In his inaugural address to the nation just over two years ago, President Maithripala Sirisena made a solemn promise. Speaking in front of the sacred Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, broadcast live via all state and private television channels, Sirisena swore that he was going to be a one-term president ‒ in stark contrast to his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unconstitutional and [somewhat surprisingly] unsuccessful bid for a third term. Having campaigned on a platform of good governance that promised to end authoritarianism once and for all, Sirisena also reiterated in his inauguration speech his commitment to put an end to the much maligned Executive Presidency that had, since its establishment, widely been criticised as a serious threat to democracy.
Spurred on by grassroots level campaigns organised by the likes of the Late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, abolishing the Executive Presidency became a rallying cry for the forces that backed Sirisena’s candidacy in the run-up to the January 8 polls. The political parties and civil society activists that supported his bid for the highest office in the land did so with the assurance that the humble, unassuming Maithripala Sirisena from Polonnaruwa, at long last, would deliver where Rajapaksa ‒ and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga before him ‒ had failed. Barely one month into his third year in power, that promise is slowly but surely starting to feel like a distant dream, with the stage seemingly being set for a complete about-turn.
Eyebrows were raised when reports emerged last week that an influential section within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had resolved to nominate Sirisena as the party’s next presidential candidate in 2020. An additional proposal by SLFP General Secretary and Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake ‒ in his party leader’s presence ‒ to oppose any moves to abolish the Executive Presidency only served to raise those eyebrows even higher. Making matters worse were the reports that Sirisena had remained stoically silent when these far-reaching resolutions had been adopted by 14 of the SLFP’s highest ranking ministers.
One of the more interesting among these decisions (taken at a meeting chaired by Sirisena on January 3) is a move to oppose any constitutional changes that would require a referendum, opting, instead, to only support any amendments that would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This is cause for concern, as abolishing the Executive Presidency in its entirety would most likely require a national referendum. Although, Research Director at Verité Research Gehan Gunatilleke, in a brief chat with Roar, suggested that it is arguably possible to amend Article 4 of the Constitution without touching Article 3. Article 4, he said, refers to the Executive Presidency, which is not entrenched and therefore can be amended without a referendum. However, there is jurisprudence to suggest that Article 3 (which is entrenched and thus would require a referendum to amend) is connected to Article 4 and that the latter has to be always read with the former. In other words, it is possible to abolish the Executive Presidency without a referendum, said Gunatilleke, but it’s still a stretch and would require the Supreme Court to be a little creative.
President Sirisena, for his part, has yet to clarify his position on these developments, and the decisions taken by his ministers don’t become official SLFP policy until and unless the party’s Central Committee has formally endorsed them. However, as revealed in The Sunday Times this week, at a meeting held between a group of SLFP ministers and representatives of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the former had stated categorically that there will be “no change to the Executive Presidential System.”
We’re almost at the end of January, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this seems to be the official stance of the SLFP, one of the two constituents of the so-called National Unity Government. The party understandably wants to retain the presidency for itself, having gotten accustomed to its numerous benefits over the past two decades, but the fact that it’s willing to compromise on the ideals that brought its current leader into power are worrying, to say the least. Not only does the SLFP want Sirisena to go back on his word to not run for a second term, but it also has no intention of pruning his powers in the event that he does decide to contest. At this point, then, no one can be faulted for interpreting the President’s continued silence as a tacit approval of this status quo.
Cabinet Spokesman and Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne is more optimistic. Addressing the media at the weekly Cabinet press briefing last week, Senaratne claimed that there will be no elections held in the year 2020, despite the 19th Amendment to the Constitution limiting the hitherto six-year term to five. Dismissing media reports on the SLFP’s decision, the Minister said that central committees of political parties are free to make decisions but those decisions are not set in stone. He maintained that President Sirisena would not waver from his campaign promise to abolish the Executive Presidency.
“The abolishment of the Executive Presidency is still the focus. Obviously, there will be dissenting voices and different opinions among politicians and parties, but we will discuss things with them and come to a consensus,” he told journalists.
SLFP Central Committee (CC) Member and Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara, meanwhile, is certain that Sirisena would “agree with party supporters to contest.” He went as far as to say that the party had no other suitable candidate, and that Sirisena is the only person in the SLFP who enjoys the support of all communities.
“We will put this recommendation to the CC for further discussions and we will definitely support President Sirisena to win the next presidential election,” he said. “Around 6.2 million people placed their trust in President Sirisena as the common candidate on 8 January 2015 and those people still believe that he can rule the country for another five years. We are certain that he will win by higher votes if he contests the next presidential election,” he added.
A bold pronouncement, indeed, especially coming from someone who actively campaigned for the other side at the polls. Interestingly, many of the SLFP stalwarts now backing the proposed continuation of the Sirisena presidency are those who threw in their lot with Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa but hastily joined the “Unity Government” soon after results were announced, no doubt with the best intentions of the nation at heart.
Ultimately, it will be up to the President. It is, after all, his office to relinquish. Whatever he ends up deciding, it is hoped that, when the time comes for him to make that call, to fight the irresistible allure of the all too powerful Executive Presidency, he remembers the forces that got him elected and the promises that he gave them. Stronger and more popular leaders than him have fallen prey to its charms. Will Sirisena fare any better? It’s still too early to tell. Suffice to say that if he does indeed cave, it won’t be the fates of just the 6,217,62 people that voted for him that stroke of his pen will decide.
Featured image credit: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times