By Jehan Perera –
As his presidential term draws to its close President Maithripala Sirisena is making it clear that he is not ready to quit the political centre stage without a fight. The president’s thinking appears to be more in accord with the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night…” The president is reported to be on the verge of asking the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion regarding when his term of office actually ends. The question is whether it ends on the day he took his oaths as president or on the day the 19th Amendment, which reduced his term from six to five years, was signed. If it is the latter the president will be entitled to six months more to remain as president.
The president’s interest is extending his term as president is not new. It goes back almost to the beginning. Just a few months after he was elected as president, having said he would be a one term president, the president began to make pronouncements that indicated he could see the benefits of continuing longer in office. A mere ten months after his election as president, he felt sufficiently pressurized to deny reports that he was planning to go back on his election-time commitment. This was done most notably at the funeral of Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha who contributed greatly to his victory.
However, the warning signs continued to keep flashing. Other leaders in the polity, in particular leaders of government, ought to have taken these warning signals seriously and negotiated at the outset with the president regarding his second term. If they had, and done so successfully, Sri Lanka may have been spared much of the suffering it has been subjected to on account of political infighting within the government. The causes of two of the most serious catastrophes to have been inflicted on the country and its people came as a result of the tensions between the president and the prime minister who had failed to deal with this elephant in the room.
The 52 day constitutional coup, by which the president sought to sack the prime minister and eventually the entire parliament in violation of the constitution can be directly attributed to the president’s frustration with his inability to make his aspirations become national policy. If the Supreme Court had yielded under pressure and legitimized the president’s actions, the president would have been in a powerful position to make his aspiration of a second term come true. However, led by a Chief Justice who was upright and feared God more than he did men, the Supreme Court withstood all pressures and ruled against the president’s actions.
The failure of the prime minister and the rest of his government to be adequately accommodative to the president’s desire to continue in office beyond his first term has been one of the main factors that have led to the breakdown of relations between the president and prime minister. This has been a very costly experience to the country. The nearly two month-long period of the constitutional coup saw the near breakdown of the government with public officers not knowing which master to serve. In addition there were regular public demonstrations against the president’s actions which led to a message of grave political instability being sent out to the world.
In these circumstances, the economy took a severe beating. Both business investors and tourists from abroad decided to spend their money elsewhere and in more stable countries in the neigbourhood which have been the indirect beneficiaries of Sri Lanka’s political misfortunes. Today these countries, such as Vietnam and Bangladesh are speeding ahead in their development whilst Sri Lanka has only a modest growth rate. These misfortunes got multiplied manifold following the failure to stop the Easter Sunday bombings due to massive security lapses, whose root cause can be traced to the inability of the president and prime minister to work together.
It cannot be forgotten that in the immediate aftermath of the constitutional coup, the president took over the police from the Ministry of Law and Order, which had earlier come under the purview of the prime minister. He also kept out the prime minister, deputy defence minister and inspector general of police from meetings of the National Security Council. These can be seen as efforts by the president to strengthen himself politically at the expense of the prime minister despite the systemic weakness this introduced to national security. Now the president has launched an ideological campaign to justify his actions to concentrate more power in himself and the presidency.
The president is presently distancing himself from the 19th Amendment to the constitution which is one of the major pieces of legislation that was enacted by the government soon after it was elected to power. At that time, in mid-2015, the president earned praise for giving political leadership to the campaign to reduce the powers of the presidency, which had been brought to an all-time high by the 18th Amendment passed by his predecessor in office, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and utilized to the full by him in a manner that could have been considered as abuse of power, most notably in the sacking of the then chief justice.
The president has been saying that he was misled into giving his support to the 19th Amendment, and he did not realize at that time it set up two poles of power within the government that could make good governance difficult. The president is correct in pointing out the predicament that the country is in at the present time. There are two poles of power that make it difficult for either to operate if they choose to work in opposition to each other. The 19th Amendment was based on the assumption that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who had been close allies in the presidential election campaign of 2015, would continue to work together in a similar spirit of cooperation until the end of the president’s term.
As a special concession to President Sirisena who had taken great risks to contest the presidency, he was vested with more powers for this one term that ends at the end of 2019 than was intended in the long term for the presidency. He was given those powers just for one term, on the basis of his early commitment that he would be a one-term president. It should be noted that the abolishing of the executive presidency or the reduction of its powers have been at the core of constitutional reform movements for the past three decades. They have been promised by every president since 1994.
The president does not need to abolish the 19th Amendment in order to achieve the purpose of a single pole of power within the government. He has only to wait until the end of his current term for the powers of the presidency to be sharply reduced, and for the parliament led by the prime minister to take on the full powers of governance. This would be the end of one constitutional challenge. The main constitutional challenge that would remain for the new government to tackle would be the issue of power sharing to cope with regional and ethnic identity issues.