Saturday, September 21, 2019

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Of executive presidency and abolition dreams

The emergency cabinet meeting aimed at abolishing the executive presidency failed to produce any results.  However it speaks volumes about the sudden desire to abolish the executive presidency developing in all quarters of the political spectrum. There is lack of clarity on who called for the cabinet meeting, but it is clear that such a sudden meeting wouldn’t have been possible unless there was some agreement between both President and the Prime Minister.

The abolition of the executive presidency has been in the political debate since the death of President Ranasinghe  Premadasa. Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, all had the abolition of the executive presidency as a main item in their election manifestos. Some argue that the executive presidency is good for the country, but if that is so its abolition would not have been an attractive theme for election manifestos.

All Presidents have promised good things for the country at the time of elections, but done what is good for them after getting elected. And that has been the fate of this abolition idea so far. Now it has been at least half abolished through the nineteenth amendment. In practice what we have now is more like a quasi-executive presidency as most of its powers have been transferred to the Parliament.  As a result its abolition has become easier than before.

The original nineteenth amendment draft envisaged creating almost a non-executive presidency. However due to the Supreme Court determination and resistance from the then Joint Opposition in the Parliament it was a much different version which was finally passed and it has created a number of new issues. Accordingly even a future government will find it difficult to rule the country because of the possible friction between the Parliament and the President.

By now it is well accepted that the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution in its present form is troublesome and needs modifications. However any modification will involve either transferring powers from the President to the Parliament or vice versa and will not be practically easy even if the next President and the Prime Minister are from the same political party.

Whatever prompted the recent emergency cabinet meeting meant for initiating abolition of the executive presidency was once again not in the interest of the country, but to safeguard the self-interests of those who initiated it. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is now pushed to the wall in the face of mounting pressure from a sizable faction of his party to nominate Sajith Premadasa as the presidential candidate. Incumbent President is not in a position to contest for another term. The move is likely to have even the blessings of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa because he is constitutionally prevented from running for presidency again.

The JVP’s recent move to abolish the executive presidency through the proposed twentieth amendment would have been an excellent opportunity to resolve the issue. The move did not find the support of the Prime Minister Wickremesinghe probably because of two reasons. Firstly because he had the ambition of getting into the high post himself and secondly because he thought such a move would facilitate Mahinda Rajapaksa to capture the governmental power through the Parliament.

However now it seems too late to introduce any constitutional amendment before the presidential election. It is unlikely that whoever is elected as the next Executive President will soon work towards abolishing his own position. The only option will be to modify the nineteenth amendment to remove unwanted friction between a future President and the Prime Minister which is again will not be an easy task.


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