Time to discard Executive Presidency | Sunday Observer

Time to discard Executive Presidency

Is the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution all but dead or is it still a viable option for the nation to re-chart its political direction?

Its principal sponsor, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is persisting with the legislation although the chances of it becoming a reality are remote. The JVP this week met even with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who held the office of Executive President twice, and said that its discussions with him were “successful to some extent”.

The proposed 20th Amendment would more or less abolish the Executive Presidency as we know it now and replace it with a Presidency that is mostly ceremonial. The principal executive functions would then revert to the office of the Prime Minister.

The Executive Presidency was the brainchild of the first holder of this office, J. R. Jayewardene. Jayewardene had languished as the leader in waiting of the United National Party (UNP) and the country for decades, before tasting power. Many a time, he had been frustrated by the frequent changes in government which, he argued, thwarted the country’s development efforts. His vision of an Executive Presidency was one which could offer strength and stability to the country for a period of time. Therefore, he extended the duration of the term of office from the customary five to six years. He embellished the Executive Presidency with almost all the powers of Government. Jayewardene’s proud boast at the time was that all he couldn’t do was to ‘turn a man into a woman’.

Jayewardene was succeeded by Ranasinghe Premadasa. Premadasa had his own authoritarian style of government but his term of office was short-lived. Although he managed to survive an impeachment motion against him sponsored by his own party members, he was felled by a suicide bomber.

Chandrika Kumaratunga then assumed office, running her campaign on the slogan of abolishing the Executive Presidency. She termed the 1978 Constitution a ‘bahubootha viyawasthawa’ or nonsensical Constitution. She even set a six-month deadline to abolish the Executive Presidency. Based on that pledge, the JVP sponsored candidate withdrew from the contest. Not only did Kumaratunga not abolish the Executive Presidency, she contested it again and won!

Few recall that Mahinda Rajapaksa who succeeded Kumaratunga also pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency when he first ran for office. When he competed for re-election, that slogan was abandoned. Then, the argument was that the Executive Presidency provided the Government with the stability it needed to defeat terrorism and win the Eelam war.

After Jayewardene, it was Rajapaksa who tinkered with the Constitution the most. His 18th Amendment, passed through Parliament by coaxing, cajoling and coercing MPs, removed the two-term limit on the President, a move that was clearly designed for him to become President for life, a strategy that even Jayewardene, the wily old fox that he was, didn’t think of.

Rajapaksa was also not shy to use the powers at his disposal to further his own agenda. He governed by doling out Cabinet portfolios to whoever was willing to be loyal to him and read the riot act to whoever dared to defy him- as was the case with the then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

It came as no surprise to the Sri Lankan voter that his rival at his bid for an unprecedented third term was Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency. The naïve Sri Lankan voter, instead of being once bitten (by Kumaratunga) twice shy, believed that promise, perhaps because he was the ‘common’ candidate in a movement spearheaded by Maduluwave Sobhitha thera. President Sirisena even repeated his pledge after being elected.

Now, matters are very different indeed. There is every indication that President Sirisena is angling for an opportunity to run again for President. He, more than all his predecessors, used the powers of the Executive Presidency, arbitrarily sacking a Prime Minister, installing his own and then dissolving Parliament- until he was told by the Supreme Court that those decisions were unconstitutional. If there is one person who wouldn’t want the Executive Presidency abolished now, it would be President Sirisena!

Reportedly, the United National Party (UNP) is in favour of abandoning its own baby, the Executive Presidency. The UNP may say that it has been chastened by the experiences of late last year when its Premiership was hijacked and wants a more democratic system, but the reality is that it is not confident of winning the next presidential contest and doesn’t want to be out of power for half a decade.

The UNP has only itself to blame. It has not contested a presidential election for almost fifteen years and has been ‘outsourcing’ its candidacy to others, arguably in the belief that it couldn’t win. It is probably the same belief that now spurs them on to abolish the office.

In his discussion with the JVP, Mahinda Rajapaksa may inform them that he would give the proposed 20th Amendment due consideration- and he may well have to do that. That is only because he is facing difficulties in his own camp about the next presidential candidate.

The self-proclaimed front-runner, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has several handicaps to overcome- United States citizenship, court cases, opposition from within his ranks- and even if he does get nomination, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s position in a Gotabaya Rajapaksa led administration remains uncertain.

These then are the considerations that political parties will take note of when they decide whether to endorse or oppose the proposed 20th Amendment- not lofty ideals about what form of Government would serve the nation best.

The Executive Presidency has now served the country for forty-one years- as opposed to the Prime Ministerial system of Government which lasted thirty years. The ‘constitutional coup’ of late last year showed how frightening it could be in the wrong hands. What saved the day was the 19th Amendment which allowed the courts to intervene. If anything, those events are proof that the time has come for the Executive Presidency to be discarded.

Therefore, if political parties support the 20th Amendment regardless of their motives for doing so, every effort should be made to push it through Parliament and incorporate it into the Constitution- simply because governing our nation is too complicated a matter to be left in the hands of politicians alone.