Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesNewsExecutive Presidential System in Sri Lanka – Six major pitfalls

Executive Presidential System in Sri Lanka – Six major pitfalls


”In this regard, I wish to share some observations that I have made about the executive presidential system that operates in Sri Lanka and its future. This I hope may be of use to those who wish to have it abolished as well as those who want it retained.
By Victor Ivan

 The opposition political parties are in disarray. This situation, whilst weakening the opposition movement of the country, has substantially contributed to strengthening the power of the government.
Against this backdrop, Karu Jayasuriya has endeavored to propose a solution of a newer kind to the difficult and complex problem of uniting the opposition parties which are currently in a state of disintegration into a cohesive and consistent movement.

Issuing a statement, he has appealed to all opposition political parties to unite under one banner to abolish the executive presidential system which tends to deprive the country and the people of everything of their lot.

For the first time, Karu Jayasuriya in his statement has sought to treat the entire political system as one whole entity. He has stressed that the executive presidential system over a long period has taught us several lessons which are ghastly and unpleasant. The executive presidential system has rendered us miserable as political parties.

Even the giants of the UNP of the caliber of Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayaka who passionately supported the presidential system at one stage of its initiation, later realized the dangers inherent in the system. Excessive concentration of power in one person is not conducive to promote democracy in a country. Certainly it poses a big threat and an obstacle to the growth of democracy. That is the reality that we as politicians, media personnel and ordinary citizens experience today. The only way open for changing this scenario is for all opposition political parties to reach a consensus on the abolition of the executive presidential system and make a concerted effort as a united and strong opposition force to achieve it.

From an ideological point of view, the stand taken by Karu Jayasuriya can be reckoned as a far reaching move. However, a mere statement alone is not adequate to achieve this objective. A well grounded program and an active plan of action are required for it. Though it is important to bring all the political parties to focus on a common objective of abolishing the presidential system, it is not desirable to confine it only to the opposition political parties. Changing a political system is not as easy as changing a government and it requires a greater degree of consensus and cooperation of the people.

In this regard, I wish to share some observations that I have made about the executive presidential system that operates in Sri Lanka and its future. This I hope may be of use to those who wish to have it abolished as well as those who want it retained.

1. Obsolescence of the system

Historically, the executive presidential system that is in operation in Sri Lanka has reached its culmination. It has now become old fashioned and a curse to the country. A political reformation aimed at abolishing the executive presidency should have been introduced soon after the defeat of Prabhakaran with a system which is newer and more effective in solving the problems of minority groups as well.

If Mahinda Rajapaksa had been able to effect this change he would certainly have become a long time idol of the people rather than becoming a short term hero. Yet, the president has failed to make use of this historic opportunity to bring about the necessary change. Despite the promise that he made to change the corrupt political system, he introduced an amendment to the Constitution to ensure the extension of his political survival. And in doing so, he lost his place in the historic task in changing the corrupt political system of the country.

Numerous incidents that occur constantly in regard to the political system have enabled the people to realize the ad hoc and corrupt nature and violent character of the prevailing system. Consequently, the people have lost the glamour of moral recognition that they had towards the political system of the country. Currently, the political system has degenerated into a level of confusion which

even the president who holds the navigational steering of the system is unable to control. In this backdrop, arbitrary attempts to go on with this system which is already out of date, ignoring the need for a change will invariably lead to escalating the internal rifts and disagreements which might sometimes end up in violent explosions. In such an eventuality, the price that the society has to pay can be enormous. The people who are sensible should fend off such trends and attempt to reorganize the system before it reaches a level beyond control.

2. Crumbling of the Opposition

Crumbling of the Opposition is more an outcome of the political system than the weakness of the leaders of the political parties. During the times when the executive presidential power was in the hands of the UNP, the SLFP and the other opposition parties were pushed to a wretched condition which is similar to the miserable situation faced by the UNP and the other opposition parties today. The role that was played by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike then was more or less similar to the role that is being played by Ranil Wickremesinghe today.

Under the system that prevailed prior to the introduction of the presidential system the governments in power were usually changed every five years. Hence the period that the opposition parties had to hold up in the Opposition remained rather short. Even the cost that incurred for that was not so enormous.

The opposition parties therefore, had the capacity to work with confidence. Even the rulers were conscious of the brevity of their regimes. Officials too, were aware of it. But, the executive presidential system introduced in 1977 lengthened the period of changing a government from three to four times. It also weakened the capacity of the opposition parties to hold up till their turn came. Often, certain groups in the opposition tended to control the government in power indirectly and thereby rendering the disintegration of the opposition parties a common occurrence.

3. Loss of legitimacy

People do not have theoretical knowledge about the political systems. Their knowledge is based on practical experiences. People who supported the UNP enjoyed the taste of the presidential system for 17 years consecutively. They lived as if they belonged to a separate class of citizens different from ordinary people. Similarly, people who were organized under the banner of the SLFP have already savored the taste of it for nearly 18 years.

They too, have lived as a privileged group of citizens. In the circumstance, though there are two groups of people in the two main streams of political parties in the country of which one believes that they should safeguard their government while the other is looking forward to secure the political power, the majority of the people belonging to both major political streams are however, dejected with the political system itself and their leaders as well. Ten to 15 years ago the supporters of a party were invariably exasperated if their party or its leaders were to be criticized in public. But the situation is drastically changed today and in such an event they even tend to support and affirm the criticisms leveled against them.

At least there will be some who accuse their leaders for being liars and cheats. This reflects that the society is dynamic and does not remain stagnant all the time. Unfortunately, the traditional political leaders and the political parties do not seem to have realized this truth and the change that is taking place in the contemporary societal attitudes. They are sitting on a dangerous volcano that may explode at any moment.

4. Sapping of the essence of the country

This system of governance is designed in a manner conferring the legal right to the group that controls the political power to sap the essence of the country. The people know well that politicians who ruled the country from 1977 to date irrespective of political hues have engaged themselves in exploiting the resources of the country thereby amassing wealth that is enough to maintain several generations of theirs.

People therefore are more repugnant than being respectful of political leaders. That is the reason why the political parties and their leaders have failed to mobilize the people actively as they had done in the past. Political parties are almost devoid of people who are willing to serve them voluntarily. That is a major reason that had caused to paralyze the activities of political parities today.

Now the people tend to look at their political leaders not as their saviors but as fraudsters. It is dangerous to leave this tendency to grow further. It is not beneficial for the traditional political parties and their leaders. Particularly, it is not desirable for the good of the country in the long run. If they have a good judgment of the developing situation the only sensible measure that they should adopt is to content with the illegal reserves already seized and pursue on the reorganization of the corrupt political system and avert destructive tendencies that may come as a result thereof.

5. Encouraging corruption

The founders of this corrupt system have abolished all checks and balances and good measures that were there in the old system aimed at controlling corrupt practices. Under the old system parliamentarians were not allowed to engage in business transactions with the government or government institutions. As a result the members of parliament did not attempt to enter into business transactions with the government. At that time the members of parliament did not own liquor shops. They did not possess passenger transportation permits. Nor did they unduly acquire crown lands.

Transactions of this nature were considered a serious offence punishable by removing from the parliamentary seat occupied by them. Yet what happened after 1977? A considerable number of parliamentarians became business men dealing with the government. Prior to 1977 there was a ceiling on the monies expended on election campaigns. All candidates were legally bound to submit a certified list of expenses of the election to the Commissioner of Elections.

There were instances where some members of parliament were deprived of their parliamentary seat on account of exceeding the legally permissible level of expenses. But after the launch of the executive presidential system, elections became a repulsive competition in which the candidates could spend any amount of money at their discretion.

A presidential candidate usually spends billions of rupees for an election. A candidate contesting for a parliamentary seat usually spends a hundred million rupees. Black moneyed businessmen constitute the major source that supplies money required for elections.

The loans obtained from black moneyed sources are repaid from the common property of the people.

This corrupt system has not stopped at becoming a major factor that prevents self respecting and qualified people entering into the arena of politics; more and more it has become a potent factor that allures the involvement of black moneyed people in the machinery of state rule.

6. Absence of rule of law

The need for establishing rule of law in the country is one of the major and important recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Yet, under the present corrupt political system it is not possible to establish a rule of law.

It is hardly possible to realize this even through an amendment to the constitution. The entire system of governance has been created in a manner that all the powers of the government are concentrated in one individual. The president is not answerable to the parliament or any other institution such as the judiciary for his actions except to the people at the next presidential election.

He not only enjoys a position which is above the law, but also is empowered to ignore the Constitution by the Constitution itself. The reason behind this scenario is that the Constitution has been formulated focusing only on the executive presidency rather than taking the country, the people and the administration of the country as a whole. The president has the power to ignore the subsequent amendments made to the Constitution which diminishes the original powers vested in him.

That was the policy adopted by all presidents in regard to the 13th and 17th amendments to the Constitution. The president can use his immunity, not only for his own protection but also for the protection of anyone of his team if he feels it is necessary. That was the reason why the big wigs of all governments that came to power since 1977 were not afraid of abusing the power.

That was the reason for not enforcing the law against those politicians who were caught committing serious offences.

There cannot be a rule of law in a country where the chief executive is above the law and is entitled to use his immunity for the protection of the members of his team.

Under the circumstance, either the executive presidential system should be reformed or it should be abolished and superseded with a new Constitution that will ensure a system of good governance in the country

Back to Top