THE CURSE OF UNLIMITED POWER
Experience points to further reforms for the presidency – Dr. Jehan Perera
The unpredictable manner in which President Maithripala Sirisena has been wielding power in the past year or so – despite restrictions introduced by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (19A) – has led to concerns about the continuing powers of the presidency, which may be subjected to further abuse in the next presidential term.
In the past three decades, the overuse and abuse of presidential powers led to a general consensus in society that the executive presidency should either be abolished or its powers significantly curtailed.
At previous presidential elections, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena all pledged to do so. However, they found it too difficult and unrewarding to deliver on their promise.
The closest that any president has come to keeping the promise has been the incumbent. During his tenure, the presidential term has been reduced from six to five years and several powers have been clipped by the very 19A which he championed, which also increased the independence of state institutions such as the judiciary.
Despite these reductions, the president continues to wield enormous power – as witnessed by his takeover of the police and other departments during the constitutional coup in October last year.
But the president wants more…
No longer content with the powers he has and in a bid to exercise even greater control, Sirisena is distancing himself from 19A. He’s been saying he was misled into supporting the amendment and did not realise it would set up two poles of power in the government, which would make good governance difficult.
The 19th Amendment was based on the assumption that Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – who were close allies in the presidential election of 2015 and its immediate aftermath – would work in a spirit of cooperation until the end of the president’s term. It permitted considerable power to be retained by the president, which enabled him to block the rest of government whenever he deemed it to be necessary.
Immediately after the abortive constitutional coup of October 2018, the president went so far as to keep the prime minister, deputy defence minister and inspector general of police out of National Security Council meetings despite the division that this move caused in the security establishment.
In this context, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s (JVP) proposed initiative to reduce the powers of the presidency by way of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution is worth considering.
It envisages the president being elected by parliament and not the people at a presidential election. Moreover, the JVP proposal is for a nonpartisan presidency. The amendment states that in his tenure of office, the president should not hold posts in or be a member of any political party.
The ongoing crisis in the country, political deadlock, weak governance and security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday bombings are evidence of the disastrous impact that partisan politics can have – especially when played out at the highest levels of the polity.
There is a yearning for a strong leader in reaction to the problem at present where the president and prime minister, being from two different political parties, are not cooperating with and countering each other. This desire must be assessed in the light of the danger that the presidency can also become a one-man show as it was in the past when the president and parliamentary majority were from the same party.
Therefore, the 20th Amendment – whereby any person elected president would be legally required to step down from party political positions and be a nonpartisan president who works for the wellbeing of all – is a salutary one.
Being a foremost national institution voted for by the entire electorate, the presidency should be unfettered from partisan politics and not be mired in it as it is at present. The use of presidential powers for narrow and partisan purposes must be preempted.
While the president needs more than 50 percent of the electorate’s votes, he or she must govern the country with all people of the land in both mind and heart.
Given the ongoing debate in parliament vis-à-vis constitutional reform, it is worth considering a constitutional amendment prior to the next presidential election that would build on the 19th Amendment’s commitment to the depoliticisation of key national institutions.