The issue of abolishing the Executive Presidency (EP) has once again come to the forefront of the political agenda, with the JVP announcing they would move a Private Members motion in Parliament to amend the Constitution, to achieve this objective. Not surprisingly, opposition to this move has come from several quarters. Some argue this will [...]


Ven. Sobitha wanted the Executive Presidency abolished –not on an account of the UNHRC or RAW


The issue of abolishing the Executive Presidency (EP) has once again come to the forefront of the political agenda, with the JVP announcing they would move a Private Members motion in Parliament to amend the Constitution, to achieve this objective.

Not surprisingly, opposition to this move has come from several quarters. Some argue this will weaken the Sri Lankan State and that, the EP is required to quell any insurgency or civil war. Others, such as the minority parties, argue that the minorities need the EP, while others argue the EP is required to protect the majority.
These and other arguments have been trashed by various writers over the years, but keep surfacing repeatedly, in pursuance of narrow agendas that do not merit any consideration.

This Column, on Dec.20, 2009, under the caption, ‘Executive Presidency is anti-democratic and it should be abolished’, had this to say of the EP:
“In the scheme of things of the 1978 Constitution, the Executive President is thus insulated from the people, virtually giving the holder of the office a free hand to do as he pleases, without having to consider the views of the voters who elected him.

Thus the Executive Presidency is, by its very definition, ‘anti democratic.’ When the enormous powers vested in the Executive Presidency taken together, with the immunity attached to it, is examined, it is self evident that the very concept is the very antithesis of democracy.”

Farsighted leaders such as Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Dr N.M. Perera, Dr Colvin R. de Silva and others identified and warned of the dangers of an Executive Presidency, at the time it was mooted. Today, we have the benefit of hindsight, with our disastrous experience of 40 years of the all-powerful institution.

The experience has been so compelling that, there is near consensus across the political divide, with all the main national leaders including President Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, Mahinda Rajapakse and Anura Kumara Dissanayake supporting the move to abolish the EP.
The move to abolish the EP in recent times originated in 2012, and was initiated by the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, under the auspices of the National Movement for Social Justice. The Ven. Monk’s passionate leadership in support of this objective culminated in the change that took place on Jan.8, 2015.

Thus it would be incorrect to state, as alleged in some quarters that, this move to abolish the EP is as a result of the resolution moved in the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015 or that, this is part of the ‘RAW’ agenda.

The argument that the EP ensures the Unity of the country and a strong State, has been adequately dealt with by Dr Asanga Welikala, in his edited collection, Reforming Sri Lankan Presidentialism: Provenance, Problems, and Prospects.

He states:

“The argument here is that, the centralising force of the Executive Presidency is needed to contain the fissiparous and potentially secessionist Tamil periphery and, in a more sophisticated variation, the devolution necessary to address Tamil claims to self-government in the North and East, must be countervailed and balanced by the cohering institution of an executive elected on a State-wide basis.”

“This is to conflate two separate issues. The challenge of ethno-territorial pluralism is met by treating minorities with respect and tolerance, including their constitutional claims to autonomy and, in this way, to encourage their loyalty to the unity of the State. To focus on the control potential of Executive Presidentialism is to adopt the opposite approach, which is to treat minorities with suspicion and fear. When this is the basis on which the constitutional order is constructed, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because there is no incentive or moral suasion for minorities to give un-coerced loyalty to the State. Inter-ethnic and centre-periphery relations become a cat and mouse game in which each side is constantly trying to outwit the other, rather than build mutual cooperation. This, therefore, encourages ethnic sectionalism and discourages the Sri Lankan nation-building that proponents of this argument also usually advocate.”

“Moreover, the most successful multinational States in the world – the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Belgium, and more vaguely India – which have managed to preserve their territorial integrity and unity, while allowing autonomy, recognition, and representation for their sub-State minority nations, are all Parliamentary, rather than centralising presidential democracies. The important point appears to be that, in these most difficult of polities to hold together, the democratic and power-sharing potential of Parliamentary government seems to be more successful in ensuring unity, than the authoritarian control of presidentialism exemplified in the Rajapaksa regime’s approach to the North and East, which made for a fundamentally unjust and therefore, chronically unstable constitutional order.”

Dr. Asanga Welikala further argues: “It is also quite specious to equate strong government with presidentialism, when one considers the fact that, Britain acquired, administered, and relinquished without domestic upheaval, the largest empire the world has seen under the Westminster system. And, if presidentialism were needed for a strong State, then a country like India would be ungovernable. India has managed to preserve unity in a context of mind-boggling diversity and become a global economic superpower under its parliamentary system, and its democratic traditions would ensure that its success is far more sustainable and stable – and certainly provide for a happier populace – than the authoritarian regimes of China or Russia.”

Justifying the move to introduce the EP in 1978, J.R. Jayewardene said it would ensure that the Institution “was not subject to the whims and fancies of Parliament which, in effect, meant the representatives of the people would not be able to influence decision-making in governance.

This would mean that the minority representatives would also cease to have any influence in the affairs of Government. This is further confirmed by the experience of the minorities during the past four decades, where they have undergone untold trials and tribulations accompanied by immense suffering.

Dr. Asanga Welikala sums up the situation as follows:

“President Jayewardene’s advisor, Professor A.J. Wilson, came up with this rationale for presidentialism in the abstract, in his early exegesis of the 1978 Constitution.

The scales very soon fell from his eyes. Two recent illustrations will suffice for the purposes of this discussion in debunking this myth. President Rajapaksa won two presidential elections by neutralising the impact of the minority vote. In 2005, he benefited from the boycott enforced by the Tigers in the North and East. In 2010, he banked on the overwhelming support of the Sinhala majority, on the back of the war victory. He governed entirely in the interests of the majority, and either disregarded or humiliated the minorities in so doing. He was not entitled to expect, and neither did he expect, to gain the support of the minorities in 2015. This shows that, in some conditions, it is entirely possible for a majoritarian nationalist to gain and retain the presidency without the minorities, and usually, by adopting an explicitly anti-minority stance.

But, does the overwhelming support of the minorities for President Sirisena in 2015, without which he would not have won, prove the opposite contention? I do not think so, for the reason that the minority vote came unconditionally to him, and what is more, the common opposition was careful to studiously avoid any reference whatsoever to the demands of the minorities, let alone be seen to be promising anything to them, so as to ensure that sufficient numbers of the majority deserted Rajapaksa. All that the minorities are left with after the 2015 presidential election is the goodwill and decency of the new President and his government, to treat them with some sort of respect and, when and if possible, to address their political and constitutional problems. Can this be even remotely regarded as an argument that the presidency ensures the protection of minority interests?”

Another argument for the abolishing of the EP is that, the the process of removing a President who is not responsive to public opinion is complicated, with an impeachment only permissible on limited grounds. Whereas, a Prime Minister is removeable, once he loses the confidence of the majority of Parliament. Those who support the continuation of the EP do not mind the difficulty in impeachment of a President, but grumble at the fact that Parliament cannot be dissolved for four-and-a-half years.

The JVP effort needs to be supported at every level, so that, a long overdue change in the Constitution will be made. Otherwise, it will only add to the growing list of Sri Lanka’s lost opportunities. (

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