(Text of Editorial Appearing in “The Island” of August 21st 2018 Under the Heading “Why this hullabaloo?)
Mahinda has set the cat among the pigeons, as is his wont. He has got his backers in the Joint Opposition (JO) to say he can run for President again. This argument is not of recent origin, though. It has been there since the introduction of the 19th Amendment. Some JO legal experts have held that the term limit therein cannot have retroactive effect, and Mahinda can contest a presidential election again. However, this is the first time the JO has gone public with its contention. Never a dull day in this land like no other!
Minister of Higher Education and former Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC, has shot from the hip. He declared, on Sunday, that Mahinda was disqualified from seeking another presidential term. The 19th Amendment debarred a twice elected president from contesting a presidential election again, he maintained. He also issued a dire warning that any presidential candidate who furnished false information as regards his or her eligibility to contest would be committing an offence punishable by a three-year jail term. But JO stalwart Dinesh Gunawardena is convinced otherwise. He says the 19th Amendment is flawed and Mahinda can contest a presidential election again.
The Colombo-based punditocracy is in overdrive, examining, as it does, the JO’s claim. Some of its members have already expressed their views thereon. Opinion is divided on the issue. What really matters is the opinion of the Supreme Court (SC), which alone is empowered to interpret the Constitution. Minister Rajapakshe says only the President can consult the apex court, but the JO maintains that it can obtain an SC ruling via the District Court.
The real question, in our book, is not whether Mahinda can seek another presidential term or not but why he should ever do so even if it can be proved that there is no legal obstacle in his path. He wants to savour power again, nay he is thirsting for it. A person who wields power cannot easily let go of it. It is the hope of regaining power that keeps the former President going. But can he achieve his goal by securing executive presidency, which is not a shadow of its former self, thanks to the 19th Amendment, tailor-made for the UNP wing of the yahapalana camp.
Today, the executive president cannot even remove a minister except on the Prime Minister’s advice. Legal experts argue that the 19th Amendment has stripped the executive presidency of most of the powers originally vested therein and it is now a titular position in all but name.
The Prime Minister became more powerful than the Executive President even before the introduction of the 19th Amendment as we saw during the 2002-2004 period, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga had the UNP, which captured power in Parliament, undermining her. She was lucky that she had the power to sack the government one year after its formation. But, today, the President is far more vulnerable without any power to tame the PM. President Sirisena is at the mercy of the UNP, to all intents and purposes, and the latter is acting with some restraint without taking him on because it wants this government to continue until it is ready to be on its own.
So long as the 19th Amendment is there, the President will be less powerful than the PM even if both of them happen to represent the same party. Why the UNP is worried about the attempts being made to field Mahinda at the next presidential election defies comprehension in that it should be more worried about the prospect of its bete noire becoming the Prime Minister.
Similarly, it is puzzling why the JO wants to make Mahinda the President again when there is no legal barrier for him to try to be the Prime Minister.
Both the UNP and the JO, we believe, are barking up the wrong tree.