Dr. N.M. Perera (Life)
NM passed away in 1979, a year after J.R. Jayewardene's notorious Constitution of 1978, which strengthened the presidential system of government, introduced to Sri Lanka by way of the Second Amendment to the 1972 Constitution, but not before writing a series of articles to the Socialist Nation, warning the country of the perils of the new Constitution.
The articles were collected and published in June 1979 on the occasion of his birthday under the title 'Critical Analysis of The New Constitution of the Sri Lanka Government.'
NM passed away in August 1979. The booklet soon became the Bible for those who wish a return to a parliamentary form of government.
NM was unhesitatingly for a parliamentary form of government, not surprising, given that he was one of Sri Lanka's best-known parliamentarians. He was awarded a D.Sc. degree by the University of London for his comparative study of the parliamentary procedures of the United Kingdom, United States, France and Germany.
He pointed out that the parliamentary form of government had worked for 30 years in Sri Lanka with a degree of success that had surprised many western observers. Writing a few weeks before the Second Amendment was to come into effect, he said: "We look in vain in the speeches of the Prime Minister for a clear and concise enumeration of the defects of the present Constitution, which make the wholesale rejection of the present structure desirable.
"His lame contention that the present system of government makes for instability and lack of continuity scarcely bear examination."
Since 1978, the Sri Lankan Left unwaveringly raised the need to totally abolish the executive presidency and return to a parliamentary form. The issue was raised at every N.M. Perera commemoration event, every May Day meeting, every Republic Day event on 22 May and every other possible occasion. The Left's post-1978 literature is replete with references to the issue.
However, when Mahinda Rajapaksa brought the Eighteenth Amendment, which further strengthened the executive presidency, the Left MPs unashamedly voted for it, having first criticised it. NM's party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party(LSSP) decided, not once but twice, that its two Members of Parliament should not participate in the vote. That decision was disregarded. Tissa Vitarana recently told a Sinhala weekly that Rajapaksa had warned that Ministers who do not vote for the Amendment would have to leave the Cabinet. The Communist Party has since admitted that voting for the Amendment was a mistake. The struggle for the abolition of the executive presidency entered a decisive phase with the formation of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) led by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera.
As the momentum built up for showdown with Rajapaksa, Left leaders looked for excuses not to support a common candidate. They argued that no president would be willing to give up powers. Vitarana was fond of citing NM: "The presidential system offers unlimited scope for wielding absolute powers, albeit for a limited period.
But the taste of unlimited power grows with the feeding and the lust cannot be easily satiated." Surely, NM did not mean that Sri Lanka would never be able to get rid of the executive presidency!
Even before Rajapaksa called for an early election, Vitarana proposed in the Central Committee that the LSSP should support him. He argued that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be the common candidate and that Ranil would never abolish the executive presidency. When the writer, who had an inkling of things to come, asked what the position would be if Maithripala Sirisena is nominated as the common candidate, Vitarana patted his chest a few times and said, as if he knew everything: "Maithri will never agree to stand."
When Maithri was finally nominated, Left leaders found other excuses to stay with Rajapaksa. Vitarana said that Maithri was the willing tool of an international conspiracy. He even accused Maithri of not doing enough to take Senaka Bibile's drug policy forward.
But the majority of the members of the party of N.M. Perera defied the leadership and worked tirelessly for the victory of the common candidate. Party stalwarts, some with over 50 years in the party, were sacked as a result. When victory came, leaders could only shout "conspiracy, conspiracy." A conspiracy to abolish the executive presidency, which NM forewarned the country about, writing from his sick bed! It was not a conspiracy; it was a people's movement NM would have loved to be part of.
Left leaders were unaware of the feelings of the people, of the vibrations under the ground that finally became the quake of January 8.
They were unable to read the ground situation because their feet were not on the ground.
But the vast majority of leftists rose to the situation and did NM's memory proud by being a part of a victory that led to the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution which took away much of the powers of the executive presidency in the 110th year since NM's birth.
Much more remains to be done and the biggest tribute that we in the Left can pay to the great son of Sri Lanka is to re-dedicate ourselves to abolishing the executive presidency totally and establishing a parliamentary form of government that he steadfastly stood for.