One of the significant aspects one notices when a President visits Parliament – not as a Minister of Finance, but as the President, is where he sits.  He occupies the Speaker’s chair — and the Speaker comes down from his pedestal to take a seat below the President. Clearly, it denotes who the Boss is; [...]


Checks and balances are vital


One of the significant aspects one notices when a President visits Parliament – not as a Minister of Finance, but as the President, is where he sits.  He occupies the Speaker’s chair — and the Speaker comes down from his pedestal to take a seat below the President. Clearly, it denotes who the Boss is; the supremacy of the Executive President over Parliament.

The 19th Amendment which was passed a few months before the August General Elections has not changed that supremacy afforded to the Executive President. In his address to the new Parliament on Tuesday (more than two-thirds of the Members are not first timers – and half of them were re-elected), President Maithripala Sirisena said that though 19A reduced the powers of his office, the future of such a post and the powers vested in it was a matter for Parliament to decide. It was but a cursory remark, almost a passing reference to an issue that was the rallying call for the ouster of his predecessor, a call that galvanised the nation and mobilised people of different ideologies and different political colourations, the professionals and the trade unions, the clergy and eventually the politicians toward one platform.

The President did not say what his own views were on the subject. He began his nationally televised address on the footing that he was following a great tradition in democratic countries. He quoted the examples of Britain and the United States of America, The Queen addresses the Houses of Parliament in her Throne Speech and the US President addresses Congress with his State of the Union speech. In Britain, however, the Queen only reads out the speech prepared by her Prime Minister as “my Government”, but in the US the President reads out his own draft. Likewise, the Sri Lankan Executive President unlike ceremonial Heads of State before 1978, reads out his own speech. Therefore, that he maintained a deafening silence on the future of his own office — an office he has so far said he was not interested in fostering, other than to say he leaves it to Parliament, is food for thought.

He went on to emphasise the country’s human resources potential; the need to proceed with investigations into corruption in the recent past; the need to improve the efficiency of the public sector; have good relations with all countries; ensure economic development is based on environment-friendly ‘green’ policies; ensure the rights of vulnerable groups like women and the disabled — and then made what seemed an out-of-the box remark on the derogatory name-calling that denotes people’s social standing in a caste-based society and the need to rectify this in the modern world.

Yet, he made no mention of the role of the new Parliament (other than the passing reference to the future of the Executive Presidency) in guiding the destiny of the country. Maybe he did ask the new Members of Parliament to extend to him and his Government the support that is required for a National Government. But in sharp contrast, the Prime Minister has been stressing the need for a greater role for Parliament in administering the country, with Oversight Committees with Parliamentarians from all parties represented in the House (like the Executive Committees in the old State Council and the Consultative Committees in post-1978 Parliaments but with greater powers) overseeing the different Ministries even though they are under Cabinet Ministers.

The next day in Polonnaruwa, hardly 24 hours after he called for national unity among all parties in Parliament, the same President Sirisena attended the SLFP’s 64th anniversary celebrations and said he would ensure that party’s victory at future presidential and parliamentary elections. For one thing, he spoke of future presidential elections indicating the Executive Presidential system is there to stay. For another, he made it clear that he was not going to play the role of elder statesman, the Head of State whom the whole country can look to as the rallying point for the nation — but rather came across as the partisan politician the Executive Presidency has thrown up, that persona who drew national criticism for partisanship, apart from authoritarianism.

He spoke of important milestones achieved when the SLFP was in power — a veiled reference that it is the SLFP that is in power now. The President somehow saw no contradiction in asking for national unity on Tuesday and almost in the same breath vowing to see that the SLFP wins the next set of elections defeating the UNP which is the leading partner in the National Government coalition with his own SLFP — which he heads. In other words, that he would work to defeat his own Government.

In Parliament this week, he also engineered a move that saw the TNA with 16 MPs take the Opposition Leader post despite more than 50 dissident MPs from his coalition that he also leads asking for the post. It was no less absurd as him appointing the Leader of the Opposition from his own party, while some others from the same party sat in the Government’s Cabinet of Ministers. These political dynamics and cross-currents will give any student of politics a headache. It is ‘autochthony’ – a home-grown political system, the likes of which have never been seen in this country or anywhere in the world.

On Friday, a mega Cabinet was appointed for little Lanka with a few more likely to be added in time. Many who were rejected by the people – on a call by the President to elect good legislators, received portfolios. Pessimism abounds that the plethora of corruption investigations into high profile leaders of the previous regime will die a natural death; and that the President, despite his lofty pledges, to the contrary, is quite capable of doing about-turns for political expediency.

The murky waters with no clear division of the Government and the Opposition as we used to know it for decades may settle soon with MPs assuming power and place, irrespective of which side they are on. A National Government can be a mere Cohabitation Government or a Divided Government as we said last week, or a virtual ‘one-party’ state. The President and the PM have asked for two years for this ‘autochthonous’ system to work. Who then will perform the role of the Opposition, of critiquing the Government?

True that the forging of an alliance of the country’s two major parties after 64 years will ease the rivalry and blood-letting that has plagued the traditional two-party system especially in the rural areas, and opposing Government policy for the sake of opposing will lessen. Yet checks and balances have always been put in place by advanced democracies to monitor ‘runaway Governments’: a strong and independent judiciary, a free and unfettered press, democratic opposition in Parliament and outside, and a civil society fully engaged in civil liberties and good governance issues being the solid foundations on which Governments rest. A mixed signal that the National Government is being formed by ‘hook or by crook’ is not the best start. Already the mandate of the people has been tinkered with. This National Government ought not to be a conspiracy against the people, however well-meaning its proponents make it sound.

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