Since we gained independence from the British in 1948, the country has had two Governors General, one Constitutional President and six Executive Presidents. We have also had three constitutions.
The first constitution, (the Soulbury Constitution) imposed by the British, gave the country a parliamentary democracy, based on the Westminster model in Britain with the Queen of England as head of state, represented by her Governor General. The Senate and the House of Representatives exercised legislative power and the term of the House was five years. The Senate consisting of 30 members (15 elected by the House and 15 appointed by the Governor General) was abolished in October 1971.
In 1972,Sirimavo Bandaranaike -- the world’s first female Prime Minister -- used parliament as a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Republican Constitution, which was promulgated on May 22, 1972. Under the 1972 constitution, the name of the country was changed from ‘Ceylon’ to ‘Sri Lanka’, the legislature changed to a single chamber, renamed itself as the National State Assembly, declared the country a Republic state, replacing the Queen as Head of State with a Constitutional President appointed by the Prime Minister and the term of office of the assembly increased to six years.
Before the 1977 general elections, the United National Party (UNP) sought a mandate from the people to adopt a new constitution; the party won the July 1977 election with a five-sixths majority. It passed the second Amendment to the 1972 Constitution on October 4, 1977 introducing the concept of an Executive President. The Prime Minister Jayawardene, declared himself Executive President on February 4, 1978.
The regime then promulgated the new Constitution on September 7, 1978, which provided a unicameral parliament and an Executive President. The term of office of the President and the duration of parliament were both set at six years. The new Constitution also introduced a form of multi-member proportional representation for elections to parliament. Parliament was to consist of 196 members. From its inception, the new Constitution came under fire, especially regarding the extent of executive power devolved on the holder of that post. Other than President Premadasa, who was elected into office when JR’s term expired, all Presidential candidates who contested the Presidency, came to office on a promise of abolishing the executive Presidency and putting in place a new Constitution.
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, one of the biggest critics of the 1978 Constitution won the Presidential election in 1994 and came to power on the promise of abolishing the executive presidency and what she referred to as ‘the bahubutha Constitution of 1978’.To her credit, it must be said she did make an effort to change the Constitution, but her efforts were defeated in parliament amid scenes of hooliganism in the well of the House.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa who followed Ms. Kumaratunge as President, too made mention of abolishing the executive presidency, but made no serious effort to abolish it during his term of office. In fact he went a step further and brought in an Amendment to the Constitution, to extend his term in office.
Incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena took the promise of abolishing the post of Executive President to a new level during his Presidential campaign, promising to be a one-term President, changing the Constitution and abolishing the post of Executive President. Unfortunately, once in office his position shifted. He has attempted to extend his Presidential term and even suggested he was willing to contest a future Presidential election!
Today, 41 years after then Prime Minister JR Jayawardene appointed himself as the first Executive President, with the blessings of his the then five-sixths majority in parliament, the executive presidency in Sri Lanka seems to be in no danger of being abolished. The last hurried move to abolish the post of Executive President via the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was roundly defeated at the Cabinet meeting of September 19, 2009.
It was in fact, an exercise in futility. The date of the next Presidential election had been announced. Given the fact that government did not have a required 2/3rd majority in parliament, the legislation would need to be ratified by a referendum. Therefore today, the much maligned Constitution of September 1978, still stands. Any talk of abolishing the post of the Executive President is taken by the masses of this country as a bad joke or with ‘a pinch of salt’.
On November 6, 2019, Sri Lankans will troop to the poll in their numbers and elect the next Executive President. Cheap politicians may come and go, but the post of the Executive President and the ‘Bahubootha Constitution’ will live on to to haunt the country for many years to come.