Centre for Policy Alternatives on 27 June, 2016


Categories: All DocumentsCPA Working Papers on Constitutional ReformDocuments

Michael Mendis and Asanga Welikala, RESHAPING THE EXECUTIVE: CHOOSING THE PRIME MINISTER IN A PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM, CPA Working Papers on Constitutional Reform No 2, June 2016.

The second paper in the CPA Working Papers on Constitutional Reform series is on Reshaping the Executive:Choosing the Prime Minister in a Parliamentary System, by Michael Mendis and Asanga Welikala. Within the deliberations of the Constitutional Assembly process on the form of the future parliamentary system, a proposal currently under consideration is for the introduction of a directly elected prime minister. The thinking underlying the proposal appears to be threefold: (a) that it would promote the stability of government in the context of the proposed Multi-Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system which is not expected to yield overly-large governmental majorities; (b) that the people have been accustomed to the direct election of their chief executive under the 1978 Constitution and that it would be undemocratic to take this right away; and (c) that the election of the chief executive on the basis of the entire country as one electorate would have both a unifying and a moderating effect on electoral politics in the context of a communally plural polity. It may seem as if the principle of direct election negates one of the most important strengths of the model: obviating presidential unilateralism through a collegial executive within which the prime minister is only primus inter pares. It may also seem as if one of the main rationales for abolishing presidentialism is being brought back in through the backdoor to instantiate a system of ‘presidential parliamentarism’. This paper scrutinises the main arguments for and against the principle of direct election of the prime minister. If subject to a series of institutional safeguards, there may be defensible grounds for the innovation. However, there are also grave risks, including the exacerbation of the tendency to executive dominance to which the Westminster model is susceptible. Accordingly, the paper concludes with a preference for a less radical institutional innovation than direct election, which would meet the objectives of stability and clarity: namely, the express pre-election nomination of prime ministerial candidates by political parties, and the consolidation of the prime minister’s authority through an immediate post-election investiture vote.


The CPA Working Papers on Constitutional Reform 2016 addresses a number of critical issues in the current Sri Lankan constitution-making process. The series seeks to add key theoretical and comparative perspectives to current debates on constitutional law and practice, with the intention of both assisting choices within the Constitutional Assembly process as well as to engender critical and informed discussion more widely.

Papers will address topics such as the unitary state, choosing the prime minister in a parliamentary system, the constitutional self-classification of the state, the bill of rights and its enforcement, the electoral system, devolution issues, the pre-colonial usable past in contemporary constitutional reform, the parliamentary-constitutional state, constitutional incrementalism, dialogic constitutionalism, and other topical issues.

The series is a product of the partnership between CPA and the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law in support of the Sri Lankan constitutional reform process.