Neutral President – four years too late

When Junius Richard Jayewardene framed his 1978 Constitution, the highlight of it was the transformation of the ceremonial presidency into an executive presidency. Framed on the lines of the French and American models, Sri Lanka’s executive president lacked nothing in terms of power and was in fact the repository of absolute executive power. The idea at the time was to fast track development without having to go through the cumbersome process of parliamentary approval.

To JR’s credit, the plan worked initially and many development projects got off the ground based on presidential sanction without much hassle.

However, in subsequent years with subversive elements both in the North and South wreaking havoc in the country, these very same executive powers were used to brutally crackdown on the rebels. This obviously led to allegations of abuse of power which the five subsequent presidents have all been tainted with, save D.B. Wijetunga.

It is this abuse of power that raised calls from civil society for the abolition of the presidency, which in fact is what each of the three presidents have promised since 1994. Current President Maithripala Sirisena has been the only one to date to even partially keep his word by agreeing to the 19th Amendment which pruned some of the powers vested in the president, but fell short of abolishing the post altogether as promised.

His recent comments however, portray the fact that he was an unwilling actor in the project as he now openly condemns the 19th Amendment. Willing or unwilling, this no doubt is the biggest achievement of the UNP-led current administration which has resulted in Parliament being vested with powers previously held by the president.

However, we now hear one of the main contenders for the next presidency claiming that no proper scientific research has been done on the abolition of the post.

As per the original 1978 Constitution, the president, once elected to the post, must shun his political affiliations and act as a statesman over and above party politics.

Although this was the expectation, ground realities have prevented such a utopian outcome. Nevertheless, four decades later, we now hear the current President proclaiming that he will act neutral for the rest of his term which in reality is less than 40 days. Something, we suppose, is better than nothing.

It will, for the first time since the presidency was introduced, show the country what the original idea was. In other words, the presidency has come full circle not due to the benevolence of the incumbent but simply due to the fact that he has been left with no other option after successfully antagonising every party he has had to work with, including his own.

One can only pity the prospect of what the Sirisena presidency could have been and what it has become. Four years ago when the two main political parties came together for the first time in post-independence history, it was a dream come true for the country. Leaving behind years of enmity and bitter rivalry, what more could the people ask than for the two main parties to come together and work for the betterment of the country? It was just too good to be true.

But the fact of the matter is, it did happen. It was an experiment that had to happen for the sake of the country because at least now we know that it is not something that is likely to work.

Presiding over all this was Maithripala Sirisena. He had every opportunity to be the statesman he now wants to be and allow the two parties to work in tandem, but he chose to play politics and sabotage his own Government from within. The rest is now unpleasant history.

Unwittingly though, he has now become a victim of his own actions and the prospect of being left destitute come 17 November is a distinct possibility. With both the main contenders running a neck-to-neck campaign, neither wants to be identified with Sirisena for obvious reasons. For the UNP, it’s a case of once bitten twice shy, while for the SLPP, the last thing they would want is for a vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be equated to a vote for Maithripala Sirisena.

The Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha election went the way it was supposed to go with the SLPP emerging as the clear winner. What it did show was the capitulation of the SLFP voter base to the SLPP under Sirisena’s watch as Party Leader. Until the advent of the SLPP, Elpitiya has been a traditional SLFP stronghold akin to Colombo Central for the UNP but the tectonic shift of the SLFP’s traditional vote base en masse to the SLPP must surely cause concern for Sirisena who in fact became Party Leader by virtue of being elected President, ironically on UNP votes. The contradiction is as stark as it can get.

Be that as it may, the irony of ironies is that the little support he still commands within the SLFP may well decide who will ultimately win the presidency notwithstanding the agreement his party has already entered into with the SLPP.

Sirisena knows it well and will barter his support to whoever offers him the best prospects post 17 November, since he has refused to retire.

Whatever the outcome of the election, a neutral president who can keep all parties in check can certainly give a whole new dimension to the post and deliver the results its architects intended for the country. Unfortunately though, the current neutrality has come four years too late and all we can do now is dream of what might have been.