Defining the boundaries of power

Monday, 24 June 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Maithripala Sirisena has gone on record saying that the 18th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution need to be removed, as in his view they have not benefited Sri Lanka. In the run-up to the Presidential Election, amidst fervent speculation about his candidacy or who Sirisena may support, it is worth unpacking his statements, and understanding what policies the President is trying to market to the public.

Legal and governance activists have long deplored the 18th Amendment for taking away the two term limit for the Presidency, and increasing the powers held by the Executive President. It was in part this centralisation of power in one person and the corruption, suppression, and mismanagement that permeated the former Government in general that prompted a broad coalition to be built in 2014. The main aim of this effort was to push for the abolishment of the Executive Presidency, and champion good governance. Its linchpin was the Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena.

It is therefore ironic that President Sirisena is now criticising the 19th Amendment for diluting what he refers to as “strong leadership”, when in fact its aim was to reduce the capacity of the Executive to abuse his power, in contravention of the mandate he was given by the public. The 19th Amendment may not be perfect, and it is certainly not far reaching enough in trimming Executive powers, as was demonstrated during the constitutional crisis, but most people who believe in true democracy and the need for strong institutions will argue that it was a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan brand of democracy puts emphasis on strong personalities, rather than institutions, to ensure good governance. This is clearly a bad idea, but it remains enduringly popular, not just in Sri Lanka, but around the world. The idea that an individual can set a State right and ensure justice, rule of law, and accountability is an alluring one, and in Sri Lanka it has been repeatedly peddled to the masses. The point that this leaning towards a centralised power usually results in corruption, abuse of power, suppression, and violation of even basic rights, is smartly underplayed by the purveyors of this philosophy.

For Sri Lankans caught in years of sluggish economic growth, bickering politicians, unchecked corruption, and terror attacks, the idea of a strong leader is attractive as it has never been before. The idea that the next election can reset everything and put the country on a path of peace and prosperity, if the public can just vote for the right person, is both easy, convenient, and goal-oriented. The next election is viewed almost as a mass-cleansing project that can be completed with one pen stroke. But reality is more complex than that.

The reality is that the next Presidential Elections may put more questions before the public than answers. The moderates will struggle to find a candidate that truly resonates with their aspirations, unless there is a change in the candidates that have been lined up so far. The fight for good governance via strengthening institutions has sadly fallen by the wayside, and a new battle is emerging in its place. This new battle could leave many Sri Lankans faced with a far tougher decision than they had in 2015.