Between 1947 and 1977 Sri Lanka had a prime ministerial form of government that resembled the Westminster model. In 1977 the then newly elected prime minister J R Jayewardene using his two-thirds majority in parliament introduced an executive presidency that came to be described as the “Gaullist System” of Asia. Under the constitutional provisions enacted, Prime Minister Jayawardane himself assumed the office of executive president without calling for a presidential election. In the first ever all-island presidential election held in 1982 he was reelected and held office until his second term ended in 1988. The constitution mandated a two-term limit on the presidency. After Jayewardene five others have held the office including the present incumbent Maithripala Sirisena who was elected in January 2015.
Jayewardene justified the executive presidency on the grounds that a powerful executive was essential to take quick and decisive decisions to accelerate Sri Lanka’s economic growth. Critics of the presidency saw it as an authoritarian office that over-centralized power and undermined Sri Lanka’s democracy. For sure Sri Lanka’s economy has performed relatively quite well in the past 35 years. In 1977 the per capita GDP was US $294. By 1997 it had more than doubled to $800 moving up the country from “low-income” to “lower-middle” income category in World Bank classification. In 2014 the per capita GDP was $3,625. While cause and effect in this kind of relationship is hard to determine, for sure there is an association between the two. More importantly critics saw in the executive presidency an increasingly authoritarian trend that posed a threat to Sri Lanka’s democracy. This reality reached its high point under the fourth executive president Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-2014). In 2001 under the 17th amendment to the constitution parliament unanimously voted for constitutional changes that reduced the powers of the executive presidency. Rajapaksa was elected to office for a second term in 2010 after he militarily defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The latter fought the government for over 25 years to establish an independent state in the north and east one-third of the island. Exploiting the military victory that made him a hero, especially among the 75% Sinhalese majority, in 2010 Rajapaksa succeed in getting parliament to pass the 18th amendment to the Constitution that removed the two-term limit of office and also overrode the provisions of the 17th amendment making the office of president more powerful than ever.
In January this year Rajapaksa lost the presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena. The latter promised to abolish the executive presidency and also limit his presidency to one term of five years. Two of his predecessors, Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) who promised to abolish the office failed to do so.
The present Sri Lanka administration is a “national” unity government that is a coalition of the country’s two main political groups. The first is the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United People Freedom Front (UPFA) that President Sirisena leads. The second, is the United National Party (UNP) that Prime Minister Rani Wickramasinghe leads. Together they command more than two-thirds of seats in parliament that permits them to amend or change the constitution. In a speech in Colombo on Tuesday November 17 Sirisena noted that the executive presidency in the “wrong hands” has become a “dangerous tool” and the “root cause of unprecedented corruption and breakdown of rule of law.” Many Sri Lankan voters would agree with Sirisena’s observation. Embarrassingly, he himself has provided proof for his assertion by appointing one of his siblings as the chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, one of the largest corporations in the country. The new chairman has been publicly accused of preparing to buy an Indian-owned phone company operating in Sri Lanka at an inflated price.
Sirisena took the first steps to deliver on his promise to curtail the powers of the presidency when his government passed the 19th amendment to the constitution in April this year that overrode the 18th amendment, took away some of the presidential powers and more or less restored the 17th amendment that provided for the the establishment of a Constitutional Council that is responsible for establishing a group of independent commissions such as the Human Rights Commission, Elections Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission and a Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery or Corruption.
Sirisena has four more years of his first term of office. It appears that his plan is to abolish the executive presidency at the end of his term and have an “Executive” Prime Minister. It is not clear at this stage how that position would differ from the office of prime minister of the British type that Sri Lanka had from 1947 to 1977. But what is certain is that it would be less powerful than the presidency. A committee that prime minster Wickramasinghe is to head will formulate the proposed constitutional amendments in the coming few weeks.
There is speculation that Sirisena who earlier hinted that he would retire from active politics when his presidential term ends might change his mind and remain in politics seeking the office of prime minister.