In August 1978, then Premier JR Jayawardene ushered in a new Constitution, which introduced the concept of an Executive President with sweeping powers. Mr. Jayawardene himself is on record saying that the only power the new constitution did not give him was to change ‘a man into a woman’!
From its inception all parties in opposition condemned the 1978 Constitution, claiming it gave the President dictatorial powers. From thence onward every political party in opposition, has, whilst in the opposition, promised to change the constitution if elected to power. Presidential candidates too, during election campaigns promised to change the country’s Constitution .
However, though governments have changed many times over and three different presidents, all of whom promised to change the Constitution, came and went, the JR Jayawardene Constitution remained in tact.
That is until in April 2015, when the previous ‘Yahapalana Regime’, brought in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which curtailed the powers of the Executive Presidency via reducing its term of office,. re-introducing the president’s two term limit, made provision for the appointment of Independent Constitutional and other Councils and removed the President’s power to dissolve Parliament on his own. It also brought in a few other changes including the Right to Information Act. The Amendment which was passed by the 225-member parliament with 215 voting in favour, one against, one abstaining and seven members absenting themselves, shifted power from the presidency, to the premier.
Today, with the general election around the corner, we are hearing clarion calls on the need to change the constitution and re-align the balance of power, despite many other problems requiring attention. The incumbent President and his political party - the SLPP - are asking the electorate to give them a 2/3rd majority to change the Constitution.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an interview with ‘The Hindu’ and ‘Hindustan Times’ while in India, said he needed a two-thirds majority to drop the 19th Amendment from the Constitution as it was a failure. He said he needed a 2/3rd majority in parliament to do this. The two centres of power which flow from the 19th Amendment are apparently not workable. This appears to be the main grouse.
The now divided UNP and its breakaway faction the SJB are warning the electorates against giving the SLPP a two-thirds majority. It would appear the two parties have already conceded defeat and are warning, the dropping of the 19th Amendment will give dictatorial powers to an Executive President.
Political parties representing the Tamils too are demanding Constitutional changes. But theirs is a call for a greater devolution of power. The party leadership have said they would support or reject proposed changes to the constitution only after envisaged changes are made clear. The mainline Muslim political parties have at different times spoken in support of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
Civil activists warn the proposal to drop the 19th Amendment is a surreptitious effort to do away with the Independent Councils by packing them with political appointees, thus politicising the Judiciary, the Public Service Council and other similar bodies such as the Constitutional Council, turning them into malleable institutions taking forward particular political and individual agendas.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, redefined the role and powers of the Prime Minister. Late President Premadasa, when he was Prime Minister under Executive President Jayawardene, described his powers under the 1978 Constitution as PM, akin to that of a postal peon.
Today, with the advent of the 19th Amendment, the roles of the Prime Minister and President have been to an extent reversed. The Prime Minister’s powers can no longer be compared to that of a postal peon. Effectively he has more power than the President.
Our present Premier has been holding supreme power (except for a brief interruption), since first being elected Executive President in 2005. As the present Premier - thanks to the 19th amendment - is no postal peon serving an Executive President. Again the present President will not be satisfied playing second fiddle to his elder brother under a radically changed constitution. It is indeed seldom people voluntarily give up power, the immediate past executive sold his position for a mess of pottage, later tried to usurp power, but was brought down to earth by a newly independent Judiciary. Constitutional changes in the aftermath of the general elections will be necessarily made within these boundaries.
It is therefore unlikely that a constitutional change will see a single individual invested with powers similar to the executive under the original JR Constitutional model. But fears remain over the independence of Independent Councils under a changed constitution.