Dr. Wickramaratne
Dr. Wickramaratne

The days of the ‘Executive Presidency,’ the introduction of which through the 1978 Constitution has caused much controversy over the course of nearly four decades, now appear to be numbered. This was after President Maithripala Sirisena introduced a note to his Cabinet Ministers detailing plans to abolish the executive presidency and introduce a new electoral system.

President Sirisena had earlier made a pledge at the nationally televised funeral of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera that he will ensure that the Executive Presidency is abolished at the end of his first term.

While the government did manage to get the 19th Amendment passed through Parliament which somewhat curtailed the powers of the executive presidency, it is still very much intact. As such, the Sirisena government has been facing increasing criticism that it was failing to fulfil its key pledges.

It is in this backdrop that fresh moves are now being made for the complete abolishing of the executive presidency. The government now plans to introduce a new Constitution altogether.

A Cabinet sub-committee under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been appointed regarding the abolition of the executive presidency, drafting a new Constitution and amending the electoral system. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s office, meanwhile, has already published a ‘Parliamentary Resolution on Constitutional Assembly.’ Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is expected to present this motion in Parliament on January 9, 2016.

Accordingly, the entire Parliament will sit as a Constitutional Assembly. The Constitution Bill drafted by it will have to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and at a nation-wide Referendum.

In his column in the ‘Daily Mirror’ on May 2, 2015, veteran political analyst D.B.S. Jeyaraj observed that J.R. Jayewardene had long been a champion of this system who at a speech made on December 14, 1966, had outlined his vision for the executive presidency based on US and French models.

“The executive will be chosen directly by the people and is not dependent on the legislature. Such an executive is not subject to the whims and fancies of an elected legislature; not afraid to take correct but unpopular decisions because of censure from its parliamentary party,” he had stated in his speech, according to Jeyaraj.

Since the introduction of the 1978 Constitution, Sri Lanka has had six executive presidents. All have been accused at various times of abusing the sweeping powers afforded to them by the Constitution. This was precisely why the 19th Amendment was introduced.

The main argument made by the backers of the executive presidency is that it is needed for political stability and in the absence of such system governments could be toppled frequently by no-confidence motions.

However, UNP National List MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, who was one of the chief architects of the 19th Amendment, dismissing this argument told this newspaper that this point is without merit. “This is an old argument which has been very clearly rejected by the people of this country at the January Presidential Election.” “If you take a list of the most stable countries in the world, you will see that almost all of them are parliamentary democracies,” Dr. Wickramaratne further noted. The MP cited the example of India; the largest democracy on earth, which is not toppled with rapid frequency.

“I’m for total abolition,” Dr. Wickramaratne said. He also defended the process that the government has laid out in order to abolish it completely, pointing out the entire Parliament would sit as a Constitutional Assembly in order to arrive at a consensus and that this would be placed before the people at a referendum. “What is set out in the Constitution will be followed. There will be no bypassing of due process,” he insisted.