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Inquiry into the evolution of the executive presidency in Sri Lanka

Sunimal Hettiarachchi

Discussions are taking place again about the executive presidency at the time of the 24th death anniversary and 114th birth anniversary of Mr. J. R. Jayawardena who was the founder of the executive presidential system, the second republican constitution of 1978, and Sri Lanka’s first executive president.

Except for one occasion after 1978 discussions came to light on either to abolish the executive presidential system or to curtail the powers of the executive presidential system. But this time discussions have taken place as a result of taking measures to go back to the executive presidential system.

The executive presidency was introduced to the local political system by the second republican constitution of 1978. The United National Party Government which was able to obtain a 5/6th majority in parliament under the leadership of Mr. J. R. Jayawardena took steps in that regard. The United National Party which won a landslide victory at 1977 general election washed out the opposition political parties by getting a massive 5/6th power in parliament. SLFP which is one of the two main political parties in the country was reduced to 8 seats in parliament.

Tamil United Liberation Front for the first time became the main opposition in parliament by getting 9 seats. The leader of that party Mr. A. Amirthalingam became the leader of the opposition in parliament. Steps were taken to introduce the second republican constitution in 1978 at a time when the government was overwhelmed with the victory mindset by reducing the total number of opposition seats in parliament to 17.

Introducing the new executive presidential system President J. R. Jayawardena said that the post only could not convert a man into a woman and a woman into a man. The founder of the post said apart from that, the post could do anything with its power. He introduced the system as a new state administration model for accelerated development of the country. However, Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and other leftist opposition parties said it is a dictatorship that would destroy democracy in the country.

When the Peoples’ Alliance won the general election in 1994 defeating the United National Party government, it had ruled the country continuously for 17 years under the executive presidential system. Alliances led by Sri Lanka Freedom Party has ruled the country for 21 years under the executive presidency. Although Mr. Maithrepala Sirisena held that post as the chairman and general secretary of SLFP it was a national government maintained by the two main political parties in the country and Mr. Sirisena’s was a time period of four years with curtailed executive powers of the post. Only the SLFP group supported him. However, at various times the country has been ruled under various executive presidents for 42 years. Among them are presidents J. R. Jayawardena, Ranasinghe Premadasa, D. B. Wijethunge, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapakse, Maithrepala Sirisena, and present President Gotabhaya Rajapakse.

Constitutional experts including N. M. Perera and Colvin R. De Silva who represented the then left and leaders of Sri Lanka Freedom Party who understood the gravity of the executive presidency opposed it.  Today’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, as well as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse who is leading the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna and many leaders, then represented the opposition to that. Among them are Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Professor Thissa Vitharana who represent the leftist political parties. Some of them were imprisoned after being arrested for fighting against the post of executive president. However, the executive presidency was introduced when the opposition was weak and amid their protests of hoisting black flags, sit in on roads, and various other agitations.

With that a new political chapter opens in the country. Thereafter at each presidential as well as general election manifesto, the strong political slogan of SLFP led opposition political parties, except the UNP was the need to show the country about the necessity to abolish the executive presidential system. Alliances led by Sri Lanka Freedom Party has signed agreements with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in that regard. In 1999 Mrs. Chandrika Kumarathunge and in 2005 Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse signed agreements with Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna to abolish the executive presidential system.

By that time the United National Party was also changing its policy methodically about the executive presidency. For the first time in the 1999 presidential election, United National Party candidate Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe mentioned it in the manifesto presented to the country. The manifesto had proposed a presidential post with less executive powers and a prime minister with some powers, transferring certain powers to parliament. Therefore the executive presidency was the bid kept for the longest time in the country’s politics.

When the war was at the peak a discussion on continuing executive presidency took place in the country. During the second term of President Mahinda Rajapakse the limit imposed by the constitution to work in the executive presidential post two times, was removed by the 18th amendment to the constitution. The highest point of the post was amending the constitution enabling to hold the president’s post for any number of times. However, the presidential election manifesto presented by President Mahinda Rajapakse for the 2010 presidential election and for the 2015 presidential election proposed a system where certain powers of the executive presidency are curtailed and the parliament and the prime minister are given some powers. Although such a discussion did not take place in 2019 Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna led by Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapakse promised to remove the deformity to state administration by the 19th amendment to the constitution. It was said that the 19th amendment would be abolished to achieve the aim. However, it has not mentioned going back to the executive presidential post again.

But actions are being taken toward that. Again it is happening under a government which has won a huge power of nearly a two-thirds majority in parliament. The government can have a mentality that it is capable to do whatever at whatever time in parliament. As such it is too early to say about the final result of emergency activities taking place without a proper discussion even in the government. However, democracy in the country has been endangered more or to fewer extents under various presidents. Today everyone is watching the way how that debate is moving forward from here.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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