Legal dilemma or political strategy?

Addressing a public meeting in his home district Polonnaruwa on January 26, 2015 — a fortnight after his historic election victory — President Maithripala Sirisena made a strong a case for reducing the term of presidency in Sri Lanka from six to four years, citing the example of Nelson Mandela who succeeded in pushing reforms in South Africa during a four-year rule. However, despite his insistence, constitutional experts and political leaders stuck to five years, he told the gathering.

Last week, three years since he assumed charge, President Sirisena sought judicial opinion on whether he can continue in office until 2021, essentially stretching his term to six years. It was to dispel confusion caused by two different views on the presidential term after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted, an official statement said.

The 19th Amendment, passed in April 2015, stipulated a five-year term for the President. Apparently anticipating doubt on the retrospective effect of the legislation, a section of the Amendment declares that “the persons holding office respectively, as the President and Prime Minister on the day preceding April 22, 2015 shall continue to hold such office after such date, subject to the provisions of the Constitution as amended by this Act.”

On Thursday, the Supreme Court held an open hearing. The Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives made representations stating that the Amendment’s transitional provisions explicitly state that the five-year term limit applies equally to the sitting President. On the other hand, the Attorney General said President Sirisena, who assumed charge on January 9, 2015, had already commenced the six-year term when the 19th Amendment came into effect. “The term of office is the term in force at the time the people exercised their franchise,” he argued, triggering criticism. Kumaravadivel Guruparan, senior lecturer and head, Department of Law, University of Jaffna, tweeted: “Confirmation that the AG’s department doesn’t care for the Constitution. It acts as lawyer for incumbent Govts forgetting that it represents the State and is paid from the public purse.”

Political provocation

Meanwhile, Mr. Sirisena stressed on Friday that he was ready to give up presidency “even today”. However, questions about the likely political provocation to his query loom large — especially since it remains unclear how, when and among whom the legal confusion surfaced in the first place.

A five-year term for Mr. Sirisena would expire in January 2020, before four and a half years of Parliament’s life. According to the 19th Amendment, the President can dissolve Parliament any time after the expiration of four and a half years since the first meeting of Parliament, in this case on September 1, 2015. However, ruling out any political motive, Cabinet Minister and general secretary of the Sirisena-led Sri Lankan Freedom Party Duminda Dissanayake told The Hindu : “There is nothing to read politically here. It is a legal matter and the President has a right to seek the Supreme Court’s opinion.”

But some others in the government are reading it differently. Requesting anonymity, a top government source said the move could be part of the President's political strategy as his coalition government, formed with the traditional rival United National Party, becomes increasingly fragile. “To some of us, it seems like a message to voters ahead of local polls, that he has a crucial role for the next three years. It could also be a message to the UNP.”

President Sirisena has sought judicial advice on whether he has a six-year term or a five-year one, introduced by the 19th Amendment that was passed when he was in office

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