(Text of Editorial appearing in “the Island” of January 12th 2018 under the heading “Whither yahapalanaya?”)
A five-member bench of the Supreme Court (SC), in response to a question posed by President Maithripala Sirisena, is deliberating whether he can serve a six-year term. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution has reduced the presidential term to five years. We refrain from commenting on it out of deference to the apex court.
Co-Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne has told the media the President is right in having consulted the SC to clear some doubts about the duration of his term. One cannot but agree with the minister on this score. The President can seek opinions from the SC. But, the issue at hand is different from other constitutional ambiguities in that the public was given to understand that President Sirisena had voluntarily reduced his term by one year. He was expected to leave office after serving a five-year term. He earned admiration of the general public and some political commentators went so far as to call the President a modern-day Sirisangabo (a king who ‘donated’ his head to a stranger according to legend). President used to boast that he was the only head of state in the world to have his term shortened. The yahapalana camp has been flaunting his ‘sacrifice’ to boost its image. But, owing to his question to the Supreme Court at issue he has come to be seen as yet another politician who can’t bring himself to let go of power.
Interestingly, President Sirisena, who has consulted the Supreme Court on an issue concerning his own term, did not care to do so in 2015 as for the controversy over the appointment of the then Chief Justice Mohan Peiris, whom he simply deemed to have never been the head of the judiciary. He declared that the post of the Chief Justice had never fallen vacant because the impeachment of Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake was wrong. (He himself voted for impeaching her!) He also arbitrarily reinstated Dr. Bandaranayake as the Chief Justice. Besides, immediately after being sworn in as the President he sacked the then Prime Minister and appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had only about 40 seats in Parliament, to that post. Now, he is worrying about his own term!
A monk has filed an intervention paper in the SC in favour of the President serving a six-year term. This is an interesting development. His intervention came within hours of the President’s question to the Supreme Court being reported. We don’t believe the monk is blessed with precognition. He must have had prior knowledge of the President’s decision to consult the SC.
The unfolding drama reminds us of the fate that befell President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 2005, when the issue of the duration of her second term was referred to the SC. Her lawyers were of the view that she could complete six years, but the apex court was convinced otherwise. She lost one year.
Even if there had been some confusion over the duration of his term, President Sirisena should have decided to hang up his boots after completing his fifth year in keeping with his boastful claim that he had forgone one year without making an issue of it.
What would Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, the chief architect of the yahapalana administration, say about the current issue if he was alive today? While speaking at a public function, after the 2015 regime change, the late Thera, obviously frustrated with the tardy progress the constitutional reform process was making, famously asked the President to make the constitutional roti while the griddle was hot. Greedy politicians at the helm of the previous government and their successors who renege on their yahapalana promises are like the two sides of the same roti.
The government has decided to spend a whopping sum of taxpayers’ money to erect a monument in memory of Sobitha Thera. The prelate led a simple life and considered such measures de trop. The best way the politicians who craftily used the Thera to capture power can honour him is to make good on the promises he together with them made to the public.