On the presidential pedestal | Daily News

On the presidential pedestal

President’s House in Colombo.
President’s House in Colombo.

The subject of who might be candidates at the next Presidential elections has entered the public realm. Much of what is said is in fairly uncharitable terms to would be candidates. The purpose of the piece is to raise ideas from other settings and close with thoughts from Sri Lanka. The Title does not imply the Presidency is a male-dominated domain.

We have inspiring examples of Presidential visions from around the world, in spite of a time of strongmen and the lies they utter as President Obama said a few days back. One contemporary example is President Akufo-Addo of Ghana who has laid out a Co-ordinate Programme for Economic and Social Development Policies titled: Agenda for jobs: creating prosperity and equal opportunity for all founded on five pillars of growth and development, namely revitalizing the economy; transforming agriculture and industry; revamping economic and social infrastructure; strengthening social protection and inclusion; and reforming delivery system of public services institutions.

The next Presidential election in Sri Lanka

Since President Jayewardene we have had sufficient time to imagine our ideal Presidency. We no longer have the excuse of a war to beat our chests to cover our deficiencies.

It’s fair to say we need a Presidency which serves the whole country and its entire people. In fact, there is an only electoral constituency in law for the Presidential election.

When candidates line up next, perhaps we could suggest that while they may be nominated by a coalition, party or come as an independent candidate they must show aptitude to rise above partisan politics and become the welder of the nation. While they will definitely have interest groups supporting their candidacy can they free themselves to govern above and beyond interest groups?

We have seen a political experiment lately where cross-party representation is never seen before is found in the composition of the cabinet.

Will we see a day when the elected President calls upon those extremely competent irrespective of their party allegiance to join Cabinet?

The Parliament now has a whole host of oversight committees.

Can this model not link with the Office of the President where critical shades of societal opinion are represented, accommodated and heard and help shape policy? Can the Presidency and team he/ she leads represent the finest in integrity, courage and optimism this nation can present? Can we see the day in the words of Havel, we prosper humanely and a Government of the people returns!


Philosophical notions

Back several decades, Czech President Vaclav Havel, a principled president who described himself as “a realist who carries hope and hope is the belief that freedom and justice have meaning... and that liberty is always worth the trouble.” Havel’s advocacy of collective action included an end to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, support for democratic activists in Cuba, Zimbabwe, China, Burma and beyond. His preoccupation was not the acquisition of liberty; it was the use of liberty for the right purposes.

Vaclav Havel spoke about the concepts of love, friendship, mercy, humility and forgiveness.

He captured his thoughts as –

Learning to Believe Again - Freedom and democracy he said meant joint participation and shared responsibility. The concept of participation and responsibility encompassing many stands of society requires a greater appreciation of respective roles and responsibilities.

Prospering, Humanely - A republic that is independent, free, and democratic, a republic with economic prosperity and also social justice, and a humane republic that serves man and that for that reason also has the hope that man will serve it. . . .

The People Hold Sway - Your Government, my people, has returned to you.


How a President leads nation

What could be the traits found in an ideal President when he/she leads the nation?

Effectiveness as a Public Communicator - Because the presidency is a job that calls for teaching and preaching, communication with the public is important. The president communicates his/her goals, vision, and priorities to citizens, media, and members of the executive staff.

Organisational capacity - Because the president requires an extensive personal support system to do his/her job, organisational capacity is crucial. A president’s ability to forge an effective team of staffers and Cabinet members who present varied, well-informed opinions, who work on behalf of the president fairly and effectively, and who carry out the objectives of the administration without redundancy or wasted resources.

Political skill - Because he/she must navigate his way through the checks and balances of a gridlock-prone political system, political skill is necessary. Can and will the president cross party lines to achieve a political goal? How well does he/she interact with members of Parliament? What is his/her reputation in political circles?

Vision - Skill can be used to make bad and counterproductive decisions, so a realistic policy vision is important. A president’s ability to inspire, in addition to his understanding of policies and their feasibility, and his possession of overarching goals for the nation.

Cognitive style - The president’s cognitive capacities bear on his/her ability to process the flood of advice and information that comes his way.

Emotional intelligence - The presence or absence of emotional intelligence determines whether a president can stand the pressures of his job and whether he allows his feelings to get out of control, subverting his/her leadership.


Assessing a successful Presidency

When a nation reflects on a Presidency or when they stand for re-election how does one assess their success? Here are some ideas.

First, we assess the external factors that a president faces when serving in office and how well he /she deals with those situations, events, and crises. Next, we examine his/her ratings in public opinion polls throughout his/her presidency. Finally, we can analyze his/her legislative success in implementing their campaign promises. A thorough study of the presidency should include all three of these measures,

Effective presidents have a strategic vision and a direction in which they want to lead the country. They are concerned with big issues and big challenges and seek to explain their vision in a way that allows people to understand their circumstances and develop confidence in those proposals.

The consistency of purpose but a willingness to change strategy in moments of crisis.

A successful president must have an internal self-confidence. A good president doesn’t wet his finger in the morning and put it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing, but has core values and confidence in self.

The fifth characteristic of a successful President is a recognition that the responsibility of leadership causes a president to have a healthy respect for public opinion, but not to be dictated to by opinion polls. 

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