By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Sri Lanka took a significant step towards adopting a new constitution for the island nation. A resolution submitted by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seeking parliamentary approval for the appointment of a constitutional assembly was adopted unanimously on March 10, 2016.
There were speculations of a vote on the resolution and MPs remained in the parliamentary premises till evening. However, the House gave its approval after Leader of the House University Education and Highways Minister Lakshman Kiriella read out the amendments. The original resolution was amended with the amendments submitted by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of which President Maithripala Sirisena is the Chairman, Joint Opposition of the supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) incorporated into it.
At the end of the debate, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said that the House would be converted into an assembly where the formulation of the new constitution and reforming the electoral system would be taken up in the near future. Reforming the elections would not be taken as a separate issue and it would be incorporated into the draft Bill of the new constitution.
Abolishing of the Executive Presidency is one of the campaign promises of Maithripala Sirisena at the last Presidential Election. After coming to power he said there was a need of a new electoral system and pledged that he would “work at my utmost to make that wish a reality."
Keeping with the Presidential Election promise, President Sirisena made a strong bid to dilute the Executive Presidency by devolving some of its powers to the Parliament by introducing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Although substantial changes were proposed in the first draft, the Supreme Court ruled out most of them as they require a National Referendum in addition to the two-third majority in Parliament. However, the successful passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament with an overwhelming majority has resulted in the executive presidency ushered in by the 1978 Constitution losing some its powers.
The abolishing of executive presidency will require a two third majority in Parliament and a national referendum. The drafting of a new constitution and getting it passed by Parliament sitting as a Constituent Assembly, as it was done in 1978, is the task now and this process could benefit from the experience gained during the drafting of the 19th Amendment. The experiences of the last amendment included initial drafting, Supreme Court preview of the draft, long winding debate in media, enactment of the final bill and its adoption.
In 1978, Jayewardene established the executive the presidency when his party, the United National Party (UNP) controlled Parliament with a five-sixths majority. This steamroller majority in Parliament gave necessary strength to the President to exercise power authoritatively.
After winning the first Presidential Election in 1982, the first act of Jayewardene was to retain the Parliament in which the UNP had a five-sixth majority by extending the term of office through a national referendum. Not totally satisfied with that, he brought in a new constitutional amendment to control the Members of Parliament. He prevented the crossing over of MP’s from government to opposition by that amendment. However, he continued to encourage opposition MPs to cross over to government by making it legitimate for such crossovers after C Rajadurai, TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) member from the East crossed over to government.
Although JR concentrated power in the Executive, he did not try to subordinate the institution of parliament to the presidency. That came later with President Ranasinghe Premadasa and others and reached an unprecedented level after Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power.
JR Jayewardene, an ardent admirer of Dwight Eisenhower and Charles De Gaulle, always had a dream of introducing an executive presidency in Sri Lanka. He went public with this idea in his keynote address in Parliament as Minister of State, a virtual deputy prime minister on 14th December 1966. He argued in favour of a presidential system based on the US and French models and added that in the proposed system, the executive will be chosen directly by the people and is not dependent on the legislature during its period of existence, for a specified number of years. 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 its parliamentary party, he said.
Now that the government is totally committed to abolish the executive system, what is essential is to pass a bill for the Parliament to sit as a Constituent Assembly. In 1970, the United Front (UF) government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike adopted a bill to convert the Parliament into a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution. JR Jayewardene, then the leader of the opposition made his proposal executive presidency. On July 2, 1971, JR moved a resolution in the Constituent Assembly, proposing: “The executive power of the state shall be vested in the President of the Republic, who shall exercise it in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The President of the Republic shall be elected for seven years for one term only by the direct vote of every citizen over 18 years of age. The President of the Republic shall preside over the council of ministers”. This proposal was seconded by the Colombo Central MP and Chief Opposition Whip, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who became the second Executive President nearly two decades later.
The Constitution came into effect on February 4, 1978. It had many faults as it was adopted in a hurry and it has undergone 19 amendments in less than 30 years.
As a National Referendum on the proposed new constitution is an essential requirement, it is high time that a debate on the abolition of executive presidency is started. A national debate will also facilitate its easy adoption in Parliament and also a vote in favour at the National Referendum.
However, it will not be smooth sailing for the government. The UNP, the party that introduced the Executive Presidency, is now reconciled to do away with it. However, if there is no support for the move, they may change their minds as Wickremesinghe is one of the MPs who voted for the Executive Presidency in 1978. Furthermore, the SLFP is also divided in their opinion. Pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa group will not cooperate with the government to introduce a new constitution, though in principle they agree to the abolishing of executive presidency. The Tamil national Alliance and JVP also have their strategic interests and they will watch the developments until the last moment to decide on their moves.
At the end one can foresee President Sirisena stepping in to navigate the vessel of new constitution through the treacherous waters and bring it ashore without shedding its essential components, though those components are meant to clip his powers as he did to the much adoration of the public in adopting the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
(Sugeeswara Senadhira is the Director (Research & International Media) at the Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. He can be reached at: email@example.com)