Debate rages on Executive Presidency | Daily News

Debate rages on Executive Presidency

The government this week launched a series of initiatives on the economic and political fronts aimed at redressing the current supply shortages of essential items as well as the general downturn in the economy while at the same time attempting to resolve political concerns raised by opposition parties.

The political initiative is in the form of a proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution. In the lead up to the current political environment, several proposals to amend the Constitution have been suggested, for example by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL).

These proposals have provided a healthy platform for discussion and debate. The proposals suggested by both the SJB and the BASL advocate an abolition of the Executive Presidency. The SJB has stated that it would be amenable to proposals which create a pathway for the abolition within a timeframe.


PM’s portfolio

It will be recalled that, when then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on May 9, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered the SJB the opportunity to form a government. However, the SJB was slow to take up this offer. This resulted in Ranil Wickremesinghe being sworn-in as Prime Minister.

The obstacle for the SJB to take up the offer then was the abolition of the Executive Presidency. After initially stating that it wouldn’t form a government unless steps were taken for the abolition, the SJB has now softened its stance to settle for a timeframe in which the Presidency would be abolished.

The other major opposition party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also demands the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The JVP however has been steadfast in its position and has not been agreeable to a variation. However, the party commands only three seats in the current Parliament.

The constituents of the ruling coalition, such as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the parties led by Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa, while having differences of opinion with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), haven’t specifically demanded an abolition of the Presidency.

It is in such a context that the government is now considering modifications to the Presidency. As a first step, the government is entertaining a draft amendment submitted by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. This draft has been presented to Cabinet as well as leaders of political parties in Parliament.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe this week chaired a meeting of party leaders to consider the draft 21st Amendment. Almost all parties invited for the discussion participated with the exception of the JVP. The Premier and Minister Rajapakshe explained the draft amendment but no final decision was taken.

Minister Rajapakshe’s proposals envisage a reduction in the powers of the Executive President. This is by bringing in a requirement for the President to consult the Prime Minister in the appointment of ministers and deputy ministers and on the issue of allocation of subjects to the respective ministers.

The proposals also recommend re-establishing the Constitutional Council. The Constitutional Council which functioned under the 19th Amendment was replaced by a Parliamentary Council with the enactment of the 20th Amendment. It oversees appointments to top positions in the government.


Opposition parties

While these measures were broadly welcomed, there were contentious issues as well. Among them is a provision that enables the President to retain any Cabinet portfolio. Opposition parties, particularly the SJB, want this clause repealed preventing the President from holding any ministerial portfolio.

They base their argument on the 19th Amendment. This did not allow the President to retain any ministries but included a special transitional provision that allowed the President at the time, Maithripala Sirisena, to hold the ministries of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment.

The SJB contends that, if the President continues to enjoy the power to retain ministries, the clause which requires the President to consult the Prime Minister in appointing ministers and allocating subjects to them becomes redundant as, if there is a difference of opinion, he can retain any ministry. Another related issue that is being debated relates to the Defence Ministry. If the SJB argument is accepted and the President is unable to hold any ministries under a proposed 21st Amendment that incorporates this, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not be able to hold the crucial Defence portfolio.

It is worthwhile noting that, when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President in November 2019, the 19th Amendment precluded him from holding the Defence portfolio. Chamal Rajapaksa then functioned as State Minister of Defence while the Minister of Defence position remained vacant.

It was after the 20th Amendment was adopted by Parliament after the SLPP recorded a two-thirds majority at the August 2020 general election that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took over as Defence Minister. A similar scenario could arise if the President is barred from taking over any ministries.

Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe also points out that the Executive President has been assigned the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces by the Constitution. He notes that it is paradoxical to have two individuals as Commander-in-Chief and Defence Minister which could lead to conflicts.


Differences of opinion

Another provision that has led to differences of opinion is the President’s ability to dissolve Parliament. The 19th Amendment which was operative from mid-2015 to mid-2020 prevented the President from dissolving Parliament until four and a half years since the first meeting of Parliament.

The 20th Amendment saw a drastic change in that the President was empowered to dissolve Parliament one year from the date of the general election. Minister Rajapakshe’s proposals do not seek to alter this provision. Among those who have opposed this draft provision is the BASL.

Among the most disputed provisions suggested by Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is the reintroduction of a clause that prevents dual citizens from standing for election to Parliament. This clause, introduced in the 19th Amendment in 2015, was repealed by the 20th Amendment in 2020.

Minister Rajapakshe’s draft, if enacted in its proposed form, would prevent dual citizens from entering Parliament. This would include, among others, Basil Rajapaksa, former Finance Minister who has been credited with forming the SLPP and developing it into a formidable political force.

While Basil Rajapaksa resigned as Finance Minister several weeks ago, it is no secret that he still commands considerable influence in the ruling SLPP. Most parliamentarians in the ruling party are beholden to him for their political careers, as it was he who resurrected their fortunes after 2015.

The clause relating to dual citizens in the 21st Amendment as proposed by Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is therefore unlikely to find favour with many SLPP MPs. Since any clause would require approval by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, it is therefore extremely unlikely to be approved.

In response to Minister Rajapakshe’s draft proposals, the SJB has stated that it will support it if only what it perceives as its “shortcomings” are rectified. The SJB has almost fifty seats in Parliament and two of their stalwarts, Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara have now accepted Cabinet posts.

“We have also proposed clauses pertaining to Parliamentarians who change parties in Parliament. We have proposed an amendment under which an MP who crosses over from the Opposition will be prevented from accepting any portfolio,” SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said.

In interviews to electronic, social and print media outlets Minister Rajapakshe has however cautioned those advocating for drastic changes. He has noted that, for instance, abolishing the Executive Presidency affects the sovereignty of the people and would then require approval at a referendum.

Conducting a referendum at a time of a national crisis such as this would be an extremely divisive exercise. Besides, given the current economic challenges the country is facing, it is unlikely to be able to afford the high costs of a nationwide referendum or a general election, economists have said.


Economic relief

Indeed, there is a group within the ruling SLPP who contend that at a time when essential items are in short supply and inflation is on the rise, the government’s first priority should be to provide economic redress to the public. Constitutional and political changes can follow thereafter, they have argued.

The government has moved to take measures that will see increased supplies of gas and fuel reach Sri Lanka in the coming weeks. While regular, uninterrupted supplies are not a certainty just yet, this will help ease the current difficulties which are significantly impacting the daily lives of millions.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also obtained Cabinet approval for Rs. 695 billion as a supplementary estimate.

This is in his role as Minister of Finance, Economic Stabilisation, and National Policies. It will secure funds to maintain essential public services without hindrance.

Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also instructed officials to launch a comprehensive public-private partnership programme for food security. In a meeting with institutions aligned with the Ministry of Agriculture President Rajapaksa also discussed measures to prevent a food shortage.

After weeks of social and political unrest and political uncertainty, the government appears to be moving towards measures aimed at achieving a degree of stability. It cannot come sooner as Sri Lanka faces arguably its most daunting challenge since Independence almost three quarters of a century ago.


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