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 Abolishing Exec. Prez: a political ‘gonibilla’

Abolishing Exec. Prez: a political ‘gonibilla’

13 Feb 2024


As much as the abolition of the Executive Presidency remains one of the most stale topics in Sri Lanka’s politics and socio-political activism, it still holds considerable importance, especially during elections. Successive regimes have used both the real and perceived dangers of the Executive Presidency as a bait to gain leverage at elections. While some promised to abolish the Executive Presidency, some tried to point out how previous Presidents abused the powers and privileges associated with the same.

This year is no different as both a Presidential and a General Election are approaching. The media reported that Sri Lanka Freedom Party Chairman and former President Maithripala Sirisena had assured his Party’s support towards a proposal to abolish the Executive Presidency, and had claimed that measures are afoot to present such a proposal. Samagi Jana Balawegaya and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had meanwhile said that now is not the right time to abolish the Executive Presidency.

While the country is yet to find out what party or politician will support or object to the abolition of the Executive Presidency, how much it matters is a question. On the one hand, during the past few decades, countless such promises have been conveniently ignored following elections. On the other hand, the country’s economic and political situation is such that the abolition of the Executive Presidency is hardly an election promise that can mislead or distract the people. It is however important to understand that the issue is not only the abolition of the Executive Presidency being a stale and unfulfilled election promise. A much bigger concern is whether the Executive Presidency is as harmful and above the law as some claim, and if it is, in what ways.

The need to abolish the Executive Presidency is dependent on the idea planted by various parties, especially political rivals ahead of elections, that the President has been vested with excessive powers which he/she could use at will and without being answerable in many cases. It is not uncommon in the political arena to call these powers ‘unlimited’. Needless to say, that scares the public. Whether the President actually has such powers is a question worth asking. 

Former President Sirisena, like many other Sri Lankan Presidents, did not fulfil the promise of abolishing the Executive Presidency. However, through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, he paved the way to transfer certain powers of the President to the Parliament. In that sense, it should be noted that the powers of the President that we talk about today are not really the powers that were vested with the Executive President in 1978. Interestingly, during Sirisena’s tenure, the country saw the dangers and vulnerabilities of the Executive Presidency as well. Following the 19th Amendment, over disputes which many claimed were based on political ideologies, Sirisena sacked the then Prime Minister (current President) Ranil Wickremesinghe from the post. It shows that even after the reduction of powers through the 19th Amendment, the President could still sack the Prime Minister at his/her discretion, which is concerning. However, Sirisena’s decision was reversed by the Supreme Court, which shows that even the President has to be answerable for his decisions at some point.

The Executive President’s powers to grant the Presidential pardon is another widely discussed, controversial aspect of the Executive Presidency. That is mainly because of infamous pardons such as those involving Jude Shramantha Anthony Jayamaha, former MP Duminda Silva, and former Sergeant (Sri Lanka Army) Sunil Ratnayake. While those pardons attracted disapproval from the public and also raised questions about the President’s powers and the use of those powers, a recent Supreme Court decision, which overturned the pardon granted to Silva by deposed former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is evidence that even the President’s Executive decisions are not completely immune from the country’s law. Meanwhile, immunity that has been granted to the President is another controversial aspect of the Executive Presidency. While the President does enjoy immunity from legal action during his/her tenure, once no longer in the position, that immunity is no longer available. A recent example in this regard is the Supreme Court’s determination that former Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, among several others, were responsible for the economic crisis. Regardless of how powerful he/she is, the decisions that the President can take are limited, and in most cases, such as in the case of emergency regulations, they require the Parliament’s approval at some point. Many of the ‘Executive’ decisions for which we blame Presidents were in fact enacted through the Parliament, after being voted for by MPs. Even the introduction of the Executive Presidency was endorsed by the then Parliament. In this context, the Parliament’s powers and conduct require equal or more attention.

This is not to say that the Executive Presidency is not a problem. The President can at his/her will take many forms of decisions without heeding to any other party. The short-sighted decision taken by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go ahead with the organic fertiliser only policy without listening to anyone placed the country in an extremely vulnerable and desperate situation. The decisions taken by Wickremesinghe as soon as he became the President were also not very people- and democracy-friendly. However, the public should be able to understand the difference between trying to abolish the Executive Presidency because it has the potential to pose a threat to good governance and trying to convince the people that abolishing the Executive Presidency is going to solve all the burning issues.

Therefore, while keeping in mind that the Executive Presidency has been and could be misused, the public should understand that what the country needs at the moment is economic revival, which has very little to do with the abolition of the Executive Presidency. Politicians are ready to sell the idea of abolishing the Executive Presidency as long as voters are ready to buy the former’s promises without conducting their own assessment about the same. 

. At the time where the forthcoming elections have a massive role in how the country’s economic recovery materialises, the public should ask how important the abolition of the Executive Presidency is in connection with the same.



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