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How JR Jayewardene Ushered in the Executive Presidency in 1978

1 May 2015 06:03 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The successful passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament with an overwhelming majority has resulted in the executive presidency ushered in by the 1978 Constitution losing some if not all  of  its powers. This in turn has focused the spotlight on Sri Lanka’s first  executive president  Junius Richard  Jayewardene known generally as JR.

 As is well-known it was JR who masterminded the  change of  Sri Lanka’s political system  from  the British Westminster model to that of one closely resembling the French Gaullist Constitution. Power shifted to the President who was transformed from a figurehead to an effective head of state. The post of Prime Minister was devalued in the process.

The presidential system  introduced by JR Jayewardene has a long history. When JR was Minister of State in the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake (1965-70) he made a ground-breaking  speech at the Association for the Advancement of Science. JR Jayewardene in his keynote address of December 14, 1966 outlined his vision for an executive presidency and argued in favour of a presidential system based on the US and French models.

“The executive will be chosen directly by the people and is not dependent on the legislature during its period of existence, for a specified number of years. Such an executive is a strong  executive seated in power for a fixed number of years, not subject to the whims and fancies of an elected legislature; not afraid to take correct but unpopular decisions because of censure from its parliamentary party,” he said.

JR’s advocacy of an executive presidency sent  shock waves down the political establishment at the time. Relations between Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and  State Minister JR Jayewardene had deteriorated by then. Dudley was firmly opposed to the idea. There were few takers for JR’s proposal even within the United National Pary (UNP). In that environment JR was unable to push his proposal further but never let go of his vision.

Constituent Assembly

The next chance came six years later during the United Front (UF) government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1970-77). Parliament had converted itself into a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution. JR was then the leader of the opposition while Dudley Senanayake remained leader of the UNP. Differences between both had escalated and JR was almost a “lone wolf” within the party at that time.

On July 2, 1971, JR moved a resolution in the Constituent Assembly. It read as follows: “The executive power of the state shall be vested in the President of the Republic, who shall exercise it in accordance with  the provisions of the Constitution. The President of the Republic shall be elected for seven years for one term only by the direct vote of every citizen over 18 years of age. The President of the Republic shall preside over the council of ministers”. JR’s motion was seconded  at the Constituent Assembly by Ranasinghe Premadasa who was then the Colombo Central MP and Chief Opposition Whip.

"JR argued eloquently, within the Constituent Assembly, in support of an executive presidency. The motion was shot down. Constitutional Affairs Minister Dr. Colvin R de Silva led the government onslaught against JR’s proposal. Even a majority of UNP parliamentarians were not supportive because  party leader Dudley Senanayake himself  was firmly opposed to the idea. The JR-Premadasa motion was rejected by the then Constituent Assembly"

JR argued eloquently, within the Constituent Assembly, in support of an executive presidency. The motion was shot down. Constitutional Affairs Minister Dr. Colvin R de Silva led the government onslaught against JR’s proposal. Even a majority of UNP parliamentarians were not supportive because  party leader Dudley Senanayake himself  was firmly opposed to the idea. The JR-Premadasa motion was rejected by the then Constituent Assembly.

The UF government brought in the new Republican Constitution on May 22, 1972. The Governor General under the Soulbury Constitution gave way to the President. As a result Power was vested in Parliament known then as the National State Assembly and while President William Gopallawa was the titular head of state, the real power was retained by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973 and JR succeeded him as UNP leader. He soon established his leadership position and brought the party under his full control. JR was now able to pursue his vision of an executive presidency from a strong position.

UNP Manifesto

The UNP manifesto of 1977 stated, “Executive power will be vested in a President elected from time to time by the people. The Constitution will also preserve the parliamentary system we are used to and the Prime Minister will be chosen by the President from the party that commands a majority in Parliament and the ministers of the cabinet would also be elected members of Parliament.”

The  change to an Executive President from Prime Ministerial system was a key aspect of the UNP electoral campaign in 1977. The UNP swept the polls and obtained 141 out of the 168 parliamentary seats. JR Jayewardene became Prime Minister in July 1977. He began moving fast towards the  his cherished vision of an   executive presidency.

JR and a small group of  ministers and party stalwarts in association with leading lawyer Mark Fernando started working towards  the goal of  introducing the executive presidency. The preliminary discussion was on August 7, 1977. An amendment to the Republican Constitution of 1972 was first drafted. After discussions in Cabinet it was approved and certified by the Cabinet as “urgent in the national interest”.

Thereafter it was sent  by the Speaker to the Constitutional Court  which prevailed at that time, as an “urgent bill”. The Constitutional  Court approved the bill within 24 hours as stipulated. It was then presented to the National State Assembly for debating and voting. The bill  was adopted by the then National State Assembly on September 22, 1977 as the Second Constitutional Amendment. Executive power was transferred to the President and JR Jayewardene became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka on Independence Day, February 4, 1978.

Select Committee

Meanwhile JR was also working towards the goal of replacing the 1972 Constitution  in its entirety with a new one. On October 20, 1977 the National State Assembly passed a resolution enabling the then Speaker Anandatissa de Alwis to appoint a Select Committee for Constitutional Reform. The essence of the select committee mandate was, “To consider the revision of the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka and other written law as the committee may consider necessary.”

The Parliamentary select committe was announced on November 3, 1977. Initially the chairman was  JR Jayewardene who was then representing Colombo West in Parliament. JR however had to vacate Parliament as an MP  in February 1978 after he was sworn in as President. Ranasinghe Premadasa who was also serving in the select committee was then appointed chairman on February 23, 1978 by the Speaker. Mr. Premadasa was also appointed Prime Minister.
Other MP’s  from the UNP in the select committee  were Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ronnie de Mel, KW Devanayagam and MHM Naina Marikkar. Sri Lanka (SLFP) MPs  appointed to the committee were Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Maithripala Senanayake. Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) Leader Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman who had not joined the government was also on the committee. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) which at the time was the main opposition party refused to serve on the committee. In May 1978 the two SLFP representatives withdrew from the select committee. As a result of the left parties being wiped out in the 1977 poll, there were neither Trotskyites nor Communists in the committee. The executive presidency ushered in through the earlier second amendment was now streamlined and incorporated in the new draft constitution. The executive president was now head of state and head of government. The electoral system was also changed from the first- pass-the post system to that of  the proportional representative system. Sri Lanka became a Democratic Socialist Republic. The new Constitution referred to popularly as the “JR constitution” was formally promulgated on September 7, 1978.

Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson

After the presidential system was installed, Prof. Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson analysed it in his book “The Gaullist system in Asia:The Constitution of Sri Lanka.” In it he observed, “What Jayewardena was after was a stable executive which would not be easily swayed by pressures from within or outside. The outcome in the end was a President who in many ways can in certain circumstances, be more powerful than the French President.” Though he introduced a Presidential system, Mr. Jayewardene did not provide for a Cabinet appointed from outside Parliament. He was also averse to a powerful presidential secretariat as a parallel centre of power to the Cabinet.

In response to Prof. Wilson’s  specific query on that issue, JR replied, “I must say I am very reluctant to appoint advisers who will be around the President. The reason is that I wish the President to have only his Prime Minister and the Cabinet of ministers as advisers because they represent the people as Members of Parliament”.

Mr. Jayewardene also outlined this position at the convocational address of the University of Sri Lanka on May 31, 1978. This is what he said at the time: “I am the first elected Executive President, Head of State and Head of Government. It is an office of power and thus of responsibility. Since many others will succeed me I wish during my term of office to create precedents that are worthy of following. First, I will always act through the Cabinet and Parliament, preserving the parliamentary system as it existed without diminution of their powers.  Second, I will not create a group known as the President’s men and women who will influence him”. This then was JR Jayewardene’s definiton of the Presidency he had set up. This practice of following the British Cabinet model and confining such cabinet ministers to be members of Parliament has created an impression that the old system prevailed still in full force.

Notwithstanding Jayewardene’s claims to the contrary the reality was that governance had changed utterly in Sri Lanka after the executive presidency. The executive president was  both above as well as independent of the “devalued” legislature. What is important to note is the fact that an executive president required full parliamentary strength to be all-powerful.When JR Jayewardene ushered in the presidency he controlled Parliament with a five-sixths majority. Thus the gigantic majority of the UNP in Parliament enabled JR to exercise power authoritatively akin to a dictator. Mr. Jayewardene  continued to  retain  this stranglehold on the legislature through several devices.

Constitutional Dictator

JR  froze the UNP’s Parliamentary strength of five-sixths and further extended it’s term of office through the 1982 referendum; JR  prevented the crossing over of MP’s  from government to opposition by Constitutional legislation; JR  promoted crossing over from opposition to government through the infamous “Rajadurai” Amendment to the Constitution. JR also got letters of resignation from all his MPs other than from S. Thondaman.  Thus  Sri Lanka’s first Executive President Junius Richard Jayewardene in practice became  a Constitutional “dictator”.

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at

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