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The omnipotent Sri Lankan Presidency


The essential ask — and the most well-liked chant — of the ‘Janatha Aragalaya’ [people’s struggle] witnessed in Sri Lanka final yr was “Gota go home”. Scores of indignant residents, who took to the streets to protest acute shortages of necessities and lengthy energy cuts, squarely blamed the nation’s strongest chief for his or her distress. They deemed the previous navy man unfit to manipulate or occupy the nation’s high workplace, and ousted him dramatically.

At the identical time, some who had been a part of the protest motion confronted one other query. Will the mere ousting of a failed President do, if ‘system change’ is what the nation wants? What if one other chief in his place resorts to harmful coverage selections, equivalent to Mr. Gotabaya’s in a single day ban on agrochemicals in 2021, that continues to harm farmers and the nation’s annual crop yield? An impulsive chief wasn’t the one downside, they concluded. The workplace of the manager president, which bestows unchecked powers on one particular person, was as a lot, if no more of an issue.

The Executive Presidency system got here below focus, and the decision to abolish it emerged loud and clear and dominated public discourse for some time.

Origins of limitless energy

The demand to abolish the manager presidency, nevertheless, didn’t appear outlandish to Sri Lankans. It wasn’t as new, nearly each President who has held workplace because it was launched in 1978 had promised to eliminate it, even when they conveniently forgot the promise as soon as in that addictive seat.

From the time of its Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka was a parliamentary democracy. It adopted a republican structure in 1972, through which parliamentary democracy continued. In 1978, the second republican structure modified it right into a presidential type of authorities and vested the President’s workplace with monumental powers.

The resistance to this technique of governance, from inside Sri Lanka’s polity and civil society, started simply as former President J.R. Jayewardene started toying with the thought within the early 1971s, even earlier than enshrining it in Sri Lanka’s second republican structure in 1978. Sri Lanka’s Left, particularly, performed a significant position, in response to senior constitutional lawyer Jayampathy Wickramaratne, who cited key debates from the time, in a media article some years in the past.

Colvin R. de Silva, a founding father of the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and one of many best legislators within the area, succinctly captured the hazards of govt presidency within the Constituent Assembly in 1971. Being Minister of Constitutional Affairs on the time, he contended, “There is undoubtedly one virtue in this system of Parliament … and that is that the chief executive of the day is answerable directly to the representatives of the people continuously by reason of the fact that the Prime Minister can remain Prime Minister only so long as he can command the confidence of that assembly. We do not want either Presidents or Prime Ministers who can ride roughshod over the people and, therefore, first of all, over the people’s representatives. There is no virtue in having a strong man against the people.”

Subsequently, when the J.R. Jayewardene-led United National Party (UNP) received a five-sixths majority within the 1977 common elections, promising financial progress with open financial reforms, the Left was worn out of Parliament. Even so, leftist politicians continued to spearhead the marketing campaign towards govt presidency from the skin. N.M. Perera, additionally a frontrunner of the LSSP, wrote a scathing critique of the 1978 Constitution.

The reign of the Executive

However, govt presidency quickly discovered a safe spot in its architect Jayewardene’s workplace, and the brand new President, in flip, discovered within the system all the ability he wanted to nourish his ambitions. Two years into workplace, he brutally crushed a large common strike of employees in 1980, sacking about 40,000 public sector employees utilizing emergency laws. With the identical powers, President Jayewardene did little to curb Sinhalese mobs that killed and looted scores of Tamils within the anti-Tamil pogrom three years later. The massacre of July 1983, which he’s accused of condoning and even backing, sparked a lethal civil battle that gripped the island nation for about three many years, costing tens of hundreds of Tamil civilian lives.

In the next many years, Sri Lanka noticed half a dozen different presidents elected to the workplace, with nearly all of them promising to abolish govt presidency as soon as elected. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge proposed the abolition of the manager presidency and received the 1994 presidential election. But ultimately, she didn’t abolish it.

Further, other than habitually breaking the ballot pledge, leaders occupying the very best workplace had been seen abusing their unfettered powers. In reality, they sought to make it much more {powerful}.

Months after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President for the second time in 2010, on the heels of the navy defeat of the LTTE which his occasion aggressively bought as “war victory” to its southern Sinhalese constituency, his authorities handed the 18th Amendment. It made the President much more {powerful}, by eradicating the two-term restrict, and necessary checks and balances on the train of govt energy.

Empowering Parliament

However, in what was broadly seen as a uncommon and welcome departure throughout his successor Maithripala Sirisena’s time period, the federal government, co-led by Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, handed the nineteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution.

It was the primary occasion of a constitutional modification searching for to empower parliament by clipping govt powers. Except, even the residual powers of the workplace gave Mr. Sirisena the boldness to abruptly sack Mr. Wickremesinghe and dissolve Parliament, triggering a constitutional disaster for over 50 days in late 2018. The Supreme Court dominated that the President’s transfer was unlawful. Lawyers who had mounted a authorized problem based mostly their argument totally on the nineteenth Amendment.

In November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa received large within the presidential polls and in lower than a yr, his authorities overturned the nineteenth Amendment, passing the twentieth that successfully restored the beforehand decreased presidential powers.

The Wickremesinghe administration, in September 2022, handed the twenty first modification, claiming to return to the association envisaged within the nineteenth Amendment, however critics dismissed it as an “eyewash”. The makes an attempt to “tame” the presidency, of their expertise, had proved futile. It just isn’t a system that lends itself to reform, it’s one that permits focus of extreme energy, and must be repealed in its entirety, they argued.

As of right now, the president can nonetheless maintain any variety of ministerial portfolios, which the nineteenth Amendment sought to restrict and disallow. The president nonetheless has the ability to find out the variety of ministers and ministries, in addition to to assign topics and features to such ministries. The president can use his discretion in appointing secretaries to the ministries as nicely. The independence of the Constitutional Council which permits and displays unbiased commissions has additionally come into query.

In vesting all powers with the Centre, that too in a single workplace, the manager presidential system significantly restricts the scope of governance on the provincial stage. Even throughout the restricted ambit of provincial council administrations, the Governor as a consultant of the Executive, wields appreciable powers.

Colvin R. de Silva known as the system of presidency below Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution a “constitutional presidential dictatorship dressed in the raiment of a parliamentary democracy.”

Sri Lanka is at present witnessing frequent protests by employee unions and college college students, towards persisting financial hardships and austerity measures. Police are responding with tear fuel and water cannon. Critics of President Ranil Wickremesinghe are already likening him to his uncle J.R. Jayewardene.

Sri Lankans have debated the necessity to abolish govt presidency for many years now. Last yr’s disaster but once more put this mannequin of governance in sharp focus. But the island nation is but to discover a chief who would get to the highest, after which conform to resign his or her personal energy.

This is the final a part of a collection of articles Sri Lanka’s financial restoration and political course

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