Sri Lanka PM drops presidential bombshell

ECONOMYNEXT – Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stunned the cabinet Thursday when he proposed a rushed constitutional amendment to abolish the executive presidency on the eve of a presidential election.

Calling an emergency cabinet session, Wickremesinghe revived the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) initiative known as the “20th amendment” to install a figurehead president and transfer executive powers to parliament.

Wickremesinghe’s initiative met with opposition from a group of his own ministers who are backing deputy leader Sajith Premadasa’s bid for the United National Party (UNP) nomination to contest the November 16 vote.

“We have objected to any move to abolish the Executive Presidency,” telecommunications minister Harin Fernando said after the stormy cabinet session.

Fernando, who is propping up Premadasa’s presidential bid, said he expected any constitutional changes to be made only after the presidential elections,.

“Group led by Sajith Premadasa informed PM that at the pre cabinet that any move on this should happen after the Presidential Election. After a president election being called abolishing of it is not correct,”(sic) Fernando said on Twitter.

The question of abolishing the presidency came into focus when Premadasa held a press conference on Tuesday and suggested that he did not favour scrapping the all-powerful presidency.

He said there should be a “scientific survey” to determine what people wanted to do with the presidency and he himself will only go along with the “wishes of the people.” His reluctance to support the ending of the much-debated presidency cost him the crucial support of the Tamil parties.

In contrast, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya in a statement on Tuesday declared that he will support anyone who will commit to ending the executive presidency which many have blamed for producing autocratic rulers since the system was introduced in 1978.

The 19th amendment to the constitution in 2015 has curtailed some of the powers of the president and made that office more answerable to parliament, but the position still has a stranglehold on the administration.

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Even if Wickremesinghe is able to muster support within the cabinet to push through his 11th hour constitutional reforms agenda, there is no guarantee that UNP rebels and the opposition will give him the required two thirds majority for it to clear the first legislative hurdle.

The draft bill is almost likely to require the approval of the people at a referendum too. Any new vote will have to be taken after the November 16 presidential election.

In the unlikely event the Wickremesinghe proposal goes through, the November 16 poll will be to elect a leader whose powers would be further slashed. (COLOMBO, Sept 19, 2019)

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