Centre for Policy Alternatives on 17 June, 2015

Reforming Sri Lankan Presidentialism: Provenance, Problems and Prospects

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Access the dedicated site for the book here.

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Following on from the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA)’s previous two-volume collection, The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice (2012), it represents an experiment with publishing scholarly thinking on issues of constitutional significance in the public interest, which I hope will be successful in informing the way we approach, and think critically about, the great political issues of the day in our country. These debates are too often conducted in an environment of apathy or a lack of comparative and theoretical insights. Your patronage of the site therefore is greatly appreciated and I hope it will lead to similar initiatives in the future.

In 2015, the Second Republican Constitution of Sri Lanka marks the 37th year of its promulgation in 1978, making it the longest serving constitution in post-independence Sri Lanka. It instantiated executive presidentialism as its centrepiece – the institution itself having been introduced prior to its enactment by way of an amendment to the previous 1972 Constitution – which has had a deep and abiding influence on Sri Lanka’s legal and political culture. At the time of its enactment, it represented a radical departure from the models of executive collegiality that had hitherto characterised the constitutional forms of Ceylon / Sri Lanka since the introduction of universal electoral democracy in 1931, and it has since come to dominate both institutional relations within Sri Lanka’s system of government, as well as the landscape of electoral politics more broadly. Ever since its introduction, there has been vigorous debate about the adverse consequences of executive presidentialism from the perspectives of democracy and pluralism.

During the period of its operation, the constitution has been amended nineteen times – with a twentieth in prospect – but the predominant motivation underlying the large majority of these amendments have been to strengthen the presidency at the cost of democracy and checks and balances. Two exceptions to this have been the Thirteenth Amendment, which introduced a framework of provincial devolution but which has not been implemented to the full extent of its potential; and the Seventeenth Amendment which sought to de-politicise key state services, but which was neutralised by the Eighteenth Amendment.

With the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 2010, which by abolishing term limits and the restraints on presidential power established by the Seventeenth Amendment, strengthened and further entrenched the institution even beyond what was contemplated in 1978, Sri Lanka entered a phase of hyper-presidentialism. The changes wrought by the Eighteenth Amendment were only the formal veneer of a more insidious style and approach to government adopted by the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was based on a package of ethnic chauvinism, populist authoritarianism, and clientelist corruption on a scale not seen before.

Until the dramatic political events in the latter part of 2014 saw the wholly unexpected rejection of the Rajapaksa regime in the presidential election of 8th January 2015, it appeared not only that presidentialism would be with us for the foreseeable future, but also that the entire nature of the Sri Lankan state would be changed beyond recognition under the influence of Rajapaksa presidentialism. With the election of President Maithripala Sirisena and a new government formed under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in May 2015. The 1978 Constitution after the Nineteenth Amendment remains strongly presidential as the Prime Minister’s role has been enhanced only marginally, and even this will depend on the President’s willingness to co-operate with the Prime Minister. The new limits placed on presidential power, however, effect a constitutional regime change, and if well implemented, would ensure that the landmark presidential election of January 2015 was not a mere change of government for the continuation of business as usual. The essays in this book were written long before the change of government in January 2015 and consequently they do not discuss the more recent changes. However, if the current government is returned in the forthcoming general election and, as it has indicated, a new constitution is to be drafted and enacted by the new Parliament, then it is clear that the deeper issues with regard to constitutional reform discussed in this book would continue to have high relevance in informing those future debates.

I have acknowledged in my Editor’s Introduction to the book, albeit inadequately, the support I have been fortunate to receive from my colleagues at CPA. However, I owe a special debt of thanks to my colleague and old friend Sanjana Hattotuwa for setting up this website, for which he deserves much credit.

I hope you enjoy the site and its contents, and I look forward to receiving your comments. I hope even more that the many excellent chapters in it will receive the scholarly and critical attention they deserve.

Thank you.

Dr Asanga Welikala

Editor, (2015) Reforming Sri Lankan Presidentialism: Provenance, Problems and Prospects (Colombo: Centre for Policy Alternatives).