Sri Lanka’s Presidency at a Crossroads

Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena was elected on January 8th 2015 mainly with the support of the then opposition United National Party (UNP) and smaller parties that have the support of minority ethnic groups. He has been in office only for about twelve weeks. In the second half of this period he has focused his attention on two main activities. The first is trying to craft the constitutional change that he promised the voters. The second is traveling to Delhi, London and Beijing to gain the confidence of key foreign powers for his new government. This essay will review the two activities in that order.

Constitutional Changes

There is no one theory to clearly determine the balance of power between the legislative branch and the executive branch of government in a democracy. It depends on the system of government that a country prefers and varies over time depending on a complex of political and other forces. Sri Lanka’s thirty five year old executive presidency has reached a crossroads in its evolution. Currently the powers of Sri Lanka’s executive presidency are under intense scrutiny.

Sirisena campaigned on a promise to usher in “Yaha Paalanaya” (Good Governance). The single most important promise that he made in his manifesto was to create a “new Constitutional structure (that) would be essentially an Executive allied with the Parliament through the Cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System.” This was a response to the misrule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-14). Many voters enthusiastically agreed with candidate Sirisena because they viewed the all-powerful executive presidency as the principal source of all that was wrong in the country.

On assuming office Sirisena wanted to project an image that was the exact opposite of his predecessor. He asked people to dispense with the honorific “His Excellency” when addressing him. He decided not to use the official residence of the president. He publicly declared that he would not seek reelection. Under the proposed constitutional amendment the term of office of the president will be limited to five years instead of the current six and no person will be allowed more than two terms. The original campaign commitment was to make the constitutional changes within 100 days of assuming office, dissolve parliament “after Thursday April 24” and hold fresh parliamentary elections to form a new government under a new constitution. But this plan has run into difficulty.

Some civil society organizations that supported Sirisena in the election insist on the abolition of the executive presidency. Poltical parties that supported Sirisena as well as those that opposed him want the executive presidency to be retained but with “reduced” power. There is no agreement on what those reduced powers should be and on the allocation of powers between the president and the prime minister. Sirisena also promised to abolish the current proportional representation (PR) system and replace it with a British style constituency system combined with a modified PR system. That proposal has also stalled because there is no agreement on what the new system should be.

Existential Challenge

There are signs that Sirisena is also facing an existential political challenge. He took over the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) from former president Rajapaksa. The SLFP enjoys a majority in parliament and its support is essential to amend the constitution. President Rajapaksa was criticized for having an inflated cabinet, wasting public funds. Sirisena promised a cabinet whose “number, composition and nature …… would be determined on a scientific basis.”

In January he appointed a cabinet of 27 with 9 additional state ministers and 8 deputies. The “scientific” basis of this cabinet is questionable. In late March he appointed more ministers – 11 cabinet, 5 state, and 10 deputy – making up a total of 68 in government. This act of poltical expediency was to secure the support of the opposition SLFP for his constitutional amendments and legislative program.

One segment of the opposition is campaigning to bring back former president Rajapaksa into active politics. His recent public utterances suggest that he may be amenable to the idea. In this situation Sirisena has to play his cards with the utmost care. In particular if he becomes a figurehead president there is no compelling reason for the SLFP be loyal to him. Rajapaksa who is a charismatic leader may see his chance to return to power. As things stand he has a lot to lose if his financial misdemeanors and other acts of commission and omission and those of his family members and supporters that were in office are exposed and legal action taken. The best way to foreclose that unwelcome prospect is to return to power. President Sirisena, and more particularly his allies in the United National Party are making plenty of mistakes that have disappointed those who supported Sirisena improving Rajapaksa’s chances of a comeback.

Poor Constitution Making

It is likely that Sri Lanka will end with a hybrid system with a president that has some powers but not much. The public’s wish for a more powerful cabinet led by a prime minister is likely to be realized. In this debate it appears that Sri Lanka is making a basic mistake that many countries make in writing constitutions. That is the failure to make a distinction between basic principles of governance on the one hand and details of governance on the other. A viable and lasting constitution is best assured by limiting itself to basic principles, institutional arrangements and related provisions. Ordinary legislation can be made to take care of details and the judiciary can be asked to adjudicate when there is a dispute. Unfortunately the proposed constitutional amendments go into such detail that it even refers to ordinary state-owned media establishments by name. The proposed 19th amendment has over 15000 words, over three times that of original US constitution, raising questions about the competency of the drafters of the amendments.

Foreign Relations

In the midst grappling with a complicated domestic poltical situation, President Sirisena made three important trips abroad. The first was to Delhi, followed by one to London and the third to China. The trip to Delhi in mid-February was a clear signal that the Sirisena administration recognizes the importance of bilateral relations with India. India is the main supplier of imports to Sri Lanka accounting for 17.6% of the total value in 2013. India’s net foreign assistance to Sri Lanka in 2013 totaled $170m. Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi reciprocated with a visit of his own to Colombo in mid-March. Delhi and Colombo signed several bilateral agreements during the visit including a currency swap agreement worth $1.5 billion and a loan of $318 to develop Sri Lanka’s railway system.

In early March Sirisena visited London for the Commonwealth Day Celebrations. He made use of the opportunity to have bilateral discussion with the UK Prime Minster David Cameron who was critical of the human rights record of the Rajapaksa administration.


Sri Lanka-China relations grew rapidly under the previous Rajapaksa administration. In particular China became the principal funder of large-scale infrastructure projects. In 2013 China provided Sri Lanka $477m. in loan assistance, about 43% of all such assistance that the country received. In the same year China supplied 16.4% of Sri Lanka’s imports. President Rajapaksa who was under attack from the west for his lapses in good governance and poor human rights record found in China a friend that helped without asking any awkward questions. President Sirisena has hinted that he would be a little more circumspect in dealing with China. However, Sirisena knows that Sri Lanka has to main cordial relations with Asia’s rising super power. He flew to Beijing in late March for bilateral talks with the Chinese leaders and then attended the annual Boao Forum for Asia Conference. Media reports have announced that China committed to assist Sri Lanka in various fields and to give $1.0 billion in grant aid over an unspecified period of time. However, the future of the controversial $1.4 billion Colombo Port City Project that commenced when Rajapaksa was in office remains unsettled. According to media reports the project would reclaim 233 hectares of land from the sea to build a modern city complex adjacent to the Colombo port. China would get 108 hectares of which 20 would be in perpetuity and another 88 on a 99-year lease. China views this project as a part of the Maritime Silk Road that it wants to develop. Sri Lanka has several concerns. One is the presence of a foreign power occupying a strategic part of its territory in perpetuity, especially because Delhi won’t be happy to see China have a permanent foothold in Sri Lankan territory. The economics of the project is also questionable. Environmentalists have expressed concern about the possible adverse environmental consequences of the project. China is exerting considerable pressure on Colombo to allow the project to go ahead.

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