For the past month, the issue of who will be the presidential candidate of the ruling United National Party (UNP) has been dividing the party and diverting attention away from its needs to develop an election manifesto that is owned by the party as a whole and not by a faction. There are two main factions: one backing Prime Minister and party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, the other backing its deputy leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. They have different strengths and support bases. Due to the difficulty that the party leadership is having in selecting one over the other, there is an attempt being made to seek the abolition of the executive presidency either before or soon after the presidential elections which are due by December this year.
The issue of the Executive Presidency has been a contentious one since its introduction in the Constitution of 1978. The first Executive President J. R. Jayewardene was gracious to invite one of his defeated opponents at the presidential elections of 1982, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, to speak on national television after the vote count. Instead of being gracious in defeat, the learned lawyer-turned-politician and architect of the 1972 Constitution sternly warned of dictatorship and hardships to come and urged the abolishing of the executive presidential system.
The abolishing of the executive presidency has been a part of the electoral campaigns of opposition contestants to that position for most of the presidential elections that followed. At the last presidential election of 2015, the abolishing of the executive presidency took centre stage in the election campaign. President Maithripala Sirisena promised to either abolish or reform the presidency. He also promised to be a one-term president, a promise he began to visibly retract from within six months of office. Despite the ominous portents associated with the executive presidency, as outlined by the late Colvin R. de Silva, it remains the most highly coveted position of politicians. The track record is that those who win the executive presidency find themselves unable and unwilling to give it up.
The abolition of the executive presidency prior to the presidential election so that holding it becomes unnecessary is one of the more desperate options being considered. This is a most unlikely prospect as it requires the cooperation of the opposition. However, the opposition SLPP has already selected its presidential candidate former Defense Ministry Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and believes it has a winning candidate in him. Public opinion polls are said to show that he leads the race in terms of his popularity. His party has a head start over the ruling party in terms of getting its campaign embedded in community mobilisers. In this context, when the SLPP is so near to power, there will be no reason for it to support the abolition of the presidency.
In addition, the executive presidency is so important a feature of the present constitutional structure, it will also require a referendum to abolish the presidency. It will be a difficult task to get the majority of people voting to abolish the executive presidency especially in the run-up to a much anticipated presidential election where the stakes are high and hopes are also high. The present state of mind of the people is that the government system needs to be further strengthened and unified and that a strong leader is necessary. This is the case especially after the Easter Sunday bombings in which the different arms of the government failed to act cohesively. The executive presidency is seen as the centerpiece of such a strong government.
Another option that is being put forward by sections of the ruling party is to field a candidate who will be prepared to campaign on the single issue of abolishing the executive presidency and, no sooner than elected, would take steps to abolish the executive presidential system from the pinnacle of power. This trusted candidate is considered to be Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya. The Speaker rose to national and international prominence on account of his role in defending parliament from the attacks of the opposition when it joined with the President to topple the government during the period of the abortive constitutional coup last year.
The media has reported that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is expected to be proposed as a possible “National candidate” following party leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa not reaching agreement on who should contest the presidential election. The Speaker, it is argued, will have the backing of the Buddhist monks, the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the minorities together with civil society, if he pledges to abolish the Executive Presidency. In addition, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) could step out of the presidential race and back the Speaker’s candidature if his platform is the abolition of the Executive Presidency. This would bring in JVP votes to the ruling party candidate as well as the added benefit of the JVP’s seasoned political campaigners which can bring in floating votes.
However, a campaign to negate something is less likely to be politically attractive than a campaign to do many things. Opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa is already out in the field, carrying out his campaign, and promising to be a strong leader who will stay the course, be a long term leader, and will use his presidential powers to their fullest to safeguard the country and its people and to develop the economy. By way of contrast, a candidate who focuses on abolishing the executive presidency and exiting shortly after he wins the election is likely to be seen as engaging in a negative campaign. Such a political strategy is unlikely to be electorally viable. A successful political strategy will be one that is able to convince the people of its relevance to the needs of the day.
At the last presidential election, the main themes were corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations. By way of contrast, today, in the aftermath of the restriction of the power of the executive presidency by the 19th Amendment, the problems in the country are seen as being more a part of the entire system of government and not just limited to the excessive powers of the presidency. A successful election campaign today would be one that leads the people on issues that are current now, such as national security, economic development and minority rights. The main themes of politics must be the main concerns of the people at this time. The abolition of the executive presidency does not fit into the priorities of the people, which include the need for a strong government.