by Krishantha Prasad Cooray
In 1978, JR Jayewardene instituted the Executive Presidential System in Sri Lanka as a panacea for all of the nation’s problems. By 1991, his co-architects Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali had recognized the dangers associated with the executive presidency. They formed the DUNF not only as an opposition movement aiming to defeat President Premadasa, but also as a national movement to completely abolish the executive presidential system.
Every president elected since then, from Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa to Maithripala Sirisena, stood up for the president and promised to abolish the presidency. Although these promises went unfulfilled, two constitutional amendments were passed under Kumaratunga and Sirisena that restricted the draconian powers of the presidency. The 17th amendment was never properly implemented during the 19th amendment. Although the Sirisena government unfortunately failed to push through the call for a referendum to completely abolish the presidency, President Sirisena was our first head of state to voluntarily curtail his own powers.
The 18th amendment, on the other hand, strengthened the powers of the president while removing the term limitation, the only democratic safeguard in the system. The purpose of the bill was to allow President Mahinda Rajapaksa to run for a third term and more. Ironically, that bill was a major factor in his defeat in January 2015. The idea of a presidential king other than name was anathema to many and helped to unite and rally a divided opposition.
The Executive Presidency is said to have been designed for JRJ to get the most out of its governance ability. In practice, it brought out the worst and led directly to anti-democratic episodes such as the 1982 referendum and the disfranchisement of Srimavo Bandaranaike.
The Executive Presidency should usher in an era of stability, peace and prosperity. Instead, its 43 years of existence had been a period of relentless instability. With or without civil war, the excesses of the presidents drunk in power exacerbated existing problems and sparked new ones. President after President has been blinded by the insignia of their office and overwhelmed by the power of this beast. They all ended up leaving their office with more shame than pride. It took barely four decades of the executive presidency to bring Sri Lanka to the brink of a failed state.
When Lee Kuan Yew was asked what the secret of his success was, he replied, “I had no idiots in my cabinet.” In Sri Lanka, politics has become the almost exclusive sanctuary of idiots, including such blessed souls as those who wonder why we need oxygen. There were notable exceptions, but electoral trends clearly favor the unintelligent, illiterate, and dishonest. The presidency encouraged this deterioration. Time and again, executive presidents have used their excessive powers to raise idiots and crooks whose main qualification is their willingness and expertise to worship the president.
It is perfectly clear that today’s government not only failed, but also failed miserably and failed faster than any other in our history. We have a president who earnestly tells government officials that his mere words are the only circulars they need. What more do you need to prove the danger of putting too much power in the hands of one person?
The executive presidency system rules a single person as sole leader and puts the public, civil service, police, judiciary, and all other politicians at their mercy. It exalts the president like a king to be above the people and above the law. The presidency replaces the usual democratic decision-making rooms like cabinets, parliamentary assemblies and autonomous officials with a royal court full of loyal fools and cronies who turn the levers of governance into a supportive cast for a one-man show.
When such sycophants manage to isolate presidents and shower them with flattery, weak leaders are quick to rely on them because they feel safe. They become gatekeepers, preventing presidents from hearing alternative views, and urging ministers and officials to bow before them even to get an audience with their leader. The presidency creates, especially in the absence of strong and permanent institutional restrictions, an ideal breeding ground for such sycophants and enables them to withdraw specialists and career politicians. Every president is surrounded by cronies, whether business people, media moguls or obscure bagmen and their sugary charms. Politics is about people, and decisions are about profits for the few, not about improving the country.
It is for this reason that we hear of less and less successful business people investing in their people or infrastructure, or in the manufacture of a product or service.
The most successful today are those who close deals, hold percentages, use political patronage to buy something cheap or sell at a higher price, exploit suspicious tax loopholes, pump-and-dump systems or illicit bond trading to get on to get to the top. An economy and community that rewards having the head of state on the speed dial of honest innovation, sweat and entrepreneurship is never taken seriously in the global marketplace.
This type of corruption was one of the main reasons people like Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero campaigned for an end to the executive presidency. Like Lalith and Gamini before him, he saw that the liberation of Sri Lanka would require more than regime change. It would require radical system changes. There is no point in ousting a president and replacing him with another who you hope will not be corrupted by the crown.
Sobitha Thero knew that the only way to get Sri Lanka on the right track was to break free of this system and replace it with a system where not all power is centered in a single individual. Tragically, the government he led fell short of his vision. Nevertheless, the 19th amendment made historic progress towards democratization. Thanks to this landmark law, for the first time in over 35 years, our judiciary, parliament and civil service were untied, and it was like a breath of fresh air. Our senior judges were not unilaterally selected for appointment or promotion by a president at his whim. Instead, unanimous judicial appointments were made by the Constitutional Council between the president, the spokesman, the prime minister, the opposition leader, their candidates and representatives of civil society.
During the entire term of office of the Constitutional Council from September 2015 to September 2020, not a single candidate or official for the judiciary was appointed by the Council for objections from the opposition. Each judge was deemed suitable by the government and the opposition alike. But with the 20th amendment, the president will again rule parliament, appoint and promote judges like his own, and treat civil servants and civil servants as if they were his private property.
The experience of 43 years is clear. The presidential system has weakened us as a nation, made us more divided and more unstable. It’s a failed experiment. And as the caliber of men and women in politics has deteriorated, so does the caliber of the president. Individuals who lack the ability and emotional maturity to manage a Kadey, let alone a country, can end up wielding the power of life and death over the country and its people.
Unfortunately, too many of our politicians have fallen under the appeal of the executive presidency. You are consumed with the idea of one day becoming president. They believe that they are special, that they can succeed where other presidents have failed, even though history has taught us that every president has left the country worse.
If a majority of MPs think a prime minister is no longer performing, they could replace him as so many British, Australian and Indian prime ministers have been sacked from their own parties. This constant threat leads to more stable, disciplined and democratic governance rather than allowing a failed president to sit as king for years until the next election.
The executive presidency has failed. It is time to return to our democratic roots, to a more collegial, responsible and accountable form of government. Sri Lanka will only thrive if we finally break free of our monarchist presidential system and replace it with a truly transparent, pluralistic, liberal democracy. The power of the presidency does not flow from heaven. The powers of the president have been entrusted to him by parliament and the voice of the people. According to the constitution, the same powers can be withdrawn with a parliamentary majority of two thirds followed by a referendum. It is not a divine right, but a transfer of power by the people and their elected representatives.
It is time to draft a new constitution that preserves Sri Lankan unity, enshrines the rights of our citizens, and replaces the presidency with a Westminster-style government led by a prime minister and other democratic reforms to take over politics the process of appointing and promoting judges, police officers and civil servants.
Today’s highest political leaders, whether in government or in opposition, are too enamored with the presidency to take the lead in dismantling it. The way forward is for those outside of politics, for those whose lives, legacies and future have been jeopardized by this system, for ordinary citizens and civil society movements who want real change. They need to stand up, be counted, and insist that our next leader bring us back to our democratic roots.
JR Jayewardene may have thought that the executive presidential system would save the country from impending oblivion. Now we have to develop a system that can save Sri Lanka from the executive presidency itself.