By Jehan Perera –
The selection of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the SLPP will impart enthusiasm in an electorate that has grown discontented at the absence of coherence in governance over the past few years. The UNF government with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm failed to govern with unity of purpose. They each had different advisors and different visions and the clash between the two grew to unmanageable proportions to the detriment of the national interest. A primary casualty was the hope that a political solution to the vexed issue of inter-ethnic power sharing would be found through a bipartisan UNP-SLFP consensus with the representatives of the ethnic minority parties.
The belief that the former defense secretary will make a difference comes from the leadership he provided during the period of war against the LTTE. He gave encouragement to the military offensives against the LTTE that achieved what few had thought possible. He ensured that the resources and political backing were always available to the security forces and to their commanders. He did not shy away from measures deemed necessary to bring the war to a conclusion through the destruction of the LTTE and its leadership. He had the advantage of having no one to answer to, as he had the confidence of his only superior, his brother the President at that time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also commander-in-chief of the armed forces and minister of defence.
However, as presidential candidate and prospective president of the republic, the former defense secretary will no longer have the free hand he enjoyed. During the war period he gave leadership and covering approval to the security forces in their battle against the LTTE and others deemed to be enemies of the state. A much vaster array of issues will come into his domain, including foreign relations, national reconciliation and economic development. This will require a much broader and more tempered approach. The presidency continues to be vested with many powers that continues to make the position of the president an important one within the system of government. Apart from the political legitimacy that comes from prevailing at a national election, the president continues to preside at cabinet meetings, appoint secretaries to ministries and ambassadors to foreign countries.
One of the controversial pledges made by the SLPP is that it will abolish the 19th Amendment which was passed in 2015 as one of the first legislative reforms of the newly elected government. Until relations between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe deteriorated, the 19th Amendment was looked upon by both them and the country at large as a most significant constitutional reform and evidence of commitment towards good governance. Most notably the 19th Amendment reduced the powers of the presidency to make it difficult to appoint inappropriate persons to high offices of state such as the judges of the Supreme and Appeal courts. The same restriction was made applicable to other state institutions too, including the elections commission and human rights commission where non-partisanship is key to preserving the legitimacy of those institutions.
The 19th Amendment also ensured a better balance of power between the president and parliament as befitting the two main branches of government that are elected by the country at large. Prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment the president had the legal power to arbitrarily dissolve parliament after the passage of a single year of its election. This gave the president a stranglehold over parliament and compel it to be deferential to the president’s priorities. However, the 19th Amendment reduced this arbitrary power of the president by limiting the power of dissolution to after four and a half years of parliament’s existence. It was this restriction on the president’s power that empowered the Supreme Court to reverse the president’s attempt to dissolves parliament in October 2018, a little over three years after it was elect
In the case of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe the relationship was especially troubled due to their leadership of two separate and traditionally rival political parties, and also due to their own personal differences. This was the main problem rather than the 19th Amendment that had much more that was good in it than bad. Therefore, when the SLPP says that it will abolish the 19th Amendment there would be a legitimate concern that basic principles of good governance will be undermined. The separation of powers between the president and parliament, and the check and balance that each can exert upon the other, will be important for good governance in the future, irrespective of who the president and prime minister might be.
At the SLPP convention that named Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate, his brother Mahinda announced himself as the prime ministerial candidate. While the fraternal ties are undoubtedly strong, they will each draw their political support from different social and economic strata of society. The former defense secretary will have a strong cohort of former security forces personnel backing him and his efforts to generate a mass following have focused on the urban intelligentsia and technocrats. On the other hand, the voter base of the SLPP will be the traditional communities, religious clergy and local and national politicians with whom the former president is associated with. Therefore, the issue of power sharing between the presidency and parliament will need to be well thought through.
The SLPP needs to specify sooner rather than later what changes it envisages to the 19th Amendment and what it will seek to replace it with. It is insufficient to merely point out what is disadvantageous in it or deficient. It is also important to be able to explain what the answer to the problem is and to be able to show that what is proposed will improve the situation rather than make it worse. The same will hold true in the case of any reform of the 13th Amendment. In an interview with the Tamil media the prime ministerial candidate of the SLPP, Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that some are in favour of federalism, some in favour of devolution and others in favour of the 13th Amendment, but what is important is that the country is not divided. The responsible course for a leader is to say what he thinks should be done in terms of actual constitutional reform.
There is a danger that the example of the Indian government suddenly ending the special arrangements for the governance of Kashmir could become a siren call for a similar action to take place in Sri Lanka with regard to the provincial council system. But democracy is not only about heeding the views of the ethnic and religious majority, it is also about heeding the views of the minority communities. The power of the presidency should not be used to impose a solution without the consent of the ethnic and religious minorities. This is not the path for Sri Lanka to take even with a strong leader at the helm. Both the 19th and 13th Amendments to the constitution are there to ensure that power is shared between different institutions and that checks and balances prevail to ensure that the interests of all are protected. The strong leader that Sri Lanka needs will be a leader who upholds the interests of all.