By Jehan Perera –
There were many reports last week that the ruling party, UNP, will contest the next presidential election in a major alliance based on national security, democracy and the economy. The UNP General Secretary stated that an agreement will be signed with the partner parties on the 5th of August. This will be in in preparation for the upcoming presidential election. The UNP has also made it clear that no one has still been picked to be the leader and this will not happen on August 5. One of the reports was that the candidate to be fielded for the presidential election would be the made the leader of the new alliance. In other words, if this is to happen those who wish to be the presidential candidate would need to be willing to give up their party membership to take on the leadership of the new alliance.
The implication is that the presidential candidate would not necessarily become the party leader of the UNP in the event of victory at the presidential election. The UNP constitution states that if a member of the party becomes president, that person will also hold the position of party leader. However, if the presidential candidate backed by the UNP comes from a larger political alliance which finds legal expression in a new political party, then the present party leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will continue to remain the party leader even if he does not contest the presidential election. This could be considered to be a vote maximizing strategy on the part of the UNP.
On the one hand, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is generally credited with giving policy leadership to the most positive aspects of the present government. These include winning the trust of the ethnic and religious minorities, opening up the space for political dissent to be carried out safely, ensuring security from government-backed violence, strengthening the institutions of state such as the judiciary, public service and Human Rights Commission. In addition together with likeminded ministers he has given leadership to establishing new institutions that are important for the long term good governance of the country. These include the Right to Information Commission, the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. Therefore, the policy leadership of Prime Minister Wickemesinghe at the present time is crucial if the current policy direction of the government is to be sustained.
On the other hand, it is also widely believed that appreciation of the policy leadership given by the prime minister does not percolate down to the masses of people who desire more tangible and immediate results. Therefore, a political figure of more appeal to the masses of voters might be deemed necessary for the purposes of the presidential election. Despite the successes in sustaining the space for political freedom, public attention has been focused on the failures of the government. Following the Easter Sunday bombings the credibility of the government’s commitment to national security has also taken a beating. While this is not a fair assessment, given the constitutional power of President Maithripala Sirisena to dominate the spheres of defence and policing, the prime minister has been unable to present the image of strength and decisiveness that makes the general population desires.
The over-use and abuse of presidential powers over the past three decades led to a general consensus in Sri Lankan society in the past that the executive presidency should either be abolished or its power significantly curtailed. The abolition of the executive presidency, and its transformation to a more ceremonial role, has been a campaign promise at several presidential elections. At previous presidential elections Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena either promised to abolish the presidency or significantly reduce its powers. However, all presidents have found it to be too difficult and unrewarding to deliver on their promises.
The closest that any president has come to keeping the promise to abolish or diminish the presidency has been President Sirisena. It has been during his term of office that term of the president has been reduced from six to five years and several of the powers have been clipped by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that he championed. This amendment directly reduced the power of the president and also increased the independence of institutions of state, such as the judiciary. Despite these reductions in power, the president continues to wield tremendous power as witnessed by the takeover of the police department and other departments of government by the president and his refusal to sign international agreements, even those that are primarily economic such as the US grant of USD 450 million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
The most recent initiative to reduce the powers of the presidency is the 20th Amendment proposed by the JVP. This envisages the president being elected by parliament and not by the people at a presidential election. Another interesting feature of the JVP proposal is a non-partisan presidency. The amendment states that during the tenure of office the President should not hold any position of a political party nor could be a member of any political party. The ongoing political crisis in the country, the political deadlock, the weak governance, and the shocking security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday bombings are evidence enough of the disastrous impact that partisan politics can have, especially when played out at the highest levels of the polity.
Accordingly, the presidency, being a foremost national institution, voted for by the entire electorate, should be unfettered from partisan party politics and not be mired in it as at present. The use of presidential powers for narrow and partisan purposes needs to be dissuaded. While the president needs 50 percent plus one votes of the national electorate to be elected, the president needs to govern the country with all 100 percent of the population in mind and in heart. In the context of the ongoing debate in parliament on the topic of constitutional reform, it is opportune to consider a constitutional amendment that would further build on the 19th Amendment’s commitment to the de-politicising of key national institutions.
There is a yearning today in Sri Lankan society for a strong leader in reaction to the problem of the present time where the president and prime minister, being from two different political parties, are not cooperating with each other and blocking each other. This desire for a strong leader needs to be assessed in the light of the danger that the presidency can also become a “one man show” as it did during the past when the president and parliamentary majority were from the same party. The 20th Amendment to the constitution by which any person elected as the president would be required by law to step down from all party political positions and be a non-partisan president who works for the wellbeing of all is therefore a salutary one.