Sirisena fulfils election promise

Sirisena fulfils election promise

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena deserves applause for fulfilling, even if only partially, an election campaign promise. He has acted to clip the powers of the Sri Lankan presidency. Last week, Parliament passed the 19th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. This restricts the number of presidential terms to two five-year terms and requires the president to consult the prime minister on ministerial appointments. It also reduces the president’s immunity and makes him liable to prosecution for official actions that violate fundamental rights. While the 19th amendment only reduces some of the powers of the president – he retains powers over the cabinet, for instance and thus falls short of the demand for abolition of the Executive Presidency – it is a step in the right direction. Since the Executive Presidency was introduced under the 1979 Constitution, successive presidents grandly promised to remove it, only to back-pedal once they were ensconced in the presidential seat. Sirisena has elevated himself in the eyes of the Sri Lankan people by delivering on this promise.

There were obstacles in the way of his government ushering in more fundamental changes with regard to the Executive Presidency. For one, even constituents of the ruling alliance like the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist parties favour retaining a strong, all-powerful Executive Presidency. They opposed dilution of its powers. Then, the Supreme Court ruled recently that some of the reforms mooted would require the holding of a referendum. Importantly, sweeping changes to the constitution require two-thirds support in parliament. Has Sirisena put off more drastic changes in presidential powers to when he has that kind of support in parliament? Or is his approach half-hearted? Is this as far as he will go to clip his own powers?

The president is expected to dissolve parliament and call for fresh general elections soon. Sirisena’s fulfilment of an election pledge will strengthen the hands of his ruling alliance when it seeks the voters’ support. However, the ruling alliance will not be able to attract the Tamil vote, which was crucial in ensuring Sirisena’s victory in the presidential election, if the government continues to drag its feet on reconciliation. Meaningful reconciliation requires Sirisena to initiate a serious dialogue with Tamil political parties to find a political settlement to the ethnic conflict. He must also institute a credible domestic probe into allegations of war crimes and atrocities levelled against the Rajapaksa regime. Fulfilling these pledges is important but the pace at which Sirisena is delivering on them has been marginal so far.
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