- Ranil seems to have begun to lose hopes in undermining his deputy
- Best face-saving option Prez and PM might have thought is creating a situation where no presidential poll is going to be held
- MS tried to enter into an agreement with SLPP under which he would be the latter’s presidential hopeful
- Promises to abolish executive presidency have been given or breached in the interests of people in power
Media reported last week that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had met President Maithripala Sirisena and come to an agreement with him to abolish the executive presidency forthwith. Although it is unclear as to who initiated the meeting, the story no doubt would have placed both leaders in a bad light owing to the timing of discussion on the issue. The genuineness of the leaders in this regard is in doubt.
Constitutionally, the presidential election has to be held between October 9 and November 9, and it is just three months away, at most. The two main political parties, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have already announced their candidates to the fray.
It is a well-known fact that President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe are in a tight spot in facing the forthcoming presidential election; one due to the inevitability of his party’s humiliating defeat and the other due to the challenge thrown by his deputy in selecting the party’s candidate.
President Sirisena tried his best to enter into an agreement with the SLPP under which he would be the latter’s presidential hopeful. In this exercise, he, with a view to please SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, even sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last October and replaced him with Mr. Rajapaksa after which he dissolved Parliament in November knowing very well that the Constitution did not allow him to do so.
However, the SLPP -- ignoring discussions it held with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Sirisena on forming an alliance to face the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections -- announced former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its candidate on August 11. This dashed the President’s hopes and now he is left with only two options; to contest the election, come what may, or to agree to support the SLPP candidate while accepting terms dictated by the latter. A third option – supporting the UNP candidate - is too remote.
On the other hand, the United National Party (UNP)deputy leader Sajith Premadasa who unsuccessfully attempted to be the party’s candidate at the last presidential election seems to have succeeded this time in winning over the majority of party leaders and the grassroots level supporters of the party. With the long-standing confidantes of Mr. Wickremesinghe such as Malik Samarawickrama and Kabir Hashim aligning Mr. Premadasa, Mr. Wickremesinghe seems to have begun to lose hopes in undermining his deputy.
So, the birds of a feather had flocked together. The best face-saving option both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe might have thought is creating a situation where no presidential election is going to be held. They might have thought opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa would agree with them, given the general feeling in political circles that Mr. Rajapaksa was not happy in announcing his brother Gotabaya’s candidacy. Despite the strained relationship between them, the two leaders agreed to take measures to scrap the executive presidential mode of governance.
Reports also said President Sirisena had met the opposition leader at his official residence the subsequent day to convey the proposal. It was reported that Mr. Rajapaksa -- while agreeing to the proposal in principle -- had questioned the timing and bona fides of the move. He had said whatever the national importance of the issue may be, it could not be done to suit the interests of a political party. The matter had ended there.
It is evident that the proposal will not succeed without the support of the SLPP which had swept the electorate at the local government elections in February last year, as the move demands a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Also, its support is essential as the Supreme Court had ruled -- when the Yahapalana Government sought its opinion on abolishing executive presidency in 2015 -- that a constitutional amendment to that effect be approved by the people at a referendum.
The UNP/UNF and President Sirisena came to power in 2015 on a pledge to scrap the executive presidency. Maithripala Sirisena,as the common candidate of the opposition during his first public appearance on November 21, 2014,told reporters that he was prepared to place the matter before the people at a referendum. However, when the Supreme Court gave the ruling on the referendum, all leaders of the new government hid behind it to refrain from totally abolishing the executive presidency. Instead, they opted to adopt the 19th Amendment which is now clear to have created two almost equal power centres in the form of President and Prime Minister.
It is ironic that the two leaders of the government who did not want to scrap executive presidency to avoid a referendum in 2015 had agreed to do so now. The need of the referendum on the issue was confirmed by the Supreme Court thereafter as well when it delivered its ruling on October 9 last year on the JVP-sponsored 20th Amendment. Have they found a way to avoid a referendum this time or have they decided to go ahead with the idea even by holding a referendum? What is the rationale behind the rejection of a referendum then and accepting it now?
Laws of the land, especially the basic law of the country, the Constitution has always been manipulated by the people in power in a bid to suit their personal or party interests. Decisions especially on executive presidency have been taken in this way. When the SLFP is divided into two factions led by Maithripala Senanayake and party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike --who in addition had been deprived of her civic rights -- President J.R.Jayewardene foresaw an easy win at a snap presidential election in 1982. Thus, he introduced the 3rd Amendment to the Constitution which provided for the holding of presidential election after the completion of four years of the incumbent President’s tenure. Mr. Jayewardene won the presidential election that year.
Similarly, promises to abolish executive presidency have been given or breached in the interests of people in power. Gamini Dissanayake, the then leader of the UNP which introduced the system, offered support to abolish it in 1994 when Chandrika Kumaratunga’s victory at the presidential election was obvious. Ironically, Kumaratunga whose main pledge at that election was doing away with the executive presidency was not interested in accepting the offer. She did so despite a written undertaking by her to the JVP in the run up to that poll to rid the presidential rule.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, twice after two presidential elections in 2005 and 2010,failed to keep his promise to abolish executive presidency in spite of his government elected in 2010 having two-thirds of power in Parliament and being popular for the victory in the war against the LTTE. Instead, he further strengthened the presidency by scrapping independent commissions that curtailed powers of the President.
A Constitution and other laws must be in the interest of the country and its people. But here in Sri Lanka,politicians with the support of the masses manipulate them to suit their interests.