Presidential swearing in–some thoughts



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By Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana


A presidential swearing in ceremony, in a polity with an executive presidency, is a moment of tremendous solemn national pride. In the case of a presidential inauguration (investiture) in France, for example, a common pattern is followed, with limited scope for variation. It is customary for the outgoing president to enter the Elysée palace through a back entrance (the side of the gardens), and receive the president-elect at the footsteps of the main entrance. It is also customary for the two leaders to hold a confidential meeting upstairs in the Presidential Office, after which they come down together, at which point the outgoing president departs, a symbolicjuncture of the transfer of power, to which leaders add their own personal touch. When Jacques Chirac left office after two mandates in 2007, for instance, President-Elect Sarkozy, from Chirac’s own political party, accompanied Chirac out to his car and bid a warm farewell, clapping until Chirac’s car left the cour d’honneur.At the power transfer of 2012, François Hollande and his ex-partner Valérie Trierweiler said adieu to the Sarkozys at the main entrance, and went in soon after to continue the ceremony, with not much ado. Despite such inclinations to add a minor personal touch, the key elements of the ceremony are never avoided or convoluted. Once the President-Elect goes back in, the official transfer of responsibility over the Légion d’honneur is followed by the central part of the ceremony, when the President of the Constitutional Council reiterates the election results, declares the new head of state, and highlights the vital aspects of the presidential office. This is followed by the inaugural presidential oration. As the commander in chief of the armed forces, the new President receives a guard of honour, which normally takes place at the back lawn of Élysée.


The above prelude is deemed timely in the aftermath of the swearing-in ceremony of President Maitripala Sirisena on 9 January 2015. One of the key concerns raised by this writer and thousands of observers in Sri Lanka and beyond is that of President Sirisena’s marge de manoeuvre as head of state, given the risk of being overshadowed by Chandrika Bandaranaike and more importantly perhaps, by Ranil Wickremesinghe.


If one goes by the symbolism of the swearing-in ceremony, an observer of Sri Lankan politics familiar with presidential systems could be left somewhat bemused.


The only comparison with local precedents was indeed the presidential swearing in ceremony of J.R. Jayewardene, which took place outdoors, in the aftermath of the proclamation of the 1978 Constitution of the Second Republic. The Sirisena swearing in ceremony differed considerably from those of his other predecessors. When a new head of state is elected, the primary focus is on the president-elect. In the case of Mr Sirisena, however, the primary focus was very much a shared one, at least between himself and Ranil Wickremesinghe.


A number of logistical flaws in the swearing in ceremony may leave one questioning if they were caused by the constraints of hasty planning within a limited period of time, or rather deliberate steps taken to obliterate the overarching primacy of presidential authority. When the oath was read, for instance, there was no microphone facility for the new President. A presidential oath is a written text with symbolic value, which adds much to the solemnness of the ceremony, and especially in an open ceremony such as the Sirisena swearing-in, the people (especially those who took the time to be present in person at the Independence Square) have a right to listen to the presidential oath. In the jam-packed and noisy atmosphere of the ceremony, it is doubtful if even Justice Sripavan heard the oath loud enough.


The biggest omission was a presidential guard of honour. A crucial gesture that symbolises the arrival of a new commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a presidential swearing-in/inauguration/investiture is incomplete in the absence of a military guard of honour. If all his predecessors were customarily entitled for one soon after swearing in, why scrap it for the Sirisena inauguration? If it were deliberately avoided, whose idea was it? If the choice of venue, sound logistics, and the avoidance of a guard of honour were the consequence of an overarching influence, are we just about to start witnessing a Manmohan Singh cycle à la Sri-Lankaise, with a powerful hand wielding more power and influence than the democratically elected leader? President Sirisena’s voters ought to seriously raise these questions, as the swearing in did not include the basics, which could, God forbid, symbolically suggest an impeding power imbalance in the Maitripala Sirisena administration.


The above points could be refuted by stating that Mr Sirisena campaigned for presidency on an anti-executive presidency platform. True, but until it is constitutionally abolished or modified, the Presidency, as stipulated in the 1978 Constitution of the Second Republic, is the erstwhile office of the Head of State of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, and not of a ‘head-of-state-subordinate’.


Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Queen’s University Belfast and Chargé d’enseignements at Université Lille 1, France.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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