With Presidential Elections now announced, the debate has shifted back to the abolishment of the Executive Presidency. At a suddenly summoned Cabinet meeting on Thursday, attempts were made to push forward the 20th Amendment, which has been before Parliament for months, but supporters of United National Party (UNP) Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa had insisted that this was not the time for the abolishment of the Executive Presidency. But their stance will come at a cost.
Since the mandate of this Government is coming to a close, many would argue that it is now too late to move the abolishment of the Executive Presidency forward, and the continuation of the process should be given to the next administration that will be appointed by the people. The Premadasa faction clearly feels that this was an attempt to postpone the Presidential Election and counter the internal problems of the UNP by pushing for a referendum on the abolishment of the Executive Presidency, especially since the 20th Amendment, which was put forward by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), has been before Parliament for months with no attention being paid by the UNP leadership.
Abolishing the Executive Presidency was at the core of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ movement that brought President Maithripala Sirisena to power in 2015. The consensus among the opposition parties at the time was that the Executive Presidency, which had been strengthened by the passage of the 18th Amendment, was pushing the country towards a dictatorship, and therefore it was imperative to abolish the post and devolve power to Parliament and other institutions.
Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan. The Supreme Court informed Parliament that devolving power to Parliament required not just a two-thirds majority but also a referendum. The compromise was therefore to pass the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, with provisions to strengthen governance through independent commissions and the Constitutional Council, and to formulate a new Constitution that could be passed at a later date.
Unfortunately the new Constitution never came to pass, and over the years the 19th Amendment became vilified as creating two centres of power and creating a barrier towards decisive leadership. Even after the constitutional crisis in late 2018, there was no apparent political will to fulfil its mandate and abolish the Executive Presidency. Matters were then allowed to languish for many months, precious time that could have been used to get the required two-thirds majority to get the 20th Amendment passed. However, when their own political survival is threatened, the abolishment appears to have regained its attractiveness.
Sri Lanka’s political leaders need to stop flaunting the abolishment of the Executive Presidency as a universal panacea. The public had placed their trust in this President and the Government to carry out the mandate to abolish the Executive Presidency. In fact successive presidents have come to power pledging to abolish the Executive Presidency and failed.
Firstly, the UNP had four-and-a-half years to move on this and chose not to. Many would question their moral right to recycle the abolishment of the Executive Presidency on the cusp of Presidential Elections, but they are also stuck for any other platform. But Premadasa may find that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) may hesitate to back him, given his refusal to support the 20th Amendment, putting one more variable into the works for the upcoming polls.