The Next President Will Be Weaker
But our Constitution is still a mess
The Sri Lankan Constitution is like a lesson in bad software development. There was some code that was OK but then someone decided to add a ‘feature’ called the Presidency which broke everything else.
Like any software, it’s easy to add new features but devilishly difficult to remove them. Decades later people were able to half remove it, but they had to include an exception for literally one person. This exception has of course been triggered and this one person has now broken everything.
That’s where we are now. We have a President gone mad, a hacked together Constitution and a country paralyzed. All because of, essentially, bad software development in the 1980s.
The next President of Sri Lanka, however, will not trigger the same exception. The next President will, by design, be weaker than this one. Specifically, the next President will not be able to hold Ministries themselves.
Under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, Maithripala Sirisena is the last President who will be allowed to hold any Ministries themselves. I will again point out the absurdity of having Constitutional clauses that apply to one human being, but here we are.
Below is Constitution before the 19th Amendment.
In 44 (2) the President can directly assign himself any subject or function. Using this, Presidents have usually taken Defence. Mahinda also took Finance and ended up with him or his family controlling 72% of the country’s budget. This concentration of power is what the 19th Amendment was written to change.
Here is the amended version, which is currently law:
What’s notable here is what the text doesn’t say. It simply doesn’t say that the President can hold ministries. Section 44 (2) is just overwritten.
However, in order to get this President (Maithripala) to sign the thing they had to add aforemention single-human exception. He can have this power, but the next guy can’t:
This exception, has of course exploded. Maithripala took Defence and Law & Order, neglected the job and Sri Lanka was hit with the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. So that didn’t go well.
Now Sri Lankans are as likely to re-elect Maithripala as they are to vote for ISIS and the next President will likely be a different person.
Under the Constitution, this new person cannot hold any Ministries. That can’t control Defence, or Law & Order, or Finance, or anything for that matter. Maybe they’ll have a pliant Prime Minister they can control through extra-Constitutional power, but they will not — in programmer speak — have root access to the system. They will not have direct control. Someone else could still fuck up these responsibilites, but it won’t be the President.
I guess this is better than before, but this Constitution is still a hideous hack. It still depends on two people (the President and Prime Minister) not being mortal enemies and working together. However, given the nature of power, these people are more likely to be mortal enemies than not. The system is still set up to fail catastrophically if these two human beings don’t get along which, given human history, is a huge bug.
Honestly, this Presidency feature doesn’t belong in our Constitution at all. We should either rewrite the whole thing around a US type system (President in charge of Executive) or go back to Parliamentary (Prime Minister in charge of Executive). Basically one person needs to be in charge of the Executive for the country to execute anything, besides itself.
Personally, I think the next President should do what the last three Presidents have promised and get rid of the Executive Presidency altogether. That is, pass the 20th Amendment as proposed by the JVP, or something similar. And they should not make an exception for themselves. They should just bounce. But who would be so brave? Who would be the founding father or mother who saved their country be leaving it?
I really don’t know. We have a leadership crisis that can only be solved be leadership. Right now that just feels like an infinite loop.