By Kassapa

The talking point in political circles last week was whether President Ranil Wickremesinghe is trying one last-gasp trick to stay in power by abolishing the Executive Presidency.

This concept first came to light several months ago when it was suggested that Wickremesinghe was trying to defer the presidential election- due by October this year under the terms of the Constitution- by bringing a proposal to abolish the Executive Presidency. That was reportedly after surveys revealed that if a presidential election was held Wickremesinghe would probably be behind Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa, in that order.

The thinking behind the strategy was that all major opposition parties have opposed the Executive Presidency, so they couldn’t vote against such a move now. This was also on the of key slogans of the ‘aragalaya’ that removed Gotabaya Rajapaksa from power in mid-2022.

If such a move received support from these parties that could have led to an amendment to the Constitution- or a new Constitution altogether- which would allow Wickremesinghe at least another two years as President in a transitional capacity. He could also go down in history as the statesman who lifted the burden imposed on the nation by his uncle J.R. Jayewardene four and a half decades ago.

By then, the opposition had seen how Wickremesinghe had done everything possible- and few other seemingly impossible deeds- to ensure that the local government elections, due in March 2023, were not held. So, the index of suspicion against Wickremesinghe was high.

Also getting activated was Karu Jayasuriya, Wickremesinghe’s erstwhile deputy who has now retired from active politics. Jayasuriya also heads the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) once led by Maduluwave Sobhitha thero. To be fair to Jayasuriya, he always believed in principle that the Executive Presidency was a curse upon the country and should be abolished. So, he would have only been following the dictates of his conscience, but that was to suit Wickremesinghe just as well.

There was speculation that even Chandrika Kumaratunga would be supportive of abolishing the Executive Presidency, even if it meant paying the price of having Wickremesinghe at the helm for another two or so years. This, coming from the lady who has had the longest reign as Executive President of the country and then went to the Supreme Court to try and extend that by another year!

Another former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was also asked whether he supported the abolition. Whether he was being flippant or not, Rajapaksa said that he thought it was “a good idea” because he had enjoyed its privileges already. For good measure he added that, as it is being proposed by Wickremesinghe, he was aware of what the latter was capable of politically.

The bottom line here is that Wickremesinghe, Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa all have two things in common. Firstly, they all know the degree of absolute power the Executive Presidency is vested with because they have enjoyed it themselves (Wickremesinghe, albeit by default, not being an elected President). Secondly, they are all mortified by the prospect that such power might now pass on, not to Sajith Premadasa (which they wouldn’t mind, as an alternative) but to Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya he represents. That has become a horrifying thought for the ‘elite’ that ruled the waves and waived the rules for the last three decades.

The crux of the matter is, will Wickremesinghe be able to pull of one last stunt, a last hurrah? That all hinges on the intricacies of the process involved and whether Wickremesinghe and his acolytes have the determination and the numbers to see it through. The former they may have, but the latter remains uncertain.

The modus operandi would be to pass a constitutional amendment (or amendments) abolishing the Presidency as we now have it or, alternatively enacting a new Constitution without an Executive Presidency at all. There is precious little time for the second option, so it must be the first.

It will be recalled that when J.R. Jayawardene assumed office as Prime Minister in 1977, William Gopallawa was a ceremonial President. Jayewardene quickly moved an amendment to the 1972 Republican Constitution converting this position to an executive post. On February 4, 1978, he then assumed duties as Executive President while Gopallawa retired. The 1978 Constitution was enacted only much later, in September that year.

Wickremesinghe, Jayawardene’s nephew, cannot be unaware of this. If it were that straightforward to create an Executive President, surely it must be equally easy to abolish those executive powers- all it would require is a two-thirds majority in Parliament, although that will be somewhat difficult to secure in the current political environment. This then will the critical factor in determining whether Wickremesinghe is able to push through the required constitutional amendments.

The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had a near two thirds majority (145 seats) at the August 2020 general election. They cobbled together the additional parliamentarians required to enact the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Since then though, their numbers have been dwindling steadily with more and more parliamentarians becoming ‘independent’, most notably with a13-member group led by Dullas Alahapperuma. When it came to defeating the motion of no confidence against former minister Keheliya Rambukwella, they could muster the thinnest of majorities, 113 votes.

Moving from that position to 150 seats is no easy task. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. The current tallies do not take into account the fact that the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) is in disarray with a very public battle between its leader Sajith Premadasa and its Chairman Sarath Fonseka who has gone to court to prevent his expulsion. Moreover, the inclusion of ex-SLPPers such as G.L. Peiris, Nalaka Godahewa and Channa Jayasumana has meant that the re-election prospects of SJB MPs will be diminished.

The fallout from all this will be for many a SJB MP looking to Wickremesinghe to bail them out at the next election with a nomination from his United National Party (UNP). Being the political opportunist that he is, he won’t hesitate to cash in on that opportunity and want to push his ‘abolition’ plan as a quid pro quo.

Politics, it has been said, is the art of the possible. At least in that sense, Wickremesinghe is a good artist, a fact the opposition will do well to remember over the next few months.