There are incipient but clear attempts in Sri Lanka to secure for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a two-year extension in office on the plea that he has not been able to fulfil his mandate in the stipulated time because of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elements friendly to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, like MP Diana Gamage, a defector from the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), have put forward the idea of getting a two-year extension of tenure for the President to help him make up for the deficiencies forced on him by the pandemic.

That the President is open to the idea was clear when a member of an audience in one of his meetings with the people, asked him if he should not seek a two-year extension. The President laughed and said that the questioner should have been his advisor! It was rumored that G.L.Peiris, the Foreign Minister and a top leader of the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), had discussed the matter with a top Buddhist monk. Peiris denied that it was discussed.

If Gotabaya Rajapaksa does eventually seek an extension, it would not be for the first time in Sri Lanka. All but two past Presidents had sought extensions either for themselves or the parliament. The exceptions were R.Premadasa and D.B.Wijetunga. However, only one, J.R.Jayewardene, had succeeded in getting an extension, not for himself though, but for his parliament. “JR” himself was in power through elections from 1977 to 1989.

Ironically, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, who had sought extension as Executive Presidents, had all come to power with a pledge to abolish the “devilish” Executive Presidency and go back to the more “democratic”, pre-1978, Westminster-style parliamentary system.

The Executive Presidency was brought to Sri Lanka by Prime Minister J.R.Jayewardene, through the promulgation of a new constitution in 1978. Jayewardene named himself the first Executive President in 1978. Subsequently, in the first direct vote to elect a President of Sri Lanka in 1982, Jayewardene got 52% of the votes and was declared elected.

But in order to maintain his United National Party’s parliamentary super-majority obtained in the 1977 elections, and to get a stable government to implement his radical liberal economic policies, Jayawardene decided to extend the life of parliament without holding elections. He himself remained in power through elections from

To do this, he presented the 4th Constitutional Amendment in 1982, which proposed to extend the life of the parliament by six years to August 4, 1989. The Supreme Court wanted this amendment to be passed by a two thirds majority and ratified through a referendum. Jayewardene succeeded in both endeavors because his economic reforms had made him popular (that cannot be said about Gotabaya’s regime).

The next bid to extend the term of the President was made by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Her term was to end in 2005 but she argued that because she had called for a Presidential election one year ahead of time in 1999, she should be able to get one more year in office over above the normal six years. To be able to make this claim, she said that she had taken oaths for the second time at the end of 2000 albeit secretly. The idea in taking the oaths for the second time was to be able to count the beginning of her term from 2000 and not 1999.

This was challenged by the prospective Presidential candidate and fellow Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) member, Mahinda Rajapaksa. When the matter was taken to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva ruled that Kumaratunga’s claims were untenable and that her term would end in 2005. The constitution had clearly stated that the term of the President begins on the date he or she is sworn-in. And there had been a public swearing in immediately after her victory in 1999.

Constitutional expert Prof. G.L.Peiris said that the second swearing-in "that is alleged to have occurred was absolutely unique in any democratic country and raises grave issues of credibility.''

Sharply criticizing the President's position in a Sinhalese language interview over State TV, Peiris said: "That degree of arrogance is unacceptable with regard to the tenure of any public position. No one who holds public office is in a position to say that they will decide for themselves when their office comes to an end.''

When he came to power in 2005, Mahinda Rahapaksa wanted to be President for more than the constitutionally stipulated two terms. He brought in the 18 th.Amendment to the Constitution to remove the two-term cap. But this was annulled in 2015 after he was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena in collaboration with the UNP.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government brought in the 19 th. Constitutional Amendment which restored the two-term Presidential limit set by the 1978 Jayewardene constitution. The 19 th.Amendment also reduced the term of parliament from six to five years.

When Maithripala Sirisena was President, he sought the opinion of the Supreme Court on the plea that his term of office should be deemed to have begun on June 21, 2015 and not January 9, 2015. His plea was that though he was sworn-in on January 9, 2015, the nature of the Presidency was altered by the 19 th.Constitutional Amendment which was signed into effect by the Speaker of parliament on June 21, 2015. Therefore, his term should be deemed to have begun on June 21, 2015 and not January 9, 2015. And it should be deemed to be ending on June 21, 2020 and not on January 9, 2020.

The Jaffna District Tamil National Alliance MP, M.A.Sumanthiran, has said that any attempt by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to extend his tenure by two years is bound to fail.

“The constitution will have to be amendment with two thirds majority followed by a Referendum. These are conditions difficult to fulfil under the present challenging political circumstances. There are fissures in the Treasury benches and the unpopularity of the government outside is palpable,” he pointed out.

“The term of the President could be reduced by a constitutional amendment without a Referendum (as it happened in the case of the 19 th,.Amendment which reduced the term of the President and parliament from six to five years). But if the terms are to be extended then a Referendum becomes mandatory,” he explained.

There are indications that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with 14 MPs and led by former President Maithripala Sirisena, may leave the ruling coalition not wanting to sink with the government. There are open expressions of disgruntlement from other coalition parties headed by Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Therefore, getting two thirds support in parliament is virtually ruled out.

And among the electorate, including the Sinhala-Buddhist majority (the core support base of Gotabaya Rajapaksa), there is palpable disillusionment due to the gross mismanagement of the economy by him and his coterie. People, across the board, are facing severe shortages, sky rocketing prices, a crippling dollar shortage and unemployment.

There are calls from the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) to hold long overdue elections to the Provincial Councils. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), backed by India, has also demanded provincial polls. But the government is no mood to hold elections fearing a crushing defeat. It has already postponed the local bodies elections on a technical pretext.