Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Is Sri Lanka's Presidency here to stay?

It is now 27 years since the Presidential system of Government was introduced (in 1978), making the people vote twice - for an Executive, i.e. the President, and for the Legislature, i.e. Parliament.



During the debate when then Prime Minister J. R. Jayewardene moved a constitutional amendment to introduce the Presidential system of government more like that of France than the US, he argued that a developing country like Sri Lanka required strong leadership and a President immune to the fluctuating fortunes of Parliament.



In the flush of the biggest electoral victory in the country’s history, President Jayewardene steamrolled through. The only issue was that even if he was fit to assume the mantle of the Republic’s first Executive President, what about those to follow?



His own handling of the job has been subject to much debate, especially the Referendum he held in 1982 in lieu of a general election so that he could maintain his five-sixth majority in Parliament. With his exit the baton was passed down to a ‘man of the people’, R. Premadasa.



President Premadasa’s term was turbulent. Then with his assassination came the benign figure of D.B. Wijetunga, followed by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who satellite-like shot to stardom.



At the 1994 Presidential elections, the Peoples’ Alliance candidate Chandrika Kumaratunga promised she would abolish the Presidency and her erstwhile confidant Prof. G.L. Peiris even set a date by which this would be done - July 15, 1995.



The JVP put forward a candidate for that election - Nandana Gunathillake - but realising they did not want an electoral drubbing like what their founder Rohana Wijeweera faced in the 1982 Presidential poll, got its candidate to eventually withdraw on an assurance given by Ms. Kumaratunga that she would abolish the Presidency and revert to the Westminster Parliamentary system.



Ms. Kumaratunga swept in, receiving a stunning 62 per cent of the votes polled. Then came July 15, 1995 - and it was the UNP that asked what happened to the promise?



The UNPers organised a protest. They - and the journalists covering the event - were met with tear gas and batons by the Presidential Security Division.

But ten years on - in typical Sri Lankan ‘Soda -bottle’ fashion - the Presidential system of Government is no longer a burning issue.



Both Presidential aspirants, the JVP-backed Premier Mahinda Rajapakse and the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe have downplayed this once major issue in their respective manifestos. It is certainly not a subject for television debates and talk shows or at political rallies.



It is very much like the stormy introduction of the Provincial Council system in 1987. The SLFP and the JVP went around, burning buses, electricity pylons and telecom towers in protest. Today they enjoy all the perks the Provincial Council system affords - duty-free cars, free telephones, free travel - all from the peoples’ purse.



Sniffing victory on Nov. 17, neither side wants to dwell too much on the Presidential system of Government because they both know that in this, ‘winner takes all’ election one might as well go for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.



The Prime Minister has said a new constitution which abolishes the Executive Presidency will be introduced with the consensus of all. Until then the Constitution will be amended so that the President is officially accountable to Parliament. The Opposition Leader has said, with optimum brevity, that Presidential powers will be amended.



But, whoever wins the Nov. 17 election, there are serious issues to be ironed out. There is a school of thought that suggests instead of two six-year terms - to have three four-year terms - giving a political leader 12 years, but having to get elected thrice; that six-year terms are too long and complacency sets in; that the country tends to get too polarised on party lines; that there should be a fixed date for the assumption of office and for elections (like in the US), to avoid the confusion that arose this time, not least with the secret second oaths ceremony.



There is the need to strengthen the President’s Office with public servants and advisors of standing rather than those who are sub-standard material.



But the fact of the matter is that the winner of the Nov. 17 election is not going to give up his powers easily. Mr. Wijetunge swore he would, but didn’t. Ms. Kumaratunga said she would, but didn’t.



So has the Presidential system of Government, come to stay in Sri Lanka? Or are we to simply say “For forms of Government, let fools contend; That which is best administered, is best”. And leave it at that?



The question now before us as we go to the polls is, who will use the awesome powers of the President’s office for the country’s gain and not his own or his party’s or his coalition’s, and to whom we can entrust this Presidential system of Government, that seems to have come to stay.