With the Easter Sunday attacks and the fallout from terrorism holding the attention of the country in the past few weeks, a critical aspect of the country’s governance has once again been relegated to a footnote, in the discussions that relate to Sri Lanka’s future. The issue of the Executive Presidency (EP) which occupied centre [...]


Easter Sunday attacks reconfirm need to abolish Executive Presidency


With the Easter Sunday attacks and the fallout from terrorism holding the attention of the country in the past few weeks, a critical aspect of the country’s governance has once again been relegated to a footnote, in the discussions that relate to Sri Lanka’s future. The issue of the Executive Presidency (EP) which occupied centre stage in the 2015 Presidential Election campaign and figured on and off in the national debate thereafter, is once again off the national agenda.

The main argument by the proponents of the EP that, it is required to ensure the protection of the security of the State and the safety of the people, was blown sky high by the Easter Sunday attacks. The terrorist attacks once again demonstrated that the EP is utterly incapable of ensuring the protection of the day-to-day lives of the people.

The Easter Sunday attacks only confirmed what the country knew and had experienced in the past.

When the seeds of the LTTE insurrection manifested itself in 1975, with the killing of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah, there were only 13 members in the LTTE. Under the EP, which was introduced in 1978, the LTTE grew exponentially, and became a powerful terrorist movement that wrought havoc on the country and on all sections of society.

It was during the EP that the attacks on the Central Bank, the Dalada Maligawa, the Sri Mahabodhi as well as the worshippers in the mosques in Eravur and Katankuddy, took place. Even the Army headquarters was infiltrated and a suicide bomber attempted to kill Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. The then Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse too, narrowly escaped an LTTE attack.

During the period of the EP several political leaders were killed, including President R. Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Appapillai Amirthalingam, Sam Tambimuttu and M.H.M. Ashraff, to name a few. President Chandrika Bandaranike was another victim who was badly injured in an LTTE attack. The list is endless and is further testimony that the EP cannot ensure the safety and security of even its leaders, let alone the people.

The final defeat of the LTTE in 2009 could in no way be attributed to the EP. It was due to a multitude of other reasons unconnected to the EP. The international climate against terrorism, after the 9/11 attacks in the USA and the LTTE’s own failed strategy of over extending themselves, were two of the many reasons that helped the Government to defeat the LTTE. This could even have been achieved by a Parliamentary form of Government, and did not require an EP.

There are many similar achievements of Governments with a Parliamentary system in world history. The example that immediately comes to mind is the victory achieved by Great Britain in World War II, under a collective Parliamentary system of Government headed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Another factor that is problematic in the EP is that, it creates two centres of power, namely the President and the Prime Minister, continuously creating conflicts in Governance. April 21, 2019 proved this at a terrible cost to the country.

The EP becomes strong only if both the President and Prime Minister are from the same party. In such a situation, the position of Prime Minister is superfluous, because he will have no powers. One recalls the lament of Prime Minister R. Premadasa under President J.R. Jayewardene, when he complained that he did not have the power of even a peon. On the other hand, if a strong Prime Minister emerges from a party other than that of the President, it will be a national catastrophe.

Under the EP set up in 1978, Sri Lanka has been characterised by a serious crisis in governance, which has prevented the country from realising its true potential.

While the infirmities of the political leadership have played a big part in Sri Lanka’s abortive attempts to move forward and provide its people with a decent lifestyle, systemic flaws such as the EP have contributed, in no small measure, to the failures in governance.

The abolition of the EP will not guarantee an overnight change in the quality of Governance but, will undoubtedly, facilitate good governance.

President Jayewardene who conceptualised and institutionalised the EP, described the Institution as one that ‘would not be subject to the whims and fancies of Parliament. In a democracy, Parliament is made up of elected representatives of the sovereign people. It is through Parliament that the people exercise their power to govern themselves.

In the scheme of things of the 1978 Constitution, the EP 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 EP is, by its very definition, ‘anti democratic’. When the enormous powers vested in the EP are examined, it is self evident that the very concept is the very antithesis of democracy.

At the time the 1978 Constitution was being enacted, Left leaders such as Dr. N.M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva drew attention to the authoritarian nature of the EP and the consequent dangers to the democratic character of the State. But even they did not foresee the consequences the system would have on the security of the country, as witnessed on April 21st.

However, as is generally the case, wise words are never heeded by politicians and it has taken more than 3 decades of the EP for politicians across the political divide to wake up to the gravity of the situation, and conclude that the EP must go. The latest to do so is UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera, who, on Friday, publicly called for the abolition of the EP.

Objectively speaking, Sri Lanka’s experience of the EP has been an unmitigated disaster, with the period of its existence being described as the worst period in post-independent history. It has also disempowered Parliament, creating a category of servile, sycophantic, opportunistic politicians without any vision, who are unable to make any meaningful contribution to the formulation of National and Legislative policy.

In contrast to the EP system, under the Westminster system, the Prime Minister has to come to Parliament and answer questions and defend government policy. He has the opportunity to interact with members of Parliament of all political hues and be exposed to a wide range of views, which helps him keep his feet on the ground.

The country’s experience of the EP has been one where the incumbent is more influenced by advisors and others not accountable to the people, while the Cabinet is often reduced to rubber stamping the President’s views.

Another myth that helped perpetuate the EP was the mistaken notion that it helped the minorities. But finally, the bubble seems to have burst, and minority opinion has come round to the view that, in fact, more harm than good has come out of this institution. The most recent proof of this is the terror attacks on Christians and Catholics on Easter Sunday, as well as attacks on Muslim places of worship and businesses in Kurunegala and Minuwangoda last month, as well as the continuing hate campaign going on against Muslims countrywide.

Those who claim that the LTTE could not have been defeated, if not for the EP, forget that, even greater wars like the World Wars have been won by collective leaderships, rather than individual-centred leaderships.

The argument that the EP should be abolished, only if it is done simultaneously with a change from the current system of Proportional Representation to a mixed electoral system, is not without merit. The concern is that, mere abolition of the EP, without Electoral Reforms, could result in unstable Governments.

In 1994, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, probably, opted to go for a comprehensive Constitutional Reform process, to abolish the EP, rather than a piecemeal Amendment, precisely for this reason. If a stand-alone Amendment to abolish the EP had been adopted in 1994, her Government would have been rendered unstable, as it only had a majority of 1 in Parliament.

One of the many ways such a danger of instability can be overcome is by providing for a specified number of bonus seats to be allocated to the political party that wins the General elections.

The other major concern of those who have reservations about the abolition of the EP is the impact of such a move on the 13th Amendment. These fears relate to whether the removal of a strong EP from the Constitutional Architecture can facilitate any secessionist tendencies in the Provinces.

This, too, is not a matter that is difficult to address. The Constitutional Assembly proceedings initiated by the Government, have thrown up some ideas to deal with these fears. Although the EP will be abolished, there will still be a President who would wield certain powers laid down in the Constitution. Such a President will be the Head of State and Commander of the Armed Forces. He will have the power to declare war and peace.

The institution of the Presidency that replaces the EP could be Constitutionally entrusted with the power to take steps to prevent any secessionist moves, if and when such moves are made.

The inclusion of such provisions are made easier by TNA Leader R. Sampanthan having already agreed in the Constitutional Assembly deliberations, to the inclusion of such anti secessionist provisions in any new Constitution.

Abolition of the EP is imperative, following the tragic events of April 21,2019.


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