Deputy Leader of the United National Party (UNP) and Presidential Candidate of the United National Front (UNF) coalition, Sajith Premadasa who is contesting under the Swan symbol of the New Democratic Front (NDF) promised at his maiden election campaign rally at the Galle Face Green- among other things- to appoint former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as the Law and Order Minister under his future Presidency.
His main rival, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s Presidential hopeful during his first campaign meeting in Anuradhapura gave a list of promises one of which was that he would release all security forces personnel, who had been “falsely accused and imprisoned.”
Practically Mr Premadasa might keep his promise as he had already given an assurance to his party, UNP that Prime Minister and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would continue in those two posts and Wickremesinghe was not against Fonseka being appointed to the Law and Order portfolio when the matter came up a few months ago.
But theoretically, can a Presidential candidate unilaterally give such a promise to the country, according to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution? The Constitution after the adoption of the 19th Amendment says “The President shall, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint from among Members of Parliament, Ministers, to be in charge of the Ministries so determined.”
The point is clear. Mr Premadasa, if elected to the topmost office, could appoint particular individuals as Ministers only if the Prime Minister agreed with him.The 19th Amendment subjects the President’s authority to appoint not only Ministers but also all the high ranking officials sometimes with the approval and sometimes to the recommendation of the Prime Minister, Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions. Therefore the future President would be able to keep his election promises only if he was in good terms with the Constitutional Council and especially with the Premier. Similarly, it would be interesting for one to know how Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to release all security personnel in remand custody on the next day after he assumes office as the President.
They have been arrested by the Police and have been remanded by the courts. What is the law that empowers the President to release persons in remand custody, without the sanction of the particular courts? Any poking of the finger by the President into the affairs of the courts and the course of the law is against democratic norms.
But the President can discuss with the IGP how to water down the charges levelled against those personnel and thereby ensure their release. That too would be meddling into the affairs of the Judiciary. Even for that, the IGP who cannot be sacked by the President under the 19th Amendment should agree with the suggestion of the President. Or else, the President would have to resort to extra-judicial methods to make the IGP submit.
We are considering only two promises given by the candidates of only the two main parties, as examples, since they seem to have the highest chance of winning. And our point here is not to predict that all their promises are unrealistic or unworkable, but to assert that people need viable programmes and not just promises. Both the main contenders are lavishly throwing dozens of promises these days concerning the economic and social advancement of the people, eradication of corruption and ensuring of ethnic harmony. Both are questioning each other, at the same time, the reason that prevented them from achieving what they are promising now, during their respective governments. Interestingly enough, neither of them seems to show any interest to answer that question.
We are witnessing same political parties putting forward different lists of promises as manifestos during different elections, instead of practical and viable socio-economic programmes or policy declarations that can be used in almost every election. The disheartening fact is that the history is full of broken promises, ranging from two measures of rice even from the moon, eight-pounds of lentils, abolition of executive Presidency, eradication of corruption to Good Governance (Yahapalanaya).
Hence, only a few among the people cast their vote to see the promises of particular candidates kept while the large majority of them divide under various political parties just to be on the winning side, no matter what their leaders are promising and whatever allegations are levelled against them.
Hence, the intellectuals, religious leaders, civil society and the media have a role in inculcating knowledge and sense of responsibility in the people to demand viable socio-economic programmes, with roadmaps from politicians, instead of mere unrealistic promises.