The best gift to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on his 70th birthday was given by none other than President Maithripala Sirisena. On Wednesday when Mr. Rajapaksa was celebrating his birthday with unprecedented publicity in the historic city of Anuradhapura, the Cabinet met in Colombo to approve a proposal submitted by the President to abolish the much-hated executive presidential system.
Interestingly, the proposal was brought to the Cabinet this time in the name of the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, who pioneered the campaign to oust the former president from power. At a ceremony in Temple Trees on Tuesday, the President underscored his government’s commitment to abolish the executive presidency, introduce electoral reforms and bring about major changes to the Constitution by way of a Cabinet paper to be submitted the next day.
At Wednesday’s religious observances in Anuradhapura to mark his 70th birthday the former president was asked by the journalists about his views on the government’s move to scrap the executive powers which were used by him for nine years. He said “Bohoma hondai” (very good) and added that it would be better if done forthwith.
Mr. Rajapaksa seemed frank when co mending the government’s move, though he loved the executive powers vested in the presidency and used them to the core during his two terms in office. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution that was adopted by the Parliament on May 28, during the 100-Day programme reintroduced the section in the 1978 Constitution banning presidents from running for a third term. This effectively deprived Mr. Rajapaksa of the opportunity to become the Leader of the State again, having served his two terms.
However, in the event of the executive powers of the presidency being transferred to parliament nothing would prevent him from contesting for the post of Prime Minister who would be the Leader of the State and the Leader of the Government wielding executive powers. Therefore, there cannot be a better birthday gift to the former President than this Cabinet decision.
Given the breach of trust in abolishing the executive presidency by former presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa the commitment showed by President Sirisena has to be commended. The normal practice so far had been for the leaders of political parties to support the scrapping of the executive presidency, sometimes even launching campaigns, when out of office. However, President Sirisena had proved he was sincere when he assured he would abolish the executive presidential system.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera told a media conference on Wednesday at Sirikotha that President Sirisena was the first in the region to voluntarily relinquish his executive powers and added that the proposed Constitutional amendment to that effect would come into force after his
term of office.
However, President Sirisena, even if successful in his move, is not the first in the region to do so. Former Pakistani president Asif Ali Sardari had set a precedent by stripping his presidential powers on
April 19, 2010.
On the other hand, if the proposed Constitutional amendment comes into force after President Sirisena’s tenure, the claim that he is the first in the region to relinquish his executive powers while in office is self contradictory. In fact he is going to sacrifice his second term through this Constitutional amendment and however, President Sirisena, from the inception of his presidency had assured he would not run for a second term.
Unlike the other Constitutional changes in the past the executive presidency had been highly controversial and criticised because of the immunity it vests on the President and that the President is above and not responsible to parliament. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the leftist parties had vehemently opposed the system until President Mahinda Rajapaksa adopted the 18th Amendment, soon after he armed himself with a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010 and ruling the country from the presidential house as long as he was physically and mentally fit to do so. The irony is that the SLFP has retained the executive presidency longer than the United National Party (UNP) that introduced the system through the second Republican Constitution in 1978. The leftist parties too had clung to those SLFP presidents throughout. It is also interesting to note that a president from the SLFP was ousted this time by a UNP-led coalition under a slogan to abolish the executive presidency while the UNP that introduced the presidential system is helping to scrap it.
The main slogan and the promise put forward by Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr. Rajapaksa at the 1994, 1999, 2005, and 2010 presidential elections was the scrapping of the executive presidency. However, they did not keep their word. Ms. Kumaratunga was offered the support to do so by the late Gamini Dissanayake before the 1994 presidential election, but she rejected it. However, she later presented a new draft Constitution in the Parliament on August 3, 2000 which provided for the purpose and that time the UNP burnt copies of the Constitution within the parliament chamber itself .
The only president who had the two-thirds majority to scrap the executive presidency with or without the support of the Opposition was Mahinda Rajapaksa after the 2010 parliamentary election. But he reneged on his promise and did the opposite, by bringing in the draconian 18th Amendment with provisions to remove the bar for an incumbent president to contest for the presidency for more than two terms, to scrap the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions that somewhat bridled the President. The leftists and some members of the intelligentsia who now wax eloquent about democracy slavishly supported this treachery.
Even President Sirisena had promised to scrap the controversial system of governance under his 100-Day Programme which had even specified dates to present the relevant Bill, the 19th Amendment and to adopt it. However, the 19th Amendment had only trimmed some of the executive powers but did not abolish the system as promised by the President and the UNP. It was said that a referendum was needed to totally do away with the system which was impossible at the time.
However, the referendum was not something unexpected before the promise was given. At the media conference in which President Sirisena announced his common candidacy at the presidential election on November 21 last year, he told that the system could be abolished without the two-thirds majority by going for a referendum. It was also said that it was the opposition by the JHU and not the want of a referendum that prevented the President from keeping his promise during the 100-Day Programme. The Supreme Court had ruled that some of the changes proposed by the original Bill for the 19th Amendment must be approved by the people at a referendum. Therefore the government would have to present the Bill for the proposed Constitutional reforms as well to the people at a referendum the outcome of which might be tainted by various forces within and outside of this government. This would be the main problem government would have to address if it is serious in its effort to abolish the executive presidential system.