In 1978 the then President J. R. Jayawardene used or abused the ruling United National Party’s 5/6th majority in parliament to impose the Executive Presidential System on the people of Sri Lanka. He took his oaths on February 4, 1978 as the first Executive President and what happened after that was abuse after abuse which eventually led to the 30-year ethnic war, the reign of terror from 1987 to 1989.
Widely regarded as the leader with authoritarian tendencies Mr. Jayawardene also used the party’s 5/6th majority to hold a referendum instead of general election in 1982. he won 51 per cent of the vote and it was a narrow victory over the then divided Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa. A referendum victory by a few percentage points was converted into a 5/6th majority in parliament for the next six years. After the referendum the JVP pulled out of mainstream non-violent politics.
The second executive President Ranasinghe Premadasa began well. It has been said often but it is always true that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Eventually we saw State terror and abuse of power to such an extent that the UNP front-liners led by Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali moved a motion of impeachment against Mr. Premadasa. The then Speaker M.H. Mohamed first entertained the impeachment motion but most independent political analysts believe undue influence or threats were made against him and the Speaker de-entertained the impeachment motion. Mr. Dissanayake and Mr. Athulathmudali, widely regarded as the best brains in the party were sacked and they formed the Democratic United National Front.
On May Day 1993, Mr. Premadasa was directing the UNP workers march when he was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber who had worked as the President’s cook. In terms of the Constitution the mild-mannered soft-spoken Prime Minister D. B. Wijetunga took over as President and for this purpose he obtained a parliamentary majority. The new President known to close aides as DBW by some nicknamed him the ‘Dunnoth Baraganna Wijetunga’. But others say he ‘Did Bloody Well’. Whatever it be, he called parliamentary elections in 1994 and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge led the SLFP to a narrow victory. Mr. Wijetunga called a presidential election on November 9, 1994 and the UNP decided to field Gamini Dissanayake, who was killed by the LTTE at a Thotalanga election rally a few weeks before the presidential poll.
With little or no option left, the UNP nominated Mr. Dissanayake’s widow Srima while the SLFP’s candidate was Ms. Kumaratunga who won a landslide victory with 62 per cent of the votes. She pledged time and again that the Executive Presidential System was the curse of curses and pledged to abolish it within months. But power not only corrupts, it is also an addiction and Ms. Kumaratunga continued with it till she called a presidential poll in 1999.
Weeks before the poll, an LTTE suicide bomber tried to kill her but failed and Ms. Kumaratunga, as many independent analysts believe, won the presidential election largely on a sympathy vote. Based on what is called the ‘Rajadorai Amendment’ a large number of SLFP MPs crossed over and the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP won a comfortable majority at the general election in 2001.
Since then the main parties and others have repeatedly pledged that the Executive Presidential System should and would be abolished. The 19th Amendment moved by the Yahapalanaya government in 2015 significantly reduced the powers of the Executive President especially his power to dissolve parliament at any time and to appoint cabinet ministers, the Chief Justice, the Inspector General of Police and other top officials.
On Wednesday the Cabinet approved the 20th Amendment which will restore full powers to the President, giving him the right to appoint cabinet ministers, the chief justice, the judges of the Court of Appeal and High Courts and officials to other top posts. Instead of the wide-powered all-party Constitutional Council which had to approve nominations to high posts including judges of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and High Courts, the 20th Amendment proposes a parliamentary council which will have only observation status.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, being a former military officer, has also got the military, police and the civil defence forces to play a key role in vital issues such as controlling the Covid-19 pandemic. With extra powers from the 20th Amendment there are questions as to whither goest Sri Lanka or Quo Vadis.