Why does President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seek power to sack PM?
The proposed 20th Amendment is full of controversial provisions which have caused the government to draw heavy fire. They have been discussed at length before the Supreme Court and at other fora, and it is now evident that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeks much more power than he is currently vested with. But why does he want power to sack the Prime Minister? His elder brother is the current Prime Minister. This has led to much confusion, a public discussion and the concoction of various theories. The Colombo-based commentariat has even speculated a rift in the ruling Rajapaksa family. What has actually caused this provision to be included in the proposed 20th Amendment? Finding an answer to this question requires a close look at the relations between the Presidents and the Prime Ministers and their powers and functions under the current Constitution before and after the introduction of the 19th Amendment.
BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa worshiping his brother, Mahinda, at the Kelaniya Temple, after appointing the latter the Prime Minister in August. 2020
Pre-19th Amendment situation
The present Constitution contains a serious flaw, which makes the system of government in this country neither presidential nor parliamentary. The late J. R. Jayewardene had been toying with the idea of creating a powerful presidency since his Opposition days and was able to realise his dream after the 1977 general election, where his party, the UNP, obtained a five-sixths majority with ease. He lost no time in having the Second Republican Constitution drafted and promulgated so that he could enjoy unbridled executive powers from 1978. He, however, did not bargain for the possibility of the President losing control over Parliament, which handles public finance and makes laws.
The late Ranasinghe Premadasa, while he was the Prime Minister under President Jayewardene, famously lamented that he was as powerless as an office assistant or peon. He got it right. The President was controlling Parliament, which was supposed to be under the PM. Such situations occur when both the President and the Prime Minister are elected from the same party, of which the President is the ex-officio leader. What made the PM so subservient to the President was the President’s control over their party. When they happen to represent two different parties, the PM can challenge the President; in other words, the PM becomes more powerful than the President, for all practical purposes. President Jayewardene realised this could happen to him only during his second term, when his government’s popularity ratings dropped drastically, and the SLFP-led Opposition showed signs of recovery, nay became aggressively active. Hence his decision to retain power in Parliament with his five-sixths majority intact by replacing the general election due in 1982 with a referendum, which the UNP heavily rigged to get the outcome it desired.
President Jayewardene’s immediate successor, Premadasa, was also lucky that he managed to obtain a comfortable majority in Parliament at the 1989 general election marred by unprecedented violence and rigging. As the President, Premadasa realized that the person appointed the PM could pose a political challenge to him as the latter was considered the President in waiting. Therefore, he handpicked as his PM a person who had no presidential ambitions and did not have many years of politics left in him. Thus, D. B. Wijetunge became the PM. President Premadasa went a step further; he did not vacate Temple Tree, the official residence of the PM. He used to occupy both Temple Trees and the President’s House, compelling the PM to live elsewhere. Two of his successors followed these practices. President Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike appointed Rathnasiri Wickremenayake as her PM and lived at both Temple Trees and the President’s House. (Circumstances compelled her to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the PM during her second term, in 2004—something she would regret later). President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed D.M. Jayaratne as his PM because the latter was not interested in running for President. That was one of the main reasons why Maithripala Sirisena with prime ministerial ambitions decamped, in 2014, and challenged President Rajapaksa successfully, in the 2015 presidential race.
President Premadasa did to live to seek a second term, but following his assassination D. B. Wijetunga, who became President pro tem, lost control over Parliament at the 1994 general election, which the SLFP-led People’s Alliance won. Wijetunge, however, fully cooperated with the newly elected Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and managed to retain the Defence portfolio. His term ended a couple of months later, and Kumaratunga became the President. Trouble began during her second term.
Serious constitutional flaw becomes manifest
President Kumaratunga secured a second term, having survived an assassination bid, in 1999, but failed to obtain a working majority in Parliament at the general election in 2000. She presided over a period of political uncertainty, and mass crossovers caused the collapse of her government in 2001, when the UNP-led United Front captured power in Parliament. The opposite of what the late Premadasa had lamented about as the PM happened. The President was reduced to a peon, so to speak. Newly elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe emerged stronger than President Kumaratunga. The UNP undermined her in every conceivable manner with some ministers even verbally harassing her at Cabinet meetings. The PM became the de facto head of the government and State.
President Kumaratunga, however, was constitutionally empowered to take over ministries and even sack the government one year after its formation. The UNP pressed its luck too hard, and Kumaratunga, took over the Ministry of Defence, claiming national security was in peril due to the UNP’s disastrous peace deal with the LTTE, and dissolved Parliament shortly afterwards. She won the 2004 general election and consolidated her power in Parliament again albeit with a razor-thin majority. She was able to do so because the Constitution empowered the President to sack the PM and/or dissolve Parliament without rhyme or reason. That constitutional provision was the proverbial sword of Damocles over the PM. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had no need to make use of this provision as he succeeded in controlling Parliament during his both terms. He had the 18th Amendment to the Constitution enacted and strengthened his position further.
Post-19th Amendment situation
The presidential powers including that to dissolve Parliament after the expiration of the first year of its term were abolished by the 19th Amendment in 2015, after the defeat of Rajapaksa and the formation of a national government to ensure that President Maithripala Sirisena would not be able to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe or sack the government until the expiration of four and a half years of its term.
After the UNP’s victory at the 2015 general election, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe more powerful than he had been from 2001 to 2004, and, thanks to the 19th Amendment, was without fear of being ousted or his government dissolved.
Former President Sirisena recently told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks that the UNP had begun to harass and undermine him a few months after the formation of the yahapalana government. He, as the President, joined forces with former President Rajapaksa, who was an MP in the last Parliament, removed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, appointed Rajapaksa the PM, and dissolved Parliament, unable to muster a working majority in the House, in 2018. The UNP and its allies stood their ground and the Supreme Court declared Sirisena’s action unconstitutional and, therefore, the dissolution of Parliament null and void. PM Wickremesinghe had the last laugh. Sirisena, however, benefited from the transitional provisions in the 19th Amendment; he could hold ministerial posts, but the full effect of the 19th Amendment kicked in after the election of his Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who cannot even be a minister of the Cabinet he heads. Nor can he dissolve Parliament until it has completed four and a half years of its term. The President has his hands tied but is lucky that his party controls Parliament with a two-thirds majority.
All Presidents have sought to keep their Prime Ministers under their thumbs to prevent their positions being undermined. But the incumbent President has no such problem; his elder brother is the PM, who poses no political challenge to him. The Rajapaksa family has proved that blood is thicker than water. Then, why does Gotabaya seek power to sack the PM?
It is being argued in some quarters that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to be able to sack the PM in case of a PM pro tem having to be appointed before his first term is over. But we believe the President is not worried about the possibility of such a scenario arising from the post of PM falling vacant owing to an unexpected turn of events; instead, he is planning to tackle what could possibly happen during his second term. In other words, he is planning to seek a second term and preparing himself for a situation where the SLPP might fail to obtain a majority in Parliament after his re-election. He has witnessed the predicament of President Kumaratunga from 2001 to 2004 and that of President Sirsisena from mid-2015 to the end of 2019. As for the proposed constitutional provision at issue, his rivals and critics are thinking of possibilities within the next four years or so, but Gotabaya’s focus is on the latter part of the current decade! It is his strategic thinking and planning that make him different from professional politicians.