30th November 1997


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Sri Lanka's new Ambassador to the United States Dr. Warnasena Rasaputra presenting his credentials to President Clinton at the White House recently

‘It must go’

The presidential system has outlived its usefulness says, Anura

Parliamentarian and UNP stalwart Anura
Bandaranaike delivered the 4th Lalith
Athulathmudali Memorial lecture last
Wednesday at the BMICH. Excerpts:

I am, indeed, privileged to have been invited to deliver the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Oration, this evening. I would like to extend my appreciation to the Lalith Athulathmudali Foundation and to his widow, the Hon. Mrs. Srimani Athulathmudali, Member of Parliament.

After I accepted the invitation to deliver this Oration I met Srimani and asked her what I should speak on, specially as my sister had consigned her to an unenviable no man’s land. Without much hesitation we both agreed that the subject should be the Executive Presidency, a subject very close to our hearts; and the furthest from my sisters.

But, before I commence my observations on the Executive Presidency I would like to make some brief references to the late Mr. Athulathmudali. It is public knowledge and personal knowledge to most of you present here, that Lalith came from a distinguished political lineage, had an excellent career at the best school of all, needless to say Royal College, where he excelled in studies and athletics and proceeded to read Jurisprudence at the University of Oxford. He had the distinction of being elected the Secretary to the prestigious and unique Oxford Union in 1956, Treasurer to the Union in 1957 and finally, as President of the Union in 1958. He was the first Sri Lankan to be elected as the President of the Oxford Union. This was no mean achievement at that day and age.

It was at this time that Lalith’s father, unfortunately passed away and the family ran into unexpected financial difficulty and Lalith had to seek government assistance to continue his studies in England. At that time my father was the Prime Minister of Ceylon. Lalith’s request for financial assistance came up before Parliament on the 24th of February l959 and amidst virulent opposition from the Left led Opposition, the monies Lalith had asked for, was granted.

My father in reply said: I quote from Hansard,

“I certainly think it will be a generous gesture on the part of this House to pass this Vote in connection with a student who apart from the fact that he has distinguished himself to be the President of the Oxford Union, has also done very well in Law which will enable him to proceed to the BC.L. and also, of course, the Bar Final which would enable him to practice as a Barrister. I feel, therefore, that no particular principle will be violated or any injustice done by passing this Vote”.

My father’s staunch support and that of his Government for the education of Lalith Athulathmudali displayed his compassion and understanding. My father who had known Lalith’s father, the late D.D. Athulathmudali in the State Council would have surely, spotted great talent in the making, and had he lived he would not have been disappointed in the confidence he placed in him.

Having completed this Barristers at Grays Inn, Lalith lectured in the Law at the University of Singapore, the Hebrew University in Israel, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Allahabad and finally as a lecturer in Jurisprudence in the Ceylon Law College.

A creditable achievement, indeed!!

Lalith entered Parliament the same year I did, in 1977; from two different political parties and from vastly differing constituencies. He belonged to a euphoric and victorious party with a 4/5ths majority and I belonged to a depleted, dejected and disoriented Opposition of only 8. What a battle I had on my hands! Even the MP who was seated right behind me was screaming every time I got up to speak. Lalith was most sympathetic, though there was little he could do about it. He never tried to rub salt in the wounds, unlike some others!

I recall the lively intellectual discussion Lalith and I had during the Select Committee of Parliament which introduced the new election laws in the early 1980s when I served in that Committee as the Leader of the Opposition.

1978 was the first time the concept of the Executive Presidency was introduced to the Constitution of Sri Lanka. In 1948 by a consensus of opinion we adopted what is now known as the Westminster model.

Mr. Bandaranaike

Mr. Banadaranaike delivering the Athulathmudali memorial lecture

We tried to encompass into this Constitution the traditions and conventions which had evolved in England over 10 centuries. But we soon found out that although the purity of the principles were acceptable their applicability and their relevancy and certainly their operation on soil not germane to their experience and found many difficulties.

In introducing the new Constitution in the National State Assembly of September 1977, Prime Minister J.R. Jayewardene said: I quote,

“The Prime Minister is chosen from the party which enjoys the confidence of the House and the Ministers are chosen from the Members within the House with the majority in the House voted against Prime Minister and the Cabinet when the Executive ceases to exist. One can choose another Executive from the same House or go before the people. That is why I am trying to avoid in this amendment so that the Executive need not depend on the votes in the House though the President may have to find another Prime Minister and another Cabinet. Such an Executive is a strong Executive seated in power for a fixed number of years, not subject to the whims and fancies of an elected Legislature, not afraid to take correct but unpopular decisions because of censure from his parliamentary party.”

Mr. Jayewardene may have been sincere in his thoughts and approach to these questions, but there was a down side that he had not foreseen or anticipated.

For the first few years of the Executive Presidency President Jayewardene was able to frame and execute some of the concepts he mentioned in the speech. After his re-election in 1982 and the unfortunate referendum of 1983 the down side began to surface with a rapidity which he could not control.

The President increasingly became a captive of his parliamentary group even though he had the personal charisma and respect to carry through far reaching changes.

It can be assumed that the office of the Executive President was established mainly to solve the following issues:

(1) the necessity of a strong and powerful government to achieve rapid economic development in Sri Lanka being a developing country in contrast to regulatory Governments prevailing in developed countries;

(2) the necessity to have a stable government not bullied by pressure groups outside and inside Parliament for example the 1964 cross over, Industrial Disputes and so on;

(3) to curtail the concentration of power in Parliament and/or the members and/or Cabinet of Ministers, who by that time had become the feudal lords of their electorates having encroached into every sphere of life of a citizen with right to decide: school, employment, property, and since of late even sexual harassment.

Taking item (1), strong and powerful Presidential government achieved rapid economic growth in Sri Lanka from 1978 to about 1983. Since 1983 up to now the economy has kept steadily declining for reasons known to all of us.

On item (2), once again stable government not amenable to pressure groups from inside and outside of Parliament worked for some time, but since the Referendum of 1983 this situation rapidly changed. The Tamil parties left Parliament and left the democratic process resulting in the emergence of the most committed and dedicated terrorists force in the world. Added to this Sri Lanka faced one of the most violent terrorist outburst in the Sinhala South claiming the lives of untold numbers. Then we witnessed the impeachment motion against President Premadasa which divided the mighty United National Party.

And since this Government assumed office in 1994 we have witnessed strike after strike virtually in every sphere crippling the economic development and industrial harmony. For the first time, a sort of Trade Union was formed in Parliament of PA MP’s called the Mulberry Group.

On the third point of the Executive President has not succeeded in curtailing and preventing Ministers or MPs from continuing to be feudal lords and masters of the areas they represent. In fact, this Presidential system has perpetuated the power and the arrogance of the local politicians of the Government party, particularly under President Kumaratunga. One clear example is that one particular MP has already 50 odd cases against him before various courts and yet he continues with impunity to burn, plunder and assault his opponents with no compunctions. A President given the precise power to control such situation turns a Nelsonian eye.

Another serious flaw the President Jayewardene did not foresee was that a strong President could choose another Prime Minister and another Cabinet adding most stability to the country. Unfortunately this was not to be. Recently the French gave an unprecedented mandate to the Gaulist Conservative President Jacques Chirac. In less than 12 months at the Parliamentary elections the French overturned their decisions and gave a resounding mandate to his staunch opponents, the leftists. Today a Conservative President cohabits with his arch rival who is the Prime Minister. The French call this cohabitation.

But in Sri Lanka this situation will never arise. There are only two examples that are available to us. In 1988 at the Presidential Elections the UNP polled 50.43 percent of the vote, the SLFP polled 44.9 percent and the majority was only 279,331. When Parliamentary Elections were held the UNP polled 50.71 and the SLFP was brought down from 44 percent to 30 percent and the UNP majority increased from 279,000 to well over a million votes. In 1994 Parliamentary Elections PA polled 47 percent of the votes and the UNP polled 44 percent. Three months later at the Presidential Election the PA went up to 62 percent and the UNP dropped to 35 percent.

I have given you these two examples to show you that the President can call both elections one after the other and to suit the purpose of his or her party. And in Sri Lanka the “winner takes all” in that when you win one election you win the other with a larger majority.

Therefore, President Jayewardene’s expectations that an Executive President could cohabit with a another party controlling Parliament has not materialised in Sri Lanka and is most unlikely to happen in the future. Therefore the argument that a strong Executive could lend strength to the Parliamentary system whoever controls Parliament is only hypothetical and in practice unworkable.

Now I would address, your mind to an important aspect of the Presidency system which is the procedure which enables a President to be removed from office.

It will be seen that the constitutional provisions for the removal of the President involves a three tier procedure. While Parliament sets in motion the procedure for impeachment, the actual findings are made by the highest court in the land. If the charges framed in the resolution are upheld by the Supreme Court then the ultimate ‘’sanction” (The order for the removal of the President) is imposed by Parliament. In other words he is practically irremovable.

As you will see the removal of the President has been made virtually impossible. Lalith, Gamini, my mother and I and so many others had the first hand experience in how to try to impeach a President and fail. We jointly sphereheaded a motion of impeachment against President Premadasa in the early l990s.

However when a resolution for the impeachment of the President is accepted by the Speaker, the President is deprived of his/her power to dissolve the Sri Lankan Parliament. The constitutional foundation is to ensure that when impeachment proceedings are instituted by Parliament the power of dissolution cannot be used by the President to frustrate those proceedings. But our own past proves that the Constitutional norm is completely inadequate, erroneous and unrealistic. Whoever becomes a President is obviously a Leader of a political party which do not permit its members to overthrow him. Similarly, the Constitution of Sri Lanka does not permit Members of Parliament to cross over to another Political Party or to act contrary to instructions of the party even if the Presidents acts are in violation of the Constitution. In the absence of a strong independent bureaucracy and Armed Forces a President in office will have enormous power which can be effectively used to frustrate any impeachment proceedings to remove him as was effectively demonstrated in 1992.

Role of the SLFP

When the Executive Presidential system was first introduced, the SLFP began an intense debate within; about the merits and demerits and finally concluded that it was against it in Totality.

With the Executive Presidency came a string of horrendous new concepts like the Presidential Commissions which the SLFP felt was for the sole purpose of depriving my mother, President J. R.

Jayewardene’s principal opponent of her civic rights and; it was so. This was the first time that a huge majority was utilised to disenfranchise a former Prime Minister ever in a Parliamentary democracy. Today the very same SLFP that opposed Presidential Commissions with vehemence are using those commissions to sling mud at their opponents with gay abandon even using the evidence of those convicted of perjury as the gospel truth!

The SLFP campaigned the Presidential Elections of ]982/1988 and 1994 with the abolition of the Presidential system as their principal, and main commitment. All three Presidential candidates Mr. Hector Kobbekaduwa, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga made this the sheet anchor of their reforms. The PA manifesto of l994 says on page 9:

I quote .

‘The Executive Presidential system which has been the bane of our country since 1978 will be abolished as a matter of the highest priority and the supremacy of the People’s political will restored by means of a return without delay to the system of Cabinet and Parliamentary Government. The contemporary experience of our country leaves no room for doubt that the concentration of an unparalleled volume of power in the Executive President without any viable or effective system of checks and balances, is wholly destructive of core values anchored in freedom, initiative and creativity in sum, all that is best in human nature individually and collectively. The Executive Presidency has debased and debilitated all other institutions (such as the courts, Parliament and the media) which had previously enriched the political life of the nation. The government is irrevocably committed to the re-empowerment of our people by restoration of the Cabinet system of government, headed by a Prime Minister having membership of, and responsibility to, Parliament, while a ceremonial or titular Head of State will act on advice tendered to him/ her by the Cabinet of Ministers. ‘

After winning the Presidency, Mrs. Kumaratunga went further and set a deadline, all on her own. She stated grandiloquently as has become her style but getting stale by the day that it will cease by July 15, 1995. Two years and 4 months have gone by, not a word does she speak of this.

In fact, it is to the credit of the Leader of the Opposition Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe that he promptly offered the UNP’s 85 votes in Parliament to make up a grand 2/3rd needed to abolish the Presidency.

With the SLFP’s and the President’s total commitment to its abolition we all assumed that the PA will gladly grab the opportunity.

But, alas, what did we hear ? Vituperative abuse, invective and now total silence, and some vague references to it being linked with a doomed devolution package.

From time to time, both President Kumaratunga and Prof. Peiris tell us that they genuinely and sincerely wish to abolish the presidential system.

My own guess is that she will never abolish the presidency nor was she ever serious about it!To-day if one continues with this system it is purely for the sole purpose of enhancing the glory and the trappings of Presidential office to bolster the sagging image of leaders Whatever way you look at it there is NO justification for its existence or continuance. The Presidential system has outlived its usefulness. IT MUST GO.

As Deputy Minister of Defence and Minister of National Security Lalith experienced the frustration and hopelessness of having many of his important decisions reversed by the Executive President.

By 1989, Lalith was totally convinced that the Executive Presidency was the most deadly conspiracy against freedom. He was humble enough to acknowledge that he had contributed largely to the collapse of Parliamentary democracy where the status of Ministers were diminished, politicians were neglected for officials and State terrorism prevailed.

As much as he was culpable he was equally capable of realising that it was time to call for a return to a fully fledged Parliamentary democracy. In one of the finest speeches in Parliament on the date Lalith resigned from the Cabinet he stated -I quote from Hansard:

“There are a great many challenges facing our country. The fight against fear is upper most in one’s mind. Fear of whom? Fear of the Chief Executive and his agents. This fear has to be removed. I am glad my resignation has helped many to lose their fear.

Our struggle is not against any individual, but it is against an institution. It is a crusade to restore the dignity and the powers of Parliament.”

That was Lalith’s dream! Some others also have dreams, be they day dreams or, night-mares? But Lalith’s dream was a noble one.

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