Are Sri Lankans willing to give Executive Powers back to the Parliament?


Politics of Sri Lanka takes place in a framework where the President is directly elected for a five-year term by the people is both head of state and head of government with executive powers. Executive Presidency has a past history of being a too powerful an institution abused by the individual holding the presidency post. What is more from its inception over the past few decades, even though there is a view among the ethnic minority parties that the popularly elected executive presidency is better for them, none of the presidents elected by the people have resolved any of the problems of the ethnic minority communities. Prior to it the constitution provided for a two-house legislature with a House of Representatives elected and a Senate that was partly nominated and partly elected indirectly by members of the House. A prime minister and his cabinet, chosen from the largest political group in the legislature, held collective responsibility for executive functions and with a governor-general, as head of state. Do Sri Lankans now prefer to hand back executive powers to the Parliament, where the Prime Minister shall be the head of the government and head the cabinet of ministers; while the parliament shall appoint the President, to be the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces? Soon there is to be a private member’s motion of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader to be presented in parliament as the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing the executive presidency for it would transfer the powers of the President to the Prime minister, who commands the confidence of the majority in parliament. Perhaps all legislators should support this motion if the people want to give back the executive powers to the Parliament.

With much awaited cabinet reshuffle completed the Unity Government must accomplish all promises made to the people before the next general election due in 2020, including the burning issues of those people living in previous war zones. In the past three years the government has been working on these burning issues with limited success due to considerable resistance from many legislators in parliament with many decades’ old divide and rule mindset. This attitude of mind was inherited from the past elite political leaders, who to erase their inconvenient past of socialising with their colonial masters and to legitimize their rule in the country did build a close association with the Sangha that is integral to Buddhists. Yet the Sangha following the Buddha Dharma should have known better and kept an interdependent relationship with the rulers only exercising their spiritual authority and allowing the rulers to mind the state. This desired equilibrium was lost forever with the 1956 political transformation in the country and the Sangha and their clerics have continued to spin yarns to spread them by the deceitful politicians. After the war ended in 2009 these politicians and clerics were guarded and protected by the security forces. So much so that today the monastic order has gestured to the Unity Government that inclusive governance was subject to boundaries that they will determine; thus this pressure exerted on the rulers is causing them to neglect the followers of other faiths. But both the President and the Prime Minister must rise above all divisions accepting the reality that they are elected to rule not a section, but the whole country and serve all the communities living in it.

The bitter truth about the executive presidency has been that any benefits were limited to individuals or their parties than to the people who voted them in. There are countries more diverse and with internal conflicts than Sri Lanka that function under non-presidential systems; thus it is necessary to look at the best interest of the country than the interests of individuals and their political parties. If the abolition of the executive presidency is to take place, it should be within the framework of comprehensive constitutional reform as initially envisaged by the government when it transformed the entire parliament into a constitutional assembly and appointed an all-party constitutional steering committee to lead the reform process. In the past few months the constitutional assembly secretariat has been working to incorporate the amendments that came up during the debate held earlier.

In the same period, the Unity Government has worked tirelessly to get the engine of growth back on track, utilising the old administrative service that had grown accustomed to corrupt practices. Though keeping to its promise to the people the government got many investigations underway to curb corrupt practices in various government sectors, but to date nothing has been brought to any conclusion, due to excess delays in implementing the law, much caused by resistance from powerful offenders; to make matters worse fresh corrupt activities keep cropping up to embarrass the government. Bitter Truth is any government would need more time to make required reforms to curb these corrupt practices found in abundance countrywide in all walks of life; people must therefore accept that these investigations would go beyond 2020 before reaching satisfactory conclusions. But there are resolvable issues in the next eighteen months before the term of the present parliament ends in 2020; for much work has been undertaken by the parliament on  them already one issue is to abolish the executive presidency and the other to finalise and conclude the constitutional reforms.

With the steering committee of the constitutional assembly set to resume its meetings soon, the parliamentarians irrespective of which political party they belong should concentrate their efforts to revive the constitutional reforms process. In particular, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader having told the parliament, what his people wanted to put an end to their national problem and having supported the Unity Government from its inception in 2015 must join forces with JVP and other progressive political parties to ensure in the remaining period of the parliament these objectives are accomplished. This would give the President and the Prime Minister to demonstrate that they are rulers of the whole country and not just one community or the two largest political parties in the government.