The Sunday Leader

President Sirisena Keeps His Word

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Next only to Bhutan’s reigning monarch, King Jigme Singhe Wangchuck, President Maithripala Sirisena becomes only the second ruler anywhere in the world in our times, to voluntarily shed the weight of power that had brought a bad name to his predecessors and Sri Lanka. For the Bhutanese royalty, democratisation was a commitment to themselves. For the Sri Lankan President, it was a commitment to his voters.

The Sri Lankan President is yet to shed the real weight, and in abiding and enforceable constitutional terms. His campaign had foreseen the possibilities, though not to these real levels, they having confined their focus near exclusively in getting incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated and replaced in election time. Hence also his pre-poll promise to await fresh elections to elect a new parliament, where the power-changes required a public referendum.

The real power-change will thus have to wait. The Supreme Court in its determination has held as much and it was to have been expected in the first place given the nature of powers that Sirisena wanted the presidency to shed and transfer to the Cabinet of Ministers under the prime minister. There is still some confusion and a lot of assumptions and presumptions on that. If and when the occasion arises for the Cabinet and a new parliament were to re-visit the new power-equation that is being envisaged at the highest levels of government and governance, then they need to make all those clear, not leaving anything to mutual imagination or await more of judicial interpretation, though not necessarily determination.

 

Welcome procedure

Sri Lanka’s Constitution has a welcome procedure that is seldom appreciated nearer home, and acknowledged elsewhere. It relates to seeking and obtaining judicial determination on proposed constitutional amendments. This minimises the waste of time, energy and at times intentions. It is not the case in most other democracies, where constitutional amendments, passed by Parliament after long and contradicting public debates and discourses, could be contested before the Judiciary and set aside by the Supreme Court.

Yet, there are issues here, too. Under a given set of circumstances, the Supreme Court can clear an 18-A at one time, and 19-A, at another. It needs greater reasoning and better rationale to be able to appreciate the Judiciary’s position referendum for the original 19-A draft, and not thus for 19-A earlier.

These are inherent to any democracy  the more you get refined, the more you get confused. It is thus that the vibrancy and dynamism inherent to Third World democracies commands appreciation and respect. They are no dead-letters buried in the past. Hence there is also no dull moment for their polity.

Their populations thus get increasingly engaged with the national-level political debates and constitutional discourses. Theirs is more of a participatory democracy from this one particular perspective than the so-called matured democracies. It’s a long, educative process, where there comes a time when the voter knows instantly as to what affected him the most and prioritise issues for him.

 

Ross Perot effect

It also prepares the voter in terms of what to expect and not expect from those whom he vote into positions of power. There is no room thus for collective voter-management by dominant political leaderships, which target the t’s and i’s for the voter to decide, keeping the real issues away from the people’s glare.

Call it Ross Perot effect, or whatever, it relates to the independent who got nearly a fifth of all votes polled in the all-important US presidential polls of 1992. More than who won or who lost, the Big Two in American politics were shocked by what billionaire Perot got.

Not just the two, but even a majority of America’s political analysts and media commentators had only this one line to sing in unison: We will not let this happen again. Whether or not they kept all their other promises to the average American voter, on this one very point, together they ensured as much by the next time presidential polls came. Ross contested, and withered away without a trace, beaten and heart-broken.

 

Frozen constitution?

In more matured democracies, with a Constitution that is near-almost frozen (and frozen in time), there is no scope for engaging and educating their peoples on the Constitution for generations together. Such an approach and a consequent attitude confers greater sacredness and on the Constitution, for sure. The sanctity is seldom violated.

Yet, it all reduces all those so-called constitutional discourses to the academician, to be bisected and dissected, at times reaching levels of frivolity, within a super-specialised band of academician. The debate does not get even staged before the higher Judiciary, which in every democracy is considered the guardian-angel and watch-dog of the Constitution and democracy. It’s in such nations that the Constitution actually has become a dead-letter and all democratic discourses become farcical. The stage-play continues for so long that there is no knowing when and where did the reality end, and when and where the theorisation of constitutional problems and solutions began.

It’s hence in these nations constitutional problems are flagged, not in terms of issues but more in terms of the personality of the political leadership. It’s more so when it comes to deciphering and decoding the past patterns and prejudices of individual members of the higher judiciary, who might one day be called upon to discuss and debate on what might end up being a highly technical issue, which does not concern, involve or engage lesser mortals.

 

Cohabitation anomalies

For all the vibrancy of the Sri Lankan scheme, the current situation presents a series of cohabitation anomalies, as can be expected and appreciated under the circumstances.

There are also attendant constitutional anomalies, which a Judiciary-induced referendum should address, as and when it became possible that is after the parliamentary polls.

Constitutionally real political power remains to be transferred to the Executive President to the Prime Minister, as promised by the Sirisena campaign. Yet, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet colleagues seemingly wield all Executive powers in the day-to-day administration of the government. In popular perception and political imagination, this has become the case.

President Sirisena will remain in office for a full term after parliamentary polls. He is committed not to run for a second term. He was/is even clearer that he would be transferring Executive power not only to the prime minister, as promised but specifically to the person of UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe, the incumbent whom he had sworn in as his first task in office.

Politics is full of possibilities, and elections are eccentric after a point. In theoretical terms at the very least, President Sirisena should be asking himself if he would likewise be willing to transfer constitutional powers to a prime minister of the people’s choice, if it’s not Ranil W. What if in the vagaries of electoral politics, his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, gets thrown up as prime minister? Or, if there is another prime minister candidate that a post-poll parliamentary majority, or consensus scheme throws up?

The question is not only for President Sirisena. All those elite and intellectuals who have blamed much of Sri Lanka’s past ills on the LTTE and the Executive Presidency have their answers for the former, but not yet for the latter.

For them all President Rajapaksa in office personified all that was wrong with the Executive Presidency  and more so after the end of the ethic war, the exit of the LTTE  and particularly, the hasty enactment of 18-A.

The question remains: Are the Sri Lankan elites and intellectuals going to support dis-empowering the Executive President after the parliamentary polls prima facie, or are they going to link it to the person of the prime minister? In the past, both the political players and the Sri Lankan academics had always confused issues with individuals, and let the likes of JRJ, Premadasa and CBK run riot or get run down, as the intellectual perception otherwise might have crystallised by then.

What if the people of Sri Lanka were to throw up Mahinda R as their prime minister, for instance? Are they going to clear it because they are talking about issues, not personalities? Or, are they going to argue for stalling the emergence of a Vladimir Putin in Sri Lanka, if that were the case and comparison? Whatever applies to Mahinda Rajapaksa might apply to any other individual Ranil W included to varying degrees.

There in lies the catch. Where from here the Executive Presidency? Where from here the Constitutional Councils and all those independent institutions aimed a defanging the Executive of its enormous powers? On the one hand, it was about transferring Executive powers of the Government to institutions that are neither answerable to themselves, not to Parliament in any direct and accountable form, or to the people in elections. They would have all the rights but no responsibility, and even less of accountability.

Is the nation going to get deadlocked in situations of the 17-A variety all over again? For years, thus, until 18-A cleared the anomaly, possibly in an unacceptable way, the political stake-holders would not even agree on who all constitute and/or comprise minority parties for the purpose of appointing such nominees to such Constitution-guaranteed appointment committees of the Government? And more there is change, the less it all remains unchanged. Or, so it seems and the vibrancy and dynamism of the Sri Lankan constitutional scheme should not be reduced to reinventing the wheel(s), again and again and again.

Is anyone out there listening – and really cares for?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

4 Comments for “President Sirisena Keeps His Word”

  1. S B Lokuge

    Does MY3 has a choice? Did’nt he say that India and the west is forcing him to make Ranil the PM ? He has become a puppet of Ranil and Chandrika for making a dirty deal to please India and the west to hand them the presidential power, not by his own choice. That is why Modi and Kerry came to warnl him to honour that deal.

    • Sam T

      “”Did’nt he say that India and the west is forcing him to make Ranil the PM ? “”

      so Ranil said `we will shoot your fishermen` before Modi’s arrival??

      so USAID will keep on training the forces no matter who rules Lanka??

      Who is screwing whom??

  2. Jayalath

    Sirisena is biggest traitor of nation which has proven with enough evidence. He betraying the PA party to UNP systematically ,and giving every thing northerners want. We have seen how his ministers cronies grab the lands in mannar areas and bulldozed the statue of war hero GAMINI in North . So ,what Sirisena has done to this country so far is unaccountable damage , and unfortunately some of those damages will never ever can put right . So ,we must congregate to remove him and protect the country.

  3. Jayalath

    I only can see that Sirisena is strengthening the needs of North . And northerners are strengthening themselves never been before . It is no matter they need some right as citizens but same time we must not thrust them to get their dream of separatist sentiment ,because they will never renounce the notion of separation. They may have very good chance to appear for federalism as Kerry and Modi request from Sirisena to give more power and right which could be misinterpreted by northerners . Honestly , they have more chance to get what they want by pressure of other countries to Sri Lankan government which is very clearly happening fortnight . It is not fair on our perspective ,as we want to believe Sri Lanka is one country and all citizens should get equal right regardless who they are . Yet , separatist motion is intolerable. But UNP and Jvp competitively put pressure on Rajspaksa clans over the corruption issues with ignoring them to get a chance to speak out about real threats existing after Sirisena elected , UNP and Jvp using their tactic in such manner to evade the public eye from the real consequences that could arise in future .it is great shame when we fight to power that some body else in there is thriving vert well . Sad ,sad ,sad .

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