Close on the heels of the completion of President Maithripala Sirisena’s first 100 days in power — which also marked a self-imposed deadline for a programme meant to distinguish his administration from his predecessor’s — Sri Lanka’s parliament has adopted the 19th Constitutional Amendment. It introduces curbs on the powers of the executive presidency and is an important step towards nudging the country in a new direction, the main promise of Sirisena’s campaign.
Tuesday’s marathon sitting saw an overwhelming majority vote in favour of reducing the presidential and parliamentary terms to five years from six and the reintroduction of the two-term limit on the president’s tenure that Rajapaksa had scrapped to allow himself to run for office a third time. Nor can the president, hereafter, dissolve parliament before it has completed at least four and a half years — the prevalent law allows him to do so after a year. Another important aspect of the 19th Amendment is the restitution of the Constitutional Council and the establishment of independent commissions. Independent commissions for elections, police, bureaucracy and the judiciary had also fallen prey to Rajapaksa’s concentration of executive powers in his own hands. Sirisena will now have reason to claim delivery on many of his commitments. Yet, these reforms fall short of the abolition of the executive presidency that had been his major campaign theme. Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court recently ruled that propositions like recognising the prime minister as head of the cabinet would require a referendum. The president’s current powers over ministers remain intact.
Sirisena now needs to focus his attention on the biggest lacuna in his 100-day programme — the question of Sri Lanka’s minorities, particularly the Tamils. His reforms must extend to reinventing how Colombo connects with the provinces and empowers the country’s non-Sinhalese citizens. Only by doing so will he fully live up to the hope engendered by his electoral triumph.