Two experienced politicians – Ranil Wickremesinghe, who entered Parliament as a 28-year-old youth in 1977 and Dinesh Gunawardena, who followed his Royal College classmate to the Legislature six years later, in 1983, took the top positions in the Government last week.
They are faced with an enormous task of solving the economic issues that include shortages of fuel, gas, and a few other essential items, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and debt restructuring. As they stressed after taking office, there is an imperative need for restoring normalcy in the country, as the 3-month-old protest movement had brought the country to a standstill, leading to a halt in economic activities and day-to-day life, leading to exacerbation of sufferings of the people.
Hence, the Government deployed Police and Armed Forces to remove the protestors who forcibly occupied the Presidential Secretariat, the highest office of public administration. As the protestors blocked the entrance to the Secretariat, the President and his staff had to function from makeshift offices in other government buildings.
As the Minister incharge of Public Security, Tiran Alles clarified, the Police and Armed Forces used only limited force to disperse the protestors. However, a few persons who attempted to resist were forcefully evicted. While the clearance of the entrance to the Secretariat was taking place, a separate Police unit was deployed to take the injured personnel to hospitals without any undue delay. Both President Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Gunawardena said they were willing to talk to Opposition parties as well as the representatives on Aragalaya protest movement. Hence, early steps could be expected to have a broad dialogue on political reforms. One of the major issues highlighted by the leaders of the country-wide protest movement and various professional bodies was the need for constitutional reforms and a new political order.The people have determined that a new political order is required because of the negative experiences from the past, where the legislative and executive powers opposed each other, resulting in instability. Hence, the solid backing received by President Wickremesinghe from Parliament, where 134 MPs voted for him, is of extreme significance, as the acceptance within Parliament is crucial for implementation of major decisions, especially the unpopular and painful economic reforms that are urgently needed will need bipartisan support in the House. This was the basis upon which the argument for an All-Party Government was born a few months ago, and this is an opportunity to have Sri Lanka’s first true All-Party Government and push through important legislation, which would not only help Sri Lanka survive this crisis, but also thrive in the long term.
There are many practical reasons why the present system needs to be changed.There is a dire need which is recognised across the spectrum that the constitutional division of powers needs to be fundamentally changed, while retaining a healthy balance between the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary.
The existing Constitution has given rise to many problems at the present time because of its inherent ambiguities and confusions. In order to safeguard the security, sovereignty, stability, and integrity of the country, it is essential that changes be made to the existing Constitution. The reforms will be required to establish a strong Executive, Legislature, and independent Judiciary that can ensure the sovereignty of the people. In post-independent Sri Lanka, there were a few significant political reforms, starting with the 1956 change of order initiated by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and later the first Republican Constitution of 1972 enacted by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government.
However, the most distinctive change was the switchover to the system of Executive Presidency, which was introduced in 1978 by the Government of President J.R. Jayewardene. The Executive President of Sri Lanka has enormous political powers and they were exercised by all the Presidents since 1978.
The first tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2010 proved that a strong Executive Presidency was required to defeat a ruthless terrorist movement such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The executive powers entrusted to him by the Constitution were very useful for him to take effective steps to eradicate LTTE terrorism and safeguard the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.
However, with the growth of demand to devolve some executive powers to the Parliament, the 19th Amendment was introduced in 2015. It resulted in several ambiguities. The people have had very negative experiences, in a situation where the Executive and Legislature were pulling in different directions.
The current government is in a position to foster a balance of power in the Parliament, as President Wickremesinghe is very keen to work with the Opposition to improve accountability through the vibrant function of Parliamentary bodies such as the Parliamentary Committees. It is expected to take early steps to protect democratic objectives through strengthening Parliamentary committee systems such as COPE and create a culture of self-criticism within the Government. The crisis created by 19A demonstrated both the weaknesses and the strengths of Sri Lanka’s constitutional democracy. Hence, before enacting new constitutional reforms, it is essential to have a prolonged national dialogue, a serious study, and create awareness among the public, especially the intellectual community. There should be a discussion between the Government, Opposition parties, intellectuals and others on Presidential powers, balancing with the Legislature and Judiciary, the vulnerability of Sri Lanka’s political system, institutional characteristics of that system, and then consider the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature in order to determine the type of political regime model that is applicable to the system of Executive Presidency.
By Sugeeswara Senadhira