20A: Power to the people, not to a single individual - Vijitha Herath | Sunday Observer

20A: Power to the people, not to a single individual - Vijitha Herath

Vijitha Herath
Vijitha Herath

Over the years, since its introduction in 1978, criticisms against the Executive Presidency have been mounting with consecutive governments promising to abolish it, only to fail in honouring the promises. As a result, on May 22 this year the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) took it upon itself to present the 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution which seeks to abolish the Executive Presidency in its current form while distributing the powers vested in the post between the Cabinet, Parliament and the Constitutional Council.

Following inputs by the Attorney General and having it gazetted in July, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya allowed for the Draft Bill of the 20th Amendment to be presented officially in the House, this week.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer this week, JVP Parliamentarian Vijitha Herath discussed the party’s preparations to ensure the abolishing of the Executive Presidency, their real motives behind the agitation and the necessity of ridding the country of the controversial post.

According to Herath who had the honour of presenting the Draft Bill of the 20th Amendment to Parliament, this is the first victory towards abolishing the Executive Presidency and all its evils which have plagued society and the country, to date.

“It is a dictatorship in the guise of an executive presidency,” Herath said adding that the JVP has always been in the stance that the country must do away with the post. “Therefore, we have agitated continuously by way of protests and interventions in Parliament” he pointed out.

Therefore, being able to finally present the Draft Bill of the 20th Amendment to Parliament on September 5, is a victory by itself to the JVP, he says.

With the government lacking a Minister dedicated to Constitutional Affairs, the Draft Bill has now been forwarded to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe so the Government could present their views during the next six months. While hoping the Government would speed up the process so that it could be presented for a third reading prior to holding a vote, Herath says, the JVP will now step up efforts to gain the support of political parties as well as the citizens, for the process.

“Meantime, we will commence official discussions with all political parties, separately,” he said, adding that all ideas and opinions will be welcome. “They have every right to request amendments” Herath affirmed. According to him, the JVP will accept reasonable requests by the parties. With no official dates having been set for discussions yet, however, Herath says, the JVP is confident they can garner the necessary support to get the 20A approved, and thereby abolish the Executive Presidency.

“In the current political scenario no leader of any party is in a position to win a Presidential election,” he said. Therefore, according to him, it is likely that many parties will seek to support its abolishment. He also claims, many parliamentarians are individually favourable to their proposal. “They have expressed their agreements individually, and this is why the JVP was able to present the Draft Bill in Parliament this week” he said.

However, rumours have been rife that the 20A will be favourable to various political parties or figures, an allegation he denies. “We are presenting this in good faith for the betterment of the country, to ensure that democracy is strengthened,” he said, adding that despite accusations the new amendment will not favour a single party or individual.

“It would not transfer the powers of the President to the Prime Minister as claimed by some, falsely” he clarified. Instead, the powers will be vested in the Cabinet, Parliament and the Constitutional Council. “It will empower the people as opposed to one person,” Herath says.

Meanwhile, he also denied allegations that the Draft includes sections that could lead to the country being divided. “This is all false propaganda by various individuals with vested interests,” he said. According to him, the JVP assures that the Draft contains no such sections. Herath says, “The JVP strives for a unitary Sri Lanka, and will not allow any sections detrimental to the country to be added to the proposed amendment. Hence, the so-called patriots can rest assured and support the 20A.” Herath says, there is a plethora of false propaganda being spread against the 20A among which is that a rich and powerful person could obtain the Presidency. “What is the rationale in such a move when the position is merely ceremonial?” he asks.

According to him, the people have only had bad experiences under the Executive Presidency due to its far-reaching powers, and therefore, it is of utmost importance to ensure its abolishment, now. “Under the Presidency in its current form we saw that elections could be delayed or rigged, while criminals and corrupt individuals were protected by those in power itself,” he says adding that, worse still, it appeared Presidents could be bought off. “For example, China Harbour was able to do this,” he says, warning that if a President could be so easily bought, a country could be similarly taken over by powerful entities.

The JVP urges all parties to support the cause without thinking of personal gain. Despite being positive Herath says, in the instance of failing to garner political support, the 20A will have to be put forward for a people’s referendum.

According to Herath, in such an instance it is the duty of the Sri Lankan people to support the Amendment. “They must help us defeat this arbitrary system of government,” he said, stressing that the benefit will be for the people and not the JVP. As a result, the JVP has now commenced its 10,000 public meetings program under the theme of ‘Rata Hadana, Rata Rakina, Janathawadi Palanayak’. “We see many members of the UNP and the SLFP attending these meetings where we discuss how to develop the country and fix its many issues,” Herath said. The JVP stalwart says, most come in search of an alternative option.

“At these meetings, we also discuss the 20A, to make people understand its importance for democracy in the country,” he said. The JVP is joined by professionals and academics during these meetings to drive their point even further.

But, in a political scenario with figures such as Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appearing to prepare for the upcoming presidential election, many have expressed doubts if the JVP could gather the necessary support to abolish the Presidency.

Herath says, the Rajapaksas are merely trying to deflect people from the internal conflict within the Rajapaksa family and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). “They are just stringing people on to gain votes by making them believe that Rajapaksa can once again come to power,” Herath says, stressing that it is clear he is not able to, and there is no question about it.

As a result, Herath urges the people not to be misled by the false propaganda put forward by a political system which is self-serving.

“The Executive Presidency has continuously kept pushing the country back, and in the past Presidents were a law unto themselves” Herath says. Therefore, he says, abolishing the Executive Presidency will ensure that a person’s vagaries of mind cannot be put into action to the detriment of the country.

“The Cabinet and Parliament are mere puppets today,” he said, claiming it will change with the 20A, while ensuring democracy in the country.