The Monarchy and the Executive Presidency | Daily News

The Monarchy and the Executive Presidency

Queen Elizabeth II talking to people during a visit to Saskatchewan Province, Canada in 2005.
Queen Elizabeth II talking to people during a visit to Saskatchewan Province, Canada in 2005.

Now that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II the British monarch is a fact even for Republicans in England, it should be asked what the purpose of a modern Constitutional monarchy is. Is it something that ought to be considered as having merits, politically speaking?

Republicans in the UK that are now doubly hell-bent on getting rid of the monarchy feel that the passing of the Queen would weaken the institution of the monarchy. But what they do over there in that part of the world is the least of our concerns. This article therefore is not about what the British do with their largely symbolic and decorative monarchy, but is a larger appraisal of whether a monarchical Head of State somehow has merits in a democracy.

The argument has been that politicians who become Head of State by virtue of elected office — say the President of the US, or France — becomes far too embarrassingly powerful, and combines Executive power with the ‘regal’ trappings of Head of State.

Having a Constitutional monarch as in the UK therefore is a way of distancing the trappings of Head of State from real political-power embodied in the Executive, or so it is said.

In other words, the monarch exists totally separate from all elected political office holders, and is therefore — when holding symbolic office as in the UK — a repository of the pomp and circumstance that goes with Head of State, without in fact being a wielder of political power, therefore rendering Executive office, arguably less powerful and less off-putting to the electors that do not want to see the Executive acting as if he or she is King, or Queen as the case may be.

But none of these arguments have convinced Republicans in the UK and dissenters in similar constitutional monarchies that the monarchy is an institution that ought to be retired. They feel that keeping a line of unelected Royals going at the expense of the public is odious, and does not offer any commensurate gains to the taxpayer who foots the bill for all the unnecessary costs of upkeep.

But what of the merits if any of the argument that a monarchy makes an elected Executive office holder a less powerful person, shorn of trappings, which is a good thing because power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?

INSIGNIFICANT

Pertinently, apart from the fact that Executive Presidents for instance are prevented from giving themselves airs because they are not ‘kings’, the costs for keeping a monarchy going have been seen as rather unjustifiable in terms of returns. Is the French President acting as if he was King? Not in the current Republic, because there is the press and all of that, which would give a president who gives himself monarchical airs a hard time if he or she tries to act as Head of State with some sort of inherited god-given powers.

But even so, some may argue that there is merit in having a Head of State that’s more symbolic and ‘monarchical’ than the Executive that yields real power in the Republic. Take India for instance which essentially retained the colonial bequeathed system of Governor-General who is an appointed official enjoying non-Executive power but is nominally Head of State. Now isn’t that a good alternative to an Executive President that may run away with the idea that he is she is King or Queen of sorts?

We had the system of non-Executive Head of State here in this country of course before the 1978 Constitution was introduced making the Executive Presidency a reality. Holders of the office of Governor-General such as William Gopallawa were neither kings nor presidents. They were nominally Heads of State, but nobody had a problem with that as the Head of State was seen as being detached from everyday politics as the Indian Head of State or President is.

There have been times when politicians in this country have not been able to so much as name the President of India who is the equivalent to the Governor-General under our previous pre-1978 Constitutional arrangement. The office of Indian president is that non-political as to be rendered relatively insignificant.

We have veered quite a bit far from that particular constitutional route, and ours has been by and large a different kind of experiment. But it cannot be forgotten that there has been so much opposition to the office of the Executive Presidency over the years even though the office once created is powerful enough to be essentially self-perpetuating.

NOMINAL

But our Presidency had attracted flack because it’s reposed with too much power, though not necessarily because the trappings of Head of State has made it a much more powerful institution than desirable. But then again somebody may retort by saying ‘that too’, considering that there have been Presidents here that have rather enjoyed being referred to as Kings and have hilariously of course sometimes, been giving themselves a few regal airs to boot.

Just because of that, we are however not poised to ever have a constitutional monarchy, and there isn’t the slightest doubt about that. Nobody is advocating that the line of Sinhala kings be revived for instance, so that we may have a constitutional monarch as Britain does.

But would we ever revert back to a nominal presidency as in India, so that there is some distance maintained between the elected Executive and Head of State?

Perhaps a majority of Sri Lankans may even say it’s a good arrangement. However, it may entail a different issue, which is that of maintaining largely symbolic public office at the expense of the taxpayer. As things stand it appears nobody would grudge that. Nobody by and large grudges the perks of the non-Executive Head of State of India, the president of that country, for instance.

For the moment all of this is academic, as there is no constitutional change on the cards with the Sri Lankan Government tacking an entirely different set of problems that involve far more pressing considerations that encompass state finances. But the presidency would always be under scrutiny and it’s almost certain that there would come a day when the Executive Presidency in its current form is once again deemed unsuitable by elements of civil society and those interested in engineering so called systemic change.

VESTED

At such times there may be those who even hold up, curiously, the British system as an example with its unwritten constitution and all of that. Of course nobody would suggest that there would be a constitutional monarchy on those lines here in Republican Sri Lanka.

There have been many questions raised already about the survival potential of the British monarchy after the death of Queen Elizabeth who was more than able to command respect of the majority of the British public through sheer force of personality. What the British do is of course of academic interest, but those constitutional questions of maintaining some necessary distance between Executive Office and the office of Head of State, would always be interesting.

The return of the Governor-General type of president with nominal powers some day is very much a possibility but nevertheless this does not mean that Executive prime ministers can be any less intimidating, sometimes. The examples of Indira Gandhi and of India and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, at certain times during their tenures may always be cited as examples of the uselessness of the argument that the Executive Presidency is the only repository of excessive power.

In England as well, there was the Cromwell tendency that was not by and large taken to be an alternative to the monarchy in the long term.

There are merits of course to the argument that the powerful Executive President should not be also Head of State, but then again the difference between carving out a separate office for Head of State and having those powers vested in the elected Executive President may be of academic import and nothing more. It’s the entire edifice that’s important, and as long as the branches of state keep each other in check, there is no problem which monarch thinks he is Almighty and which president thinks he is King, and that’s what would be important.


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