The National Election Commission (NEC) has rushed to announce dates for the presidential election amidst reports that the SLFP-UNF government hierarchy was making a last-ditch attempt to abolish the executive presidency post-haste. In the unlikely event of the latter happening, the NEC’s almost ‘indecent hurry’ to have a presidential election, would have been defeated. The [...]


Executive Presidency: Let the people decide!


The National Election Commission (NEC) has rushed to announce dates for the presidential election amidst reports that the SLFP-UNF government hierarchy was making a last-ditch attempt to abolish the executive presidency post-haste. In the unlikely event of the latter happening, the NEC’s almost ‘indecent hurry’ to have a presidential election, would have been defeated.

The NEC was smarting over the fact that its straining of every sinew to have provincial elections held, yielded no result. The NEC’s voluble chairman even went to the extent of saying he would resign if they were not held.

Fortunately, he did not walk the talk. So, this time, not to be frustrated again, the NEC rushed to announce dates for the presidential election once news came that an emergency Cabinet meeting and backdoor talks were hurriedly in progress to bring in legislation to abolish the executive presidency. The Cabinet shot the proposal down.

The abolition of the executive presidency is a much debated issue. In fact, it has been the subject of national debate for decades. That it has suddenly been taken up in the national agenda may not necessarily be for altruistic reasons. On the contrary, it appears it has politically motivated undertones and after a long time, the President and the Prime Minister are on the same page.

Just a fortnight ago, we said in this space, that desperate attempts to do away with the executive presidency betray ulterior motives on the part of the country’s ruling troika – the President, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, “but if the final goal is something for the good, the means towards that end is arguably, irrelevant”. This time, it appears the TNA also got into the act to instigate the emergency Cabinet meeting.

The once burning issue of the executive presidency seems to have been jettisoned as top priority in the post-Easter Sunday scenario with national security ranking as the number one issue in the country, even displacing economic issues. That ‘national security’ drum is been beaten particularly to benefit one would-be presidential candidate who has a good track record on that front.

The JVP introduced the 20th Amendment to the Constitution for all intents and purposes, to abolish the executive presidency, but there was feet-dragging by all parties at the time. Suddenly there is a political ‘emergency’ declared and some want to jump on the 20A bus.

Political connotations arise from the Speaker of Parliament coming forward this week to formally throw his hat into the Presidential ring saying he is prepared to contest with the one purpose of abolishing the executive presidency within a year. He has immediately earned the support of civil society groups that backed the incumbent President who came on the same platform with the same solemn pledge only to ignore it like all his predecessors have done since 1994. The public may therefore view the Speaker’s promise with some cynicism, unfair though it may seem. Now, the Speaker may have second thoughts.

The Speaker would have had to contend with receiving his party’s ticket to contest the Presidency while his party’s deputy leader is already in the ring, though seemingly not too hot on the abolition of the executive presidency. The latter is reported to have said there has been no scientific survey on whether the people want to abolish, or continue with the executive presidency. This may not be so, as there have been several informal surveys on the subject. Unlike the Speaker, however, he has left his options open saying it depended on what the people want and criticised the last minute moves to abolish the system. The main Opposition, SLPP, says it is for the abolition byt wants to do it the “correct way”.

The country’s first Executive President J.R. Jayewardene adroitly introduced the executive presidency without directly asking the people. He argued that his manifesto for the 1977 general election titled ‘Towards a Free and Dharmishta Society” referred to this, and the party’s overwhelming victory was as good a mandate as it could be for the introduction of the executive presidency. On page 11 of that manifesto it said; “Executive powers will be given to a President who is elected by the people from time to time …The parliamentary system will be protected under the new Constitution …”.

He then introduced a mere amendment to the 1972 Constitution with his 2/3rd majority in Parliament, and it was only thereafter, in the 1978 Constitution, that he brought in the provision of a referendum (of the people) which is now required in addition to a 2/3rd majority to abolish the executive presidency.

Whether the Government can get the required 2/3rds and the approval of the people at a referendum before a presidential election, now fixed for November 16, is clearly out of the question. However, the President will remain in office till January 8 next year, and the same Parliament will remain till February 2020 unless a vote of No-confidence is brought against the Government.

In these circumstances then, there still is time to implement such a decision, which will then make the forthcoming presidential election of lesser importance, and the newly elected President a virtual lame-duck. That probably is the worry of those pushing for their choice of presidential candidates.

Since the introduction of the referendum provision into the Constitution, there has only been one held, and that too an utterly controversial one in 1982 to extend the life of that 1977 Parliament.

One of the reasons for the reluctance to go to the people for direct consultation through referendums has been the cost factor. Moreover, they are non-binding in that a Government can always choose to ignore the results if it goes against its position.  In the UK, a referendum on whether to leave the European Union has thrown the country into a spin with calls for a second referendum on the footing that the people may not have originally understood the gravity of the question put to them.

A lot depends on the framing of the question at a referendum. But with the issue of whether to continue with the executive presidency or abolish it, a very real one, and on the nation’s agenda, and also, considering the cost of having a separate ‘election’ to decide the issue, the Government may well consider, together with the Opposition, asking the people that very question at a referendum which could be done simultaneously on November 16.  At a US presidential election voters also vote on a number of other Federal and State related issues together with voting for a President.

Many more questions can also be put to the people; for example if Provincial Councils need to continue; or whether SriLankan Airlines needs to be sold; or whether the Death Penalty should be re-introduced. Because we do not have electronic vote counting yet, the counting of those votes can be after the presidential election count. Thereby, they will ascertain the ‘vox populi’ on the executive presidency – and other burning questions in the country.



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