What Can The Next President Do?

It depends on you

Indi Samarajiva
Nov 15 · 5 min read

The first President J.R. Jayawardena once said “I can do anything except make a man a woman, or a woman a man”. This was originally a quote about Parliamentary power but he twisted it.

Twisting power is what JR did. He largely replaced the Prime Minister with a President.

And yet.

As Varys said in Game Of Thrones, “power resides where men believe it resides.” Despite the Presidency, we have at various times had powerful Prime Ministers. Mainly JR’s nephew, Ranil.

That nephew has since rewritten his uncle’s work, twisting the nipples of power once again. With the 19th Amendment, the Prime Minister has largely taken the powers of the President.

But still.

Ultimately, power remains where people believe it resides. The Presidency is still powerful. That’s why 35 people are running. That’s why millions of people are voting, having been promised everything short of making a man a woman.

BTW, trans rights are real and we all have them and deserve protection. That quote hasn’t aged well.

The Next President

So what can the next President do? It’s a bit like getting a puppy. They’re technically powerless, but they can certainly fuck stuff up.

Below is an infographic from Hashtag Generation, drawing on an article by Asanga Welikala. It outlines the next President’s Constitutional powers.

Constitutionally, the President is now neutered and in their Executive crate. Practically, however, they can still go crazy and hump the furniture.

The Executive Branch

The key change here is that the Parliament is no longer the President’s bitch. They can’t just wake up and dissolve Parliament. This is the core separation of power.

A lot of the President’s powers are technically rubber-stamp powers, but if he withholds that stamp then everything goes to hell. Which is also power.

Furthermore, the President still controls all of the guns, which is all a would-be fascist needs. As that murdering shitbag Mao said, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

The Sri Lankan President still retains considerable discretion to fuck stuff up.

The Legislative Branch

Parliament is now much more independent of the President, but power of course trumps all. The fact is that on November 17th (or 18th) the President will have a mandate from the people, while the PM is just holding a tattered receipt from five years ago.

The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister remains a creature of Parliament. He lives or dies by the votes of MPs. The President can appoint anybody, but MPs can keep kicking them out. It’s a bit of an infinite loop.

Both candidates have essentially promised to remove the current Prime Minister, but they can’t. They have to get MPs to do it and then appoint someone else.

The power of a mandate is such that this can probably be done, but Ranil is a wily old kabaragoya. I had a kabaragoya stuck in the house once and you can’t just kick it out. I had to open the door and wait for it to leave.

The Cabinet

If the PM is the CEO of government, the Cabinet is the board. They have a lot of power, and the President has little direct power over them.

The President can appoint Ministers, but only on the advice of the PM, whatever that means. I ask for advice but rarely take it. The President cannot be a Minister and thus cannot directly control any executive functions. The cabinet technically answers to the PM. He’s the CEO.

There’s a balance here. On the one hand, neither the President nor the PM can be complete assholes or you’ll get a constitutional crisis. On the other hand, they’re usually assholes.

The Judicial Branch

In the middle of this we have the already overworked judiciary, and a Constitutional Council with baby teeth.

The Supreme Court can and last year did overrule the President, but this is hugely destabilizing and shouldn’t happen with any frequency. Having the courts step in puts enormous pressure on the judiciary and democracy itself.

The Constitutional Council is supposed to operate more frequently, approving all major appointments and preventing the President from corrupting the judiciary branch itself, or the police.

The Whole Tree

However.

All of these powers, however written, are just branches on a tree. Parliament, the Prime Minister, and Constitutional Council — they’ll all blow where the wind blows and that wind is power.

The Constitution is just a vehicle. We own the vehicle, but we have to sit in the back seat. Every five years we give somebody the keys and hope they don’t drive off a cliff. The car itself won’t stop them.

If we elect a democratic President they’ll stay within the lines, but if we elect a dictatorial President they just break the rules and say who cares. And who does? If we elect a fascist, then we elected them. No matter how well designed the car is, we’re still handing some human the keys. And the trunk is full of guns.

The Constitution is there to protect the people from power, but it can’t protect us from ourselves. The Constitution says what the President can do, but ultimately we’re the boss. We can still vote for someone that completely doesn’t care. It’s our car. If we want to kick half the people out and redesign it as a tank, we can do that.

But we shouldn’t do that.

Our young democracy is a crazy but amazing thing. It’s a car that we’re building together, while it’s moving. We’ve had millions of people leave or die but we’re still somehow holding this thing together, with duct tape and prayer. And it is getting better. Slowly, painfully, disappointingly.

If we elect a democratic President they can fix a few things and preserve the institution. If we elect an authoritarian they can break everything and they can take away the keys.

So what can the next President do? Ultimately, this Saturday, it depends on you.

Indi Samarajiva

Written by

Colombo liberal. Writer, father. Founder of YAMU and Kottu.

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