It is now official; the President has no intention of abolishing the Executive Presidency till 2021, if he can help it. In our last editorial for 2017, we said: “Already, we hear there is a debate on not just whether there will be another Presidential election – should the Executive Presidency continue, but if there [...]


One step back, two steps forward


It is now official; the President has no intention of abolishing the Executive Presidency till 2021, if he can help it. In our last editorial for 2017, we said: “Already, we hear there is a debate on not just whether there will be another Presidential election – should the Executive Presidency continue, but if there is one, whether the President’s term of office is for six years (2021) or five (2020) depending on the way the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is interpreted”.

This week, on a request for an opinion from the Supreme Court, the President asked if the 19th Amendment, which he often boasted about for being the only President in the world to have voluntarily shed some executive powers, would stand in the way of him continuing to hold office till 2021. He was elected to a six-year term but this was cut short to a five-year term (2020) by the Amendment.

To hell with the solemn promise before the election to abolish the Executive Presidency within 100 days of him being elected, a promise he reiterated by the bier of the late Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhita Thera who spearheaded the campaign of like-minded people to dislodge then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and instal the incumbent President. Real-politik has now taken over.

President Maithripala Sirisena is not the first to have ridden to office on the promise of dismantling the Executive Presidency, only to break it once safely ensconced in power and place. President Chandrika Kumaratunga also gave such a promise — through her then Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris — going so far as to give a specific deadline – July 15, 1995 — to abolish the Executive Presidency, only to teargas and baton charge those who took to the streets on that date asking what happened to the promise. The then Minister is now the de-facto leader of an Opposition political party mouthing platitudes about this Government not keeping to its promises.

So, with the ‘within the 100 days’ promise already shattered, and all signs that the promise to abolish the Executive Presidency within his first term is not going to happen, the next question that arises is whether the country will see another Presidential election – either at the end of next year (2019 for 2020) or the year after that (2020 for 2021).

The 19th Amendment speaks of the term of a President being for five years. It does not say whether this President would be an Executive President like we have today, or a ceremonial Head of State President like before 1978. From the looks of it, President Sirisena is not only going to retain the Executive Presidency, but go for a second term as well — as an Executive President.

Basically, it means that he is not in line with the ‘spirit’ of the 19th Amendment, whatever the legal and constitutional aspects are. “In spirit and in law” often go together when interpreting matters, especially of a political nature and even more so, when one has boasted that no other President in the world clipped his own wings voluntarily.

The fact that there are arguments for retaining the Executive Presidency is indisputable. One argument trotted out is that a strong Executive President is required when a Provincial Council system exists. This is put forward by the JHU to check any indiscretions by the Northern Provincial Council. Minority parties seem to favour this system, and of course, those who have the ear of the Executive President will also want it.

The irony is that those who initially opposed the Executive Presidential system of Government (SLFP) as being the road to a dictatorship are now its fiercest defenders and those who introduced the system (UNP) want executive powers of government returned to Parliament.
While the politicians haggle and argue their case depending on which side they sit, the public at large are at best, indifferent to the system or at worst, vehemently opposed to it. Either way, it has been an election issue since the 1994 Presidential election and no candidate who eventually sat on the hot seat ever said he or she was going to continue with the Executive Presidency. Without exception, they all said they would either abolish the system (as President Sirisena said) or amend it, only to renege on their pledges, typically.

One of the suggestions on the table is a via-media that will allow President Sirisena to continue for a second term (if re-elected by the people or elected by Parliament), albeit sans much of his executive powers. He will be Head of State and Commander-in-Chief. But this is the problem with Constitution making in Sri Lanka. Everything is done just to accommodate those in power today and to ensure their political longevity rather than the long-term interests of the nation.

President Sirisena is not upfront and candid about his own intentions. He has stopped speaking about abolishing the Executive Presidency and allowed his SLFP Ministers to speak of continuing with the system without reining them in. In private, when asked, he says he hasn’t changed his original promise, but his actions speak otherwise.

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – that famous late 19th century quote of British historian Lord Acton rings true in the 21st century too.

Celebrating Pongal

Today is Thai Pongal, the day Tamil-Hindus the world over celebrate the harvest festival. Unfortunately, there is no harvest to celebrate this year, especially in the North, partly due to the 10-month long drought and the rainy season being inconsistent possibly due to global climate change and also, the other man-made disaster locally — the delay in issuing fertilizer at the correct time.

The hapless farmers’ woes are compounded by the high cost of transportation of agricultural produce, poor connectivity between towns due to bad rural roads, weak rail links to get perishable vegetable and fruit produce to markets and lack of mass outlets. All these contribute to making the ‘middle man’ king not the farmer whose margins are low, nor the consumers who must dig deep into their pockets. Additional costs of production include machinery for tilling with the farmer cultivating land belonging to someone in Colombo, London or Toronto. There’s a whole lot more to the plight of the Northern farmer. This needs further elucidation – probably next week in this space.

These are not issues uncommon elsewhere in the country too affecting the farming community, but the farmers of the harsh terrain of the North deserve special attention as they try and celebrate a longstanding festival today.

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