By Dr. Sudha Ramachandran
In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who strengthened the powers of Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency to unprecedented levels, President Maithripala Sirisena has acted to reduce it. Last week, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which dilutes the powers of the presidency. Besides restricting a president to two five-year terms – Rajapaksa removed the number of term restrictions on a president and extended a term to six years, it permits the president to dissolve parliament only after it has completed four-and-a-half years of its five-year term. Hitherto, the president could dissolve parliament after a year. The president will act on the advice of the prime minister when appointing ministers. It enshrines the right to information in the constitution.
In the run-up to the presidential election in January, Sirisena pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency. Few expected him to fulfil this pledge. After all, this promise was made by others too; almost all the main presidential candidates contesting elections since the Executive Presidency was introduced in 1978 declared they would abolish it, only to drag their feet on the matter once they were comfortably ensconced in the presidential seat. After all, why would a politician want to dilute his own powers? Not having the requisite two-thirds majority in parliament also came as a handy excuse for presidents to put off abolishing the Executive Presidency.
The 19th amendment does not abolish the Executive Presidency. It only whittles away at the president’s powers. Thus, Sirisena has not fulfilled his pledge; he has only redeemed it partially. Still, this is a step in the right direction. His government has earned some flak for the wrangling, horse-trading and lack of transparency in the process that preceded the passage of the amendment.
An Executive Presidency by its very nature is anti-democratic and Sri Lanka’s presidency as envisaged in the 1978 Constitution is all the more so. There are few checks and balances on the powers of the president. Sri Lanka’s slide to authoritarianism can be traced back to this all-powerful institution.
Most amendments to the Sri Lankan Constitution have augmented presidential powers. An important exception was the 17th amendment, which was passed in 2001 during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga. It curtailed presidential powers by making it mandatory for a president to get the approval of a Constitutional Council for the appointment of superior judges, the attorney general and auditor general, heads of independent commissions such as the election commission, the human-rights commission, and the bribery and corruption commission.
The 18th Amendment passed during Rajapaksa’s presidency negated the gains of the 17th Amendment. It replaced the Constitutional Council with a Parliamentary Council whose “observations” (not approval) was to be sought in presidential appointments. It facilitated Rajapaksa’s appointment of loyalists to ‘independent’ commissions paving the way for politicization of every democratic institution in the country.
The 19th amendment revives the Constitutional Council and independent commissions. However, the hold of politicians remains significant; the ten-member Constitutional Council will comprise seven parliamentarians, including the prime minster, speaker and leader of the opposition.
While many may criticize Sirisena’s reforms for not going far enough, this was a laudable achievement in the circumstances. He presides over a minority government. The opposition as well as powerful sections among his allies are in favour of a strong presidency. Pulling them all together and hammering out a compromise was no small achievement. Some of the key proposals such as transferring powers of the president to parliament required approval through a referendum.
For abolishing the Executive Presidency, Sirisena will need more robust support in parliament. He is expected to dissolve parliament soon and call for fresh elections. His first steps on the road to constitutional reform will have impressed voters. His performance in the first four months of his presidency has been good. But will voters give the ruling alliance the strong presence he needs in parliament?
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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