victory in 1977, expand and entrench his power immensely by transubstantiating himself from Prime Minister to President and extending the life of his tyrannical majority in parliament through the subterfuge of a referendum, and hold on to power for 12 long years. Power and longevity that should have been more than enough to permanently “sustain the socio-economic reforms” he initiated. But it didn’t.

It is a bit rich, therefore, for President Wickremesinghe to now suggest that Sri Lanka failed to sustain the reforms initiated by JRJ because of other factors that frustrated JRJ’s initiatives. The fact is that the seeds of unsustainability were in the reforms themselves – both in their content and in their implementation. It is historic comeuppance that Ranil Wickremesinghe should have been called upon to deal with the mess that is the long legacy of JR Jayewardene, even though the immediate trigger for it had arrived in the person of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

What President Wickremesinghe is referring to as JRJ’s “socioeconomic reforms” are in fact two major initiatives, namely, the liberalization of the economy and the constitutional change that replaced Sri Lanka’s parliamentary system with a presidential system of government. There is a difference between the two which looks more significant in hindsight than it did then.

The difference is that there was no surprise about the economic liberalization program that JRJ implemented. The program was also an extension of traditional UNP policies that the country had grown accustomed to, including those who were opposed to them. The economic changes were much anticipated and were widely seen as an antidote to years of autarkic scarcity that preceded the 1977 elections. The election results showed the magnitude of resentment and the massive desire for change.

The constitutional changes centered on the presidential system were a different beast. The economic program did not require a presidential system for its implementation. There was nothing in the country’s objective conditions that warranted a shift from the parliamentary system to the presidential system. It was all JRJ’s idea, idiosyncratic and egotistical. He was its originator, advocate and champion.

Initially and for a long time there was no support for it even within the UNP, and the country at large couldn’t have cared a hoot about it. But after the death of Dudley Senanayake in 1973, JRJ was able to bring the party along to supporting his idea. With his leadership of the party consolidated and electoral victory assured, it was not at all difficult for him to weave the constitutional changes including the executive presidency into the UNP Manifesto. It would not have happened if Dudley Senanayake were alive in 1977.

After a landslide victory, the newly anointed cabinet ministers had neither the need nor the inclination to critically assess the pros and cons of the change from parliamentary system to presidential system. In any event, none of the ministers could have demurred or disagreed because their individual letters of resignation as MPs were all in the President’s pockets. What was a massive change was adopted with minimum scrutiny. The political purpose behind the constitutional changes would seem to have evolved during President Jayewardene’s long tenure.

This is evident from the frequency of self-serving and ad hominem (directed at people rather than positions) amendments to the constitution during JRJ’s tenure. The eventual purpose was to make the UNP the permanent governing party of the country. The whole scheme backfired because presidential ambitions of leading UNP ministers created intense rivalries within the party. These rivalries were exacerbated by the proportional representation and preferential voting schemes that created caste-based voting blocs in the country.

Toxic fusion at the Top

In the end the UNP was in power for 17 years, and 11 of which were under the Jayewardene presidency. Prime Minister Premadasa succeeded JRJ as President overcoming intense internal opposition. The Premadasa presidency ended in 1994 with his assassination by the LTTE. Since then, the country has not had a single elected UNP President. There is a UNP President now, but he got there, courtesy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and he is staying there because of the support of the Rajapaksas.

The once mighty UNP was reduced to a single National List MP in the last parliamentary election. The SLFP is a disgrace. The SLPP is vanishing faster than it emerged. The SJB is a rudderless flotsam. The implosion and fragmentation of the mainstream parties cannot be explained in isolation from the devouring behemoth that is the executive presidency. The JVP stands robust because it has been least impacted by the executive presidency. The Tamil and Muslim parties – they are on orbits of their own.

There is no point in invoking every known name from Karl Marx through Antonio Negri to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to make sense of, let alone justify, any aspect of the JRJ contraption even in its most sanitized form. President Wickremesinghe of course offers no defence or justification of the executive presidency. He is not interested in defending it or reforming it. He is interested in it only to satisfy his itch to become an elected executive president. But he takes a different position on JRJ’s economic policies. They are his premise and his launching pad to propel Sri Lanka into its flight of prosperity (hopefully, not fancy). That is why he offered his ringing praise of them in his commemoration message.

But the economy that President Jayewardene triumphantly opened up (“Let the Robber Barons come”) in 1977 has produced mixed results. It ended scarcity, boosted exports and created jobs. Decades of investments in land and agriculture finally brought self-sufficiency in rice production. But the open economy also opened up new avenues of corruption, even as it tore apart the social welfare system that had been developed from even before independence and by every government including UNP governments. The fundamental flaw of the open economy was that expanding consumption became the main driver of the economy without any corresponding increases in production capacities. Consumption demanded imports and ate up the dwindling foreign reserves.

The crisis escalated under Gotabaya Rajapaksa. We cannot say that Gotabaya and his misdoings were inevitable consequences of the open economy and the presidential system. But we can say that it would have been impossible for someone like Gotabaya Rajapaksa to filter up to the very top in a parliamentary system. More than anything else, the presidential system and the political culture that grew with it enabled the toxic fusion of absolute power and absolute ignorance at the summit of the state.