Executive Presidency: used and abused? | Sunday Observer

Executive Presidency: used and abused?

With only weeks to go for the Presidential election, there is again talk of abolishing the Executive Presidency. Reports say that the President and the Prime Minister had met to discuss the issue at the invitation of the President.

Moves to abolish the Executive Presidency are nothing new in this country ever since the Presidential system of Government was introduced by J. R. Jayewardene some forty-one years ago. In fact, promises to abolish the Executive Presidency are the most used and abused political weapon the nation has seen in recent years.

The first to make this pledge was Chandrika Kumaratunga who called Jayewardene’s Constitution a ‘bahubootha viyawasthava’ or a Constitution filled with nonsense. The lady who had an established reputation for tardiness even set herself a deadline of six months to do so. Based on that promise, one of her rivals at the Presidential election withdrew from the contest. That was in 1994. Twenty-five years later, we are still grappling with the issue.

The fact that Kumaratunga was able, despite abjectly failing in her promise, to run again for President five years later, make the same promise and win is testimony to the short memories of Sri Lankan voters.

A few also remember that when Mahinda Rajapaksa first ran for President in 2005, he too promised to abolish the Executive Presidency. Once ensconced in power and re-elected in 2010 on the strength of a war victory, he used the Presidency to the maximum.

Rajapaksa even enacted the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to strengthen the Presidency, removing the two-term limit on an individual holding that office. Thankfully, he has not talked about abolishing the Presidency ever again and he even said that it was the strength of the Presidency that helped him to bring the Eelam war to a finish!

However, the biggest noise about abolishing the Executive Presidency was made in 2015. In a movement that was inspired by the late Maduluwave Sobhitha thera, abolishing the Executive Presidency was the single issue that rallied diverse political parties and civil society organisations around Maithripala Sirisena as a common candidate.

That Sirisena, a politician with mediocre credentials, was able to win against the supposedly invincible Rajapaksa against all odds was an indication on how much the electorate was fed up with Rajapaksa’s arbitrary antics as President.

Even after winning the Presidency, President Sirisena did reiterate several times that he would be a one-term President and that his office would be abolished, but like all promises made by politicians, they were only meant to be broken after they propelled him to high office.

In fact, President Sirisena’s actions as Executive President went above and beyond what any of his predecessors had done. He attempted to remove a lawfully appointed Prime Minister and when that failed, he tried to dissolve Parliament. It took a ruling from the Supreme Court which determined that his actions were unconstitutional to stop him from encroaching on the legislature even further.

Therefore, when the President calls for discussions to abolish the Presidency at the eleventh hour of his term of office when his chances of running for office and being re-elected are virtually zero, one shouldn’t suspect that he has suddenly been imbued with a desire to honour the promises he made four and a half years ago. Rather, it appears to be an escape clause that could earn him a decent place in history.

Let us also be realistic, though. Abolishing the Executive Presidency requires a new Constitution and at least a two-thirds majority in Parliament if not a referendum. The President has none of these at his disposal. With presidential polls due in a few months, there is no time to draft, present, amend and enact a new Constitution.

There is no way the President can muster a two-thirds majority in Parliament for such a project when he couldn’t gather a simple majority to oust his Prime Minister in October last year. The only way a two-thirds majority would be possible is if the United National Party (UNP) and the Joint Opposition (JO) support the plan. It is true that the UNP is struggling to name a presidential candidate but the JO’s allied political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna presidential candidate has been named and its campaign is already up and running. So, why would it want to abolish the Presidency now?

The merits and demerits of the Executive Presidential system have been debated ad nauseam. The last forty-one years have taught us that the ‘system’ is only as good or bad as the holder of that office. J. R. Jayewardene, who boasted that all he could not do under the system was to change a man into a woman, now appears a lot less autocratic comparison to what some of his successors have done!

The Executive Presidential system does need an overhaul, possibly into a largely ceremonial role with only a few powers at the disposal of the President. Whether such a President needs to be elected by the people or whether he or she could be appointed is a matter for deliberation.

For now though, let us face reality: until such time a decent leader comes along and decides as to what is right for the country and not for himself or his party, abolishing the Executive Presidency is a fairy-tale in which we will not live happily ever after.