Ending Executive Presidency

While the president himself has not formally declared his candidature for a presidential election later this year, his proxies have done so and the machinery to run for election is being set up.

3 mins read
President Ranil Wickremesinghe [ File Photo ]

The Friday Forum has made a welcome reappearance after a somewhat long absence, an event which we warmly welcome. We carry the statement the group released a couple of days ago in this issue of our newspaper and urge readers to digest the commentary set out with due diligence. Its signatories are persons of the utmost integrity and achievement in academia and elsewhere who are not political activists or aspirants – though they undoubtedly hold political opinions – and their viewpoint on contemporary national development deserve the consideration of all thinking people. In their statement, Friday Forum while elaborating of many ongoing shortcomings in the governance of the country has socked home the point that the “toxic” executive presidency must be ended this year.

The week that passed saw the issue of a short bulletin by the President’s Media Division (PMD) which said among other things that the presidential election that is due this year will be held as constitutionally mandated. Obviously, this statement, issued on the directions of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was a clear reaction to ongoing rumours/ accusations/ allegations, or whatever label you may choose to stick on it, that machinations are afoot not to hold these elections as due now crowding the public space. Given that it has only been a few months since this country watched with wide open mouths the spectacle of nominations for local elections being duly received and polling dates set, but the election not held on grounds that there was no money to fund it, who can blame anybody for being suspicious of the possibility of any kind of villainy being afoot? The PMD may have signed off its bulletin less formally than the customary “By His Excellency’s Command” as many communications from his office conclude. But the message remains the same.

Dr. Nihal Jayawickreme, an eminent legal academic in an article in the opposite page asks “why on earth the PMD bulletin was issued to assert the obvious?” Why indeed. “Was it to stifle the movement for restoring the parliamentary executive that appears to be gaining wide public support?” he has asked. As is very well known to all Lankans, we have had several presidents elected to office promising the electorate that they would abolish the executive presidency fathered on us in 1978 by President J.R. Jayewardene, swept into office with an unprecedented five sixths parliamentary majority a year earlier. The highly respected British journal, The Economists, once called JRJ “Junius Rex,” deliciously punning on his name and monarchical attitudes which made him publicly proclaim that there was nothing he could not do under his constitution “except make a man a woman or vice versa.”

While Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena vowed to the electorate that they would abolish the executive presidency, none of them did so. In fact, Rajapaksa engineered a constitutional amendment abolishing the previous two-term limit to give himself a third term and disastrously lost the 2015 presidential election to Sirisena, touted as a “common opposition candidate” and was elected to office on UNP votes. Sirisena who now says that he’ll raise “both hands to abolish the executive presidency” was able to welsh on his campaign promise perhaps on account of the untimely death of Ven. Madulwawe Sobhitha, who along with the UNP were the major factors in his election. Rajapaksa who recently went on record that he stood for the abolition of the executive presidency admitted he enjoyed holding that office.

President CBK, now making a reappearance in the political scene following her role in securing the “common opposition” nomination for Sirisena in 2015, came closest to abolishing the executive presidency with a new draft constitution, finalized after consultations with the major opposition, with an ironclad guarantee of abolishing the office. But a transitional provision for her to exercise the powers of that office until the end of her term, allegedly introduced without consultation with other stakeholders, resulted in the UNP setting fire, in the chamber of the House, to that document presented to parliament by then Constitutional Affairs Minister GL Peiris, in August 2000. There are those who believed then President Kumaratunga may have been persuaded to back down on those provisions but that was not to be and Kumaratunga served two full terms as executive president till November 2005.

While the president himself has not formally declared his candidature for a presidential election later this year, his proxies have done so and the machinery to run for election is being set up. While the Rajapaksa have not said that Ranil will be the SLPP candidate at such an election, insisting that their candidate will be presented at the “right time,” individuals and sections of their party have indicated their backing for Wickremesinghe. The president seizes every possible opportunity to call upon the opposition to join the government to revive the economy but does not himself show the slightest sign of cooperating with the opposition on anything. Anura Kumara Dissanyake, leader of the NPP/JVP and Sajith Premadasa are declared candidates. Nihal Jayawickreme has found hilarious the demand of Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella of the SJB that the presidential election be first held and thereafter the executive presidency abolished. However events may unfold, there is a clear public perception that this outcome is highly desired by the country.

Friday Forum has bluntly said in its statement: “The time has come for us as citizen to demand that the abolition of the Executive Presidency is realized as a matter of urgency in 2024. It is a toxic model of governance that has damaged public institutions. All the major political parties of this country made this promise and never fulfilled it……”

Manik De Silva

Manik De Silva is the Editor of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly published by Upali Newspapers Ltd.

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