Sri Lanka to Prune Presidential Powers
Next step will be the abolition of the Executive Presidency itself
The crisis in Sri Lanka has two dimensions, economic and political. The grave economic and political problems that are plaguing the country, had existed in some form or the other for long, but were neglected.
The blame for the present economic crisis, marked by shortages of essentials brought about by an unprecedented foreign exchange shortage, is laid at the door of the Executive Presidency, vested as it is with overriding powers. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is paying the price for being vested with absolute power, in as much as the main slogan of the protesters is “Gota Go Home”.
Following the exposure of the dangers inherent in the all-powerful Executive Presidency, two demands arose. One section sought the abolition of the Executive Presidency, and the other sought pruning its powers. The latter also sought provision of greater powers for Parliament and the inclusion of civil society in decision-making.
While the apolitical protesters gathered at Galle Face saw the wholesale exit of the Rajapaksas as “the” answer for Sri Lanka’s ills, the politically-informed sections wanted structural or constitutional changes. The latter group was further divided into those who wanted the total abolition of the Executive Presidency and those who wanted it retained with reduced powers.
The main Opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), is seeking abolition of the Executive Presidency as well as a return of the Independent Commissions which were abolished by the Rajapaksa government through the 20th Amendment (20A) in 2020. The demand for the abolition of the Executive President and the return of the Independent Commission is shared by intellectuals and liberals who have a distaste for the concentration of power in the hands of one person or office or in the hands of politicians.
The radical leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) wants the Executive Presidency to go, but it also wants fresh Parliamentary elections. But the demand for fresh elections has few takers given the country’s economic condition. The minority Tamils, who had earlier supported the Executive Presidential system because the direct election of the President had given them the feeling that they had a role in the selection of the country’s Chief Executive, are now disillusioned. They also want the Executive Presidency to go. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) wants President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit immediately but the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) wants it done in a phased manner. At any rate, the Executive Presidency cannot be abolished easily. It has to be put to a referendum as it is tantamount to changing the basic structure of the constitution.
Professional associations are divided. While the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is seeking the abolition of the Executive Presidency, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) is ignoring the issue and concentrating on the composition of the independent commissions thereby seeking a role for itself and other economic groupings.
The draft 21A prepared by Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe in consultation with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which is now being discussed by the political parties, brings back the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions, which existed under the 19th Amendment (19A) of 2015. The draft also bars dual citizens from seeking political office. But it does not seek abolition of the Executive Presidency. It appears to have a short-term objective of curbing the powers of the President and increasing the power of parliament and civil society in governance.
On May 27, leaders of political parties met under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and decided to replace the 20th Amendment (20A) by the earlier 19th Amendment (19A). The 19A envisages the establishment of “Independent Commissions” (ICs) to direct and watch over various aspects of governance such as the administrative structure, public finance, police, elections etc., with the involvement of parliamentarians as well as distinguished apolitical outsiders.
Among the details yet to be discussed are two divisive issues. One is the question as to whether the President should keep the Ministry of Defense under him and the other is whether dual citizens could continue to have the right to contest elections and become ministers. Both are critical issues.
The view of the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian lobby is that the directly elected President (elected largely with the support of the majority community) should hold the Defense portfolio to protect the country from fissiparous forces (like the now defunct LTTE) and insurgencies (like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the late 1980s). But others point out that even with the Defense Ministry in his hands, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could not prevent mobs from burning his ancestral house or the houses of his ministers. Therefore, the President’s having the defense portfolio does not necessarily guarantee security.
As regards the issue of dual citizens having political rights, it was not taken up by the party leaders on Friday but is expected to come up in subsequent meetings. This is an important issue for the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) because its main organizer, former Finance Minister and current MP, Basil Rajapaksa, is a dual (US-Sri Lankan) citizen. So are some other MPs like Dullas Alahaperuma, who was to be considered for Premiership.
Political sources said that there is a possibility that those who are opposed to the ban on dual citizens will try to get it deleted when the amendment is discussed in parliament clause by clause at the committee stage, but Basil Rajapaksa’s supporters will oppose that tooth and nail.
However, allowing dual citizens to be members of parliament and of the council of ministers, is not favored by the public, especially at this time, when there is an anti-Rajapaksa wave across the country. It is felt that at least some SLPP MPs might go along with the general mood against accommodating dual citizens.
It is said that the Ranil Wickremesinghe-Wijedasa Rajapakshe draft of the 21 st.Amendment followed an understanding they had reached with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This is described by cynics and popular protesters as an “unholy deal” to safeguard the interest of the Rajapaksas, especially President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. While all other Rajapaksas, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his heir apparent Namal Rajapaksa, have quit office, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still clinging to the Presidency on the plea that he has a five-year mandate from 6.9 million voters in the 2019 Presidential elections.
Since the President can be thrown out only through an impeachment motion, which is a difficult process, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe devised a constitutional amendment (21A) to whittle down the President’s powers to the level envisaged by repealed 19 th. Amendment (19A) and got him to agree to it. On his part, the President is said to have realized that he had indeed lost public legitimacy and was open to an “honorable exit.” The “deal” now is that he will be a ceremonial President (de facto) till he finishes his term in 2024.
In case Parliament amends the constitution to abolish the Executive Presidency, there could be a special, one-off arrangement for him to stay on till the end of his term.
Since abolition of the Executive Presidency is a difficult proposition with a referendum involved, there is a school of thought which says that since there is already a Presidential Committee working on an entirely new constitution for the country, the issue of the Executive Presidency could be taken up by that committee.