Sri Lanka was ‘changed utterly’ by J.R. Jayewardene

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Former President late J.R. Jayewardene


When J.R. Jayewardene ushered in the executive presidency he controlled Parliament with a five-sixths majority. Although the executive president was both above as well as independent of the “devalued” Legislature, JR opted to work through Parliament as far as possible because it was his virtual puppet. Besides, doing so reduced the sting in allegations that he had usurped power like a dictator. Thus the gigantic majority of the UNP in Parliament enabled JR to exercise power authoritatively akin to a dictator without being labelled so. For all this full control of Parliament was needed and J.R. Jayewardene continued to retain this stranglehold on the Legislature through several devices of a controversial nature


“All changed, changed utterly” is a powerful line from ‘Easter, 1916’, the famous poem of William Butler Yeats. The poem by W.B. Yeats was about the Irish Easter uprising in 1916, its cruel suppression and how all changed utterly in Ireland. “A terrible beauty is born,” says Yeats.

In Sri Lanka “all changed” and “changed utterly” with the ascension of Junius Richard Jayewardene to the premier seat of power in 1977. J.R. Jayewardene known popularly as “JR” ushered in political, economic and electoral changes that utterly changed Sri Lanka. Those of us who are old enough to have experienced this change, are witnesses to the transformation brought about by J.R. Jayewardene. As to whether this utter change has made Sri Lanka better or worse remains debatable still.

J.R. Jayewardene’s 116th birth anniversary falls on 17 September. It is against this backdrop that this column focuses on JR this week. J.R. Jayewardene became the leader of the United National Party (UNP) after the demise of Dudley Senanayake in 1973. Together with UNP deputy leader Ranasinghe Premadasa, JR broad based the semi-feudal UNP and popularised it. He led the UNP to unprecedented triumph at the July 1977 Parliamentary elections. The UNP won 141 of 168 seats.

The advent of JR as Prime Minister in 1977 and as the first executive president in 1978 saw great changes in three vital spheres. Firstly the economy was liberalised and free enterprise encouraged. Secondly the Westminster model of Parliamentary governance introduced by the British was turned into an executive presidency. Parliament was de-valued. Thirdly the prevailing “first past the post winner” electoral practice was replaced with the proportional representation scheme. These three changes have utterly changed Sri Lanka. This article will however be confined to JR’s executive presidency and will re-visit its history with the aid of some of my earlier writings.


Presidential system vision

J.R. Jayewardene first articulated his vision of a presidential system in December 1966. When JR was Minister of State in the UNP Government of Dudley Senanayake (1965-’70) he made a ground-breaking speech at the Association for the Advancement of Science. J.R. Jayewardene in his keynote address of 14 December 1966 outlined his vision for an executive presidency and argued in favour of a presidential system based on the US and French models.

“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. The essence of JR’s “vision” lay in the words “an Executive chosen directly by the people not dependent on the whims and fancies of an elected Legislature”.

The chance for JR to espouse his executive president vision in the form of a tangible proposal came six years later during the United Front (UF) Government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1970-’77). Parliament had converted itself into a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. JR was then the Leader of the Opposition while Dudley Senanayake remained Leader of the UNP.

On 2 July 1971, JR moved a resolution in the Constituent Assembly. It read as follows: “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.”

JR’s motion was seconded at the Constituent Assembly by Ranasinghe Premadasa who was then the Colombo Central MP and Chief Opposition Whip. JR argued eloquently, within the Constituent Assembly, in support of an executive presidency. The motion was shot down. The JR-Premadasa motion was rejected by the then Constituent Assembly.

The UF Government brought in the new Republican Constitution on 22 May 1972. The Governor General position under the earlier Soulbury Constitution gave way to the post of President. Power was vested in Parliament known then as the National State Assembly and while President William Gopallawa was the titular Head of State, real power was solidly retained by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973 and JR succeeded him as UNP Leader. He soon established his leadership position and brought the party under his full control. JR was now able to pursue his vision of an executive presidency from a strong position.

July 1977 Parliamentary Elections

Parliamentary Elections were held in July 1977. The UNP manifesto of 1977 stated, “Executive power will be vested in a president elected from time to time by the people. The Constitution will also preserve the parliamentary system we are used to and the prime minister will be chosen by the president from the party that commands a majority in Parliament and the ministers of the cabinet would also be elected members of Parliament.”

The change to an executive president from prime ministerial system was a key aspect of the UNP electoral campaign in 1977. The UNP swept the polls and obtained 141 out of the total 168 parliamentary seats. J.R. Jayewardene became Prime Minister in July 1977. He began moving fast towards his cherished vision of an executive presidency.

JR and a small group of ministers and party stalwarts in association with leading lawyer Mark Fernando (later a Supreme Court Judge) started working towards the goal of introducing the executive presidency. The preliminary discussion was on 7 August 1977. An amendment to the Republican Constitution of 1972 was first drafted. After discussions in Cabinet it was approved and certified by the Cabinet as “urgent in the national interest”.


First Executive President

Thereafter it was sent by the Speaker to the Constitutional Court which prevailed at that time, as an “urgent bill”. The Constitutional Court approved the bill within 24 hours as stipulated. It was then presented to the National State Assembly for debating and voting. The bill was adopted by the then National State Assembly on 22 September 1977 as the Second Constitutional Amendment. Executive power was transferred to the President and J.R. Jayewardene became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka on Independence Day, 4 February 1978.


Select Committee for Constitutional Reform

Meanwhile JR was also working towards the goal of replacing the 1972 Constitution in its entirety with a new one. On 20 October 1977 the National State Assembly passed a resolution enabling the then Speaker Anandatissa de Alwis to appoint a Select Committee for Constitutional Reform. The essence of the select committee mandate was “To consider the revision of the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka and other written law as the committee may consider necessary.” The Parliamentary Select Committee was announced on 3 November 1977.

Initially the Chairman was J.R. Jayewardene who was then representing Colombo West in Parliament. JR however had to vacate Parliament as an MP in February 1978 after he was sworn in as President. Ranasinghe Premadasa who was also serving in the select committee was then appointed Chairman on 23 February 1978 by the Speaker. Premadasa was also appointed Prime Minister.

“JR Constitution”

The executive presidency ushered in through the earlier Second Amendment was now streamlined and incorporated in the new draft Constitution. The Executive President was now Head of State and Head of Government. The new Constitution referred to popularly as the “JR Constitution” was formally promulgated on 7 September 1978.

It could be seen therefore that J.R. Jayewardene initially did not bring in the Executive Presidency through a new Constitution. Although he had a two-thirds majority and could have easily waited for a while and formulated a new Constitution that incorporated provisions setting up an executive presidency, JR did not do so. He lost no time in establishing the Executive Presidency first through what was then known as the Second Amendment and assumed office before a new Constitution was promulgated. Thereafter a new Constitution was drafted with the executive presidency that was brought in through the 2nd amendment being enshrined in the new Constitution. 

When JR brought in the 2nd amendment ahead of an envisaged new Constitution to usher in the executive presidency there was a lot of criticism. A key concern was about the hurry in which the 2nd amendment was being pushed.


LSSP Leader Dr. N.M. Perera

Veteran Trotskyite leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Dr. N.M. Perera who was not an MP at that time articulated these concerns then in a public lecture that was published as a booklet. Dr. Perera stated thus:

“The manner in which this Bill has been rushed through Parliament makes us a little suspicious. What is there so urgent about amending a Constitution? After all, constitutional amendments are potent not for a year or two but for all time. I can think of no country with a written Constitution that enables Constitutional amendments to be carried through in the headlong manner that he (JR) has done. Most constitutional amendments take years to fructify and some countries provide even for a referendum before such an amendment is made effective. There may be many in this country who hold different views on the Presidential system of Government. Why should they be deprived of the right of expressing their different viewpoints to the legislature and to the people of the country and urge that full consideration and weight be given their views? 

The logical question raised in many circles then was about why the UNP Government could not bring in the Executive Presidency through a new Constitution instead of rushing through with a Constitutional amendment? Notwithstanding this critical question, JR went ahead with the 2nd Amendment. 


Why JR was in a hurry

J.R. Jayewardene was in a hurry because he could not take any chances with the MPs in the UNP camp. Introducing a system that would undermine the Prime Minister, de-value Parliament and concentrate powers in a single individual that required the approval of the MPs themselves was a bold and risky gamble. The parliamentarians were being asked to lay their heads on the chopping block willingly. So it was imperative that the Executive Presidency be brought in as soon as possible. 

Delay may lead to doubts and possibly dissidence. Thus JR went ahead rapidly and empowered himself with his MPs led by Ranasinghe Premadasa cheering “Jayawewa”. Premadasa was elated at becoming premier. It was loo late by the time he realised that the Prime Minister was now downsized into that of a glorified peon. 

Politics is the art of the possible where time is of the essence. For J.R. Jayewardene an early Executive Presidency through a Constitutional amendment was preferable to a delayed Executive Presidency through a new Constitution. A Constitutional Amendment was an immediate reality while a potential Constitution was only a distant possibility. 


‘The Gaullist system in Asia’ 

After the presidential system was installed, Prof. Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson analysed it in his book ‘The Gaullist system in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka’. In it he observed: “What Jayewardene was after was a stable Executive which would not be easily swayed by pressures from within or outside. The outcome in the end was a President who in many ways and can in certain circumstances be more powerful than the French President.”

A crucial point to note is that though J.R. Jayewardene introduced a presidential system, he did not provide for a cabinet appointed from outside Parliament. JR was also averse to a powerful Presidential Secretariat as a parallel centre of power to the Cabinet. Why was that?

In response to Prof. Wilson’s specific query on that issue, JR replied, “I must say I am very reluctant to appoint advisers who will be around the president. The reason is that I wish the president to have only his prime minister and the cabinet of ministers as advisers because they represent the people as Members of Parliament.”

J.R. Jayewardene also outlined this position at the convocational address of the University of Sri Lanka on 31 May 1978. This is what he said at the time: “I am the first elected Executive President, Head of State and Head of Government. It is an office of power and thus of responsibility. Since many others will succeed me I wish during my term of office to create precedents that are worthy of following. First, I will always act through the Cabinet and Parliament, preserving the parliamentary system as it existed without diminution of their powers. Second, I will not create a group known as the President’s men and women who will influence him.”


JR controlled Parliament

When J.R. Jayewardene ushered in the executive presidency he controlled Parliament with a five-sixths majority. Although the executive president was both above as well as independent of the “devalued” Legislature, JR opted to work through Parliament as far as possible because it was his virtual puppet. Besides, doing so reduced the sting in allegations that he had usurped power like a dictator. Thus the gigantic majority of the UNP in Parliament enabled JR to exercise power authoritatively akin to a dictator without being labelled so. For all this full control of Parliament was needed and J.R. Jayewardene continued to retain this stranglehold on the Legislature through several devices of a controversial nature.

JR’s Constitution had debarred MPs from switching parties after being elected. JR prevented the crossing over of MPs from Government to Opposition by constitutional legislation. JR and Premadasa had broad-based the UNP and a large number of “commoners” had been elected in 1977. The class-conscious JR was unsure of the loyalties of the elected representatives of the ‘hoi polloi’. Preventing crossovers therefore was to preserve the stability of the Government. 


Infamous “Rajadurai” Amendment

Yet the same JR amended the Constitution he brought in to enable the then TULF Batticaloa MP Chelliah Rajadurai to join the Government. The infamous “Rajadurai” Amendment enabled MPs from the Opposition to join the Government but not the other way about. Another ruse adopted by JR to preserve the gigantic parliamentary majority was the procurement of undated letters of resignation from all his MPs other than from S. Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). This deterred potential renegades.

The biggest anti-democratic act of J.R. Jayewardene was the notorious referendum of 1982. He conducted and won a country-wide referendum which extended the term of office of the Parliament elected in 1977 for another six years. Elections should have been held in 1983. Instead it was put off until 1989 via the referendum. This was to retain the UNP’s five-sixths parliamentary strength until J.R. Jayewardene’s presidency ended. Ironically this was the same JR who objected to the anti-democratic act of the Sirima Bandaranaike Government in extending Parliament’s term by two years from 1975 to ‘77. He resigned his Colombo South seat and contested the 1975 by-election to safeguard democracy and romped home the winner. Now JR had no qualms about extending the life of Parliament by six years.


Contesting a third time

Junius Richard Jayewardene’s reign as Executive President which began in 1978 came to an end in 1988. Even at the tail-end of his tenure, the grandmaster of political chess did toy with the idea of contesting for a third term by amending the Constitution again. Fortunately, for all concerned, such an eventuality did not occur. 

JR was dissuaded from taking the extreme step of contesting a third time. He was 82 and his wife Elena was determined that JR should retire from politics. By July 1988, it became known among close confidantes that JR was not going to contest again. But in a tactical move to keep the SLFP guessing and presidential aspirants in the UNP quiet, JR kept the question of his contesting again wide open for a long time.

JR announced formally in September 1988 that he was retiring from politics. This announcement was followed by a UNP meeting comprising the Parliamentary Group and Working Committee. Everyone expected JR to have an inner-party election to finalise the candidate. But JR did not want an intra-party contest at that juncture. So he sprung a surprise by proposing the name of Ranasinghe Premadasa as the presidential candidate and would-be successor. 


Ranasinghe Premadasa

In a further twist, JR got Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, Premadasa’s chief competitors, to jointly second Premadasa’s nomination. Ranasinghe Premadasa was unanimously elected as the presidential candidate of the UNP. 

Nominations closed on 10 November 1988. The Presidential Election was held on 19 December 1988. In a tight contest, Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP came first with 2,569,199 (50.43%) votes. Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the SLFP came second with 2,289,860 (44.95%) votes. Oswin (Ossie) Abeygunasekara of the SLMP came a poor third with 235,719 (4.63%) votes. Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected as the second Executive President of Sri Lanka. In the February 1989 Elections, the UNP obtained 125 seats in a Parliament of 225 MPs. 


JR retired gracefully

JR retired gracefully as President – after changing Sri Lanka utterly – and did not engage in politics thereafter. This is in stark contrast to Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena and to a lesser extent Chandrika Kumaratunga. JR lived to a ripe old age of 90 and passed away peacefully on 1 November 1996. The changes he brought about in Sri Lanka remain unchanged.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)


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