At the time the 1978 Constitution was enacted, the left parties led by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party pointed out the dangers that could befall a developing country like Sri Lanka from the governance structure that the J R Jayewardene Constitution envisaged. Left leaders like Dr N M Perera and Dr [...]


19A no impediment to smooth functioning of Government


At the time the 1978 Constitution was enacted, the left parties led by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party pointed out the dangers that could befall a developing country like Sri Lanka from the governance structure that the J R Jayewardene Constitution envisaged. Left leaders like Dr N M Perera and Dr Colvin R de Silva argued that the executive presidency would facilitate authoritarian tendencies by centralising power and vesting in one individual enormous authority over and above what was desirable for a democratic country. Sirimavo Bandaranaike herself opposed the 1978 Constitution in no uncertain terms. In fact, when her Government was drafting the 1972 Constitution and J R Jayewardene made the suggestion to establish the executive presidency, she firmly rejected the proposal stating that such an institution was not suitable for the country. Mrs Bandaranaike took up this position despite the fact that she would have been the first beneficiary of all the excessive powers that the executive presidency enjoyed.

Whatever powers that she could have used for her political advantage through the executive presidency did not blind her to the fact that such an institution could do irreparable harm to the country and therefore rejected the proposal outright. J R Jayewardene when introducing the 1978 Constitution stated that the executive presidency would ensure that the head of Government “would not be subject to the whims and fancies of Parliament.”

In fact what J R Jayewardene meant was that the people would not be able to hold the executive president accountable for his acts of omission and commission because the people’s representatives in the Legislature would not have a role overseeing the actions of Government unlike under the Westminster system of Government.

Over four decades have passed since the executive presidency introduced by the 1978 Constitution was installed. During this period the country has witnessed unprecedented bloodshed and loss of life as a result of the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, the JVP insurrection of 1988/1989 and the LTTE-led armed conflict. Under the executive presidency, the communities have drifted apart and mutual suspicion and mistrust has taken centre stage. Also the polity of the country has deteriorated with a growing gap between the executive presidency and the representatives of the people in Parliament.

As a result of the dominant nature of the executive presidency, a servile mindset has developed in the minds of politicians who have surrendered their power to examine national issues critically and reduce them to mere yes men. Former President Maithripala Sirisena in the early days of the Yahapalanaya Government was fond of calling this mentality as a “wahal manasikathwaya” (servile mentality).

As a result of the distancing of the executive presidency from the grassroots, Governments have been unable to keep their fingers on the pulse of the people and detect the diverse strands of thinking in society. As a result of which small problems have grown into intractable conflicts that have bled the country. A classic instance is the armed conflict that raged in the North and East for nearly three decades.

When the 1978 Constitution was introduced, the conflict in the north was in a nascent stage with the LTTE being a small outfit with little support. Under the executive presidency the LTTE grew in numbers into a full blown terrorist group that wreaked havoc all over the country.

The “wahal manasikathwaya” that has characterised the period of the executive presidency is further demonstrated by the behaviour of parliamentarians in relation to the 17th Amendment, 18th Amendment, 19th Amendment and their likely behaviour vis-a-vis the 20th Amendment. There are several Parliamentarians in the current Parliament who voted for the 17th Amendment, then voted for the 18th Amendment and then again for the 19th Amendment. Some of them are now presumably lining up to vote for the 20th Amendment.

These parliamentarians will have to think deeply before deciding on their stand vis-a-vis the 20th Amendment. Supporting 20A, after their previous stands with regard to 17A, 18A and the 19A, will amount to a self indictment with regard to their capacity as legislators. It would amount to an admission that they were unable to identify the shortcomings or the positive features of the respective amendments and therefore had to take contradictory stands at different times. At this point the least that such parliamentarians can do for their own self-respect and dignity is to abstain from voting when the 20th Amendment is placed before the Parliament.

If the 20th Amendment enters the statute book it will amount to a restoring of the executive presidency to its original form. This despite the consensus that had emerged in the country over the years that the executive presidency should be abolished. The two main political formations in the country led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe had reached agreement on this while Mahinda Rajapaksa too endorsed such a view once he took over the leadership of the SLFP.

Since 2012 the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero led a relentless campaign to abolish the executive presidency which he described as a cancer that had eaten into the body politic of the country. It was this campaign that propelled Maithripala Sirisena to power with the primary objective of abolishing the executive presidency. Unfortunately, due to a series of circumstances, the task was not completed and only some powers of the executive president were transferred to the Parliament, while several measures to strengthen democracy were also enacted through the 19A.

One argument against the 19th Amendment that has resonated with some sections of the people is the performance of the Yahapalanaya Government post-19A. The conflict between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe contributed greatly towards the lethargy in governance that characterised their Government. Having been elected on an agreed programme of work together with the wide experience that the two leaders had, they should have been able to iron out their differences and work towards realising the mandate given to them by the people. Unfortunately they failed to do so and the rest, as they say, is history.

Based on the experience of the Yahapalanaya Government, the argument has been trotted out that the 19th Amendment prevents the smooth functioning of Government. The lacklustre performance of the Yahapalanaya Government in office was not due to any inherent defects in the 19th Amendment but purely due to the inability of the two Government leaders to work things out among themselves.

One of the accusations against the Yahapalanaya Government is that the Easter Sunday attacks took place due to the situation in Government caused by the 19th Amendment. The information available in the public domain so far shows that it was a security failure that was in no way linked to the differences between the President and Prime Minister at that time. In fact the whole situation was brought under control within a week with the residual elements taken into custody.

In any event the 19th Amendment will not be any impediment to the smooth functioning of Government now because President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have shown during the past 10 months that they have no problem working together.

During this period the Government has managed the COVID-19 pandemic, given jobs to graduates and is planning to give jobs to those from poor families, as well as a myriad other things without the 19th Amendment standing in the way.

A detailed examination of the features of the 20th Amendment will reveal that its provisions will result in the President and Government being freed from the searchlight of accountability which is the hallmark of good governance while at the same time also reducing the democratic space that was opened up with the passage of the 19th Amendment.


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