Twenty five years of non-action | Sunday Observer

Twenty five years of non-action

13 January, 2019
Placard bearing Aluth Piyapath activists at the Fort Railway Station
Placard bearing Aluth Piyapath activists at the Fort Railway Station

It was the 1978 Constitution by former President J.R. Jayewardene which transformed Sri Lanka’s political system from the British Westminster model to a hybrid presidential system based on the US and French models, elevating the Presidency from a figurehead to an active head of state. The country has had the system of Executive Presidency for the past 40 years. However, its apparent flaws caused former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, to be elected on the promise of abolishing the Executive Presidency, in 1994. Twenty-five years on with two Presidents later, the country still struggles to abolish the Executive Presidency.

The past two months were gruelling for the country’s political and civil society activists. Following the battle for democracy which was fought and eventually won, the groups have refused to rest. Holding press conferences and several demonstrations this week, they all announced a new battle, this time against the Executive Presidential system in Sri Lanka.

Leading the way on the day was trade unionist and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna politburo member K.D Lalkantha. According to Lalkantha, the activist groups had come to an agreement to form a common platform in their fight to rid the country of the Executive Presidency. Calling themselves the ‘People’s Movement to Abolish Executive Presidency’ (PMAEP) they converged in Colombo on Monday to make a dramatic announcement.

“In the past, we have taken part in a number of struggles both separately and together protect democracy,” Lalkantha said referring to the group’s recent activism against what it identified as a political coup. However, understanding the need to form a stronger coalition of powers to continue the fight resulted in the formation of the new group.

The new movement will take to the streets on January 14 at 3 pm near the Fort Railway station, Lalkantha said. The group’s fight in the streets against the Executive Presidency will continue till its eventual abolishment through the implementation of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. “Many leaders had promised but failed to deliver,” he said, adding that it is clear that there are three parties who are vying for power and are interdependent on each other to reach that end.

In the JVP stalwart’s view, the defeat of the political coup engineered on October 26, is only temporary. “The violations of the Constitution continues,” he said. According to Lalkantha, the power to stop these unconstitutional acts is with Parliament. “But if they are failing in this duty, the fight must be taken to the streets,” he said. Lalkantha said all unions, movements and activists will together, launch a struggle to ensure their aim to abolish the Executive Presidency in its current form is achieved.


Aluth Piyapath activists bear aloft a chair to symbolise the Executive Presidency

The Movement aims at a parliamentary system by doing away with the Executive Presidential system. But according to the group, they also accept that the current issues in governance will not be resolved through such action alone. “However, the abolishment of the Executive Presidency will be a significant achievement,” Lalkantha said.

Joining him at the inaugural press briefing was veteran novelist Keerthi Welisarage. Expressing his support for the cause, Welisarage said that the Executive Presidency is a stumbling block to the development of Sri Lanka.

“Criticism in various forms against the office has been presented in the last forty years” he said adding that the critics had no personal agenda in expressing their critical views. “It is a flawed system that hands excessive power to one individual which is detrimental to the country” the veteran author said.

Welisarage said that though the society often remembered past criticism, of the Executive Presidency politicians on the other hand continue to promise its abolition; as the power hunger sets in only strengthens and ensures its further preservation. Claiming that the system is in no way suitable for Sri Lanka he urged the public to unreservedly voice their dissent against its continuation. “The only groups who are resisting its abolishment are those riding on the coattails of racism and religious extremism,” he said. Welisarage urged citizens to end the corrupt system to ensure future generations are not burdened with this calamity.

“I was 23 years old when I first joined a movement against the Executive Presidency,” said Mahinda Ratnayake of the Centre for Left organisation. Forty years on, he along with many others continue to fight against it, but with no visible success. Pointing out that many presidential candidates had promised its abolishment, Ratnayake recalled how Sri Lanka Progressive Front (SLPF) presidential candidate of 1994, Nihal Galappaththi relinquished his candidacy following Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s promise on abolishing the Executive Presidency.

Having reduced the powers vested in the office of the President through the 19th Amendment, Ratnayake said this was only possible due to the fears of Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming the unofficial ‘Monarch of Sri Lanka’ in the 18th Amendment. “As evidenced from the country’s past when the leaders cannot resolve socio-economic issues they always tried to centralise governing power to launch a campaign of suppression against any possible uprising” he noted.

According to Ratnayake, the Executive Presidency has always been a tool of suppression. “Therefore, the 20th Amendment must be pushed forward supported by a people’s struggle” he stressed. Holding its own press conference this week the National Bhikkhu Front (NBF) expressed similar sentiments. Ven. Wakmulle Uditha Thera, Secretary , BNF claimed that the organisation will gather support from the Sangha to ensure the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, thereby abolishing the Executive Presidency.

“In the next two weeks we will educate the Maha Sangha and dayakayas in every temple in the country regarding the proposed 20th Amendment,” he said adding that the organisation has plans of discussions with prominent Buddhist clergy to garner their support. “With the clergy playing a major role in this fight our aim is to create an awareness on the flaws of the post among them,” he said, adding that today only a few Bhikkhus favour the Executive Presidency.

While the people’s struggle to abolish the Executive Presidency will officially begin on January 14, one group of the Movement, Aluth Piyapath (The New Wings) already held a demonstration in Colombo. Its organisers were confident that 2019 will be the year that Sri Lanka abolishes the Executive Presidency which plagued the country for over four decades.

To denote its significance, the group held a mock funeral for the office of the Executive Presidency in front of the Colombo Fort Railway station on Tuesday and similar demonstrations throughout the week at main cities including Matara, Galle, Polonnaruwa and Hambantota. The group had sworn it will not request yet another Executive President to abolish the post and will conduct islandwide demonstrations to ensure its demise.