14 June, 2024


Debate Between Presidential Candidates First: A Point Of View 

By Nihal Abeyasingha

Nihal Abeyasingha

In terms of Article 31(3) of the Constitution, the Presidential election has to be held between 19 September and 19 October 2024, being a date not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiry of the current President’s term of office, which is 19 November 2024. Will it be held?  Will it be circumvented, as were the Local Government Elections?  Everyone is kept guessing.

As of today, many individuals have thrown their hats into the ring; others have not. But as it stands today, according to current polls Cf. < A.K. Dissanayake Leads in Presidential Election Voting Preferences>, there are only two candidates who have a possibility of garnering a sizeable number of votes. One of the points being discussed is about a debate either between the contesting candidates or between the teams of the respective candidates. One party says “We were the first to propose the debate” – But that gives them no special rights. The other party says “Here are possible dates; choose one of these. Or propose a date suitable to you”. As the discussion, goes to and fro, it is hard to know whether the individuals are keen on facing one another one the same stage. It would be a case of compare and contrast – as it should be. Unless each distinguishes himself from the other, one might as well draw lots or toss a coin to decide for whom to vote.  Voting is the making a rationally informed choice, which I believe should be the purpose of the debate.

The question being posed at the moment is: Should there be a debate between the candidates or between the economic teams of the candidates? Which should come first? My point of view is 1. The debate between the Presidential candidates should be the first debate (even if there are no debate between the respective teams)  2. Why? Because the President of Sri Lanka is an uniquely centralized position. He/She is not necessarily (by the nature of the exercise of the office in Sri Lanka) a team player. 3. Finally, the article will offer some proposals as to the format of the possible debate.

President Of Sri Lanka, Uniquely Centralized Position

The three pillars of a democracy are the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Some would add a fourth pillar, social communication, the mass media. Generally, in most functioning democracies, there is a separation of the three powers. But in Sri Lanka, there is a rather different situation with the three powers being rather centripetal, eve n more, focusing on the person of the president (who is in terms of the Constitution) the head of the executive. First, as head of the executive, he is entitled to hold certain ministries. From time to time, he addresses Parliament – seemingly as a “super-member” of that branch. I have myself heard him tell members of Parliament who heckled him “Shut up” or “Sit down” or “I brought you into politics”. I wonder whether in the France (from which it is said our model of presidency supposedly derives) or in the US, the members of the legislature would tolerate such language used directly on them. Secondly, as president he is immune from being sued. Does that put him beyond the rule of law? Recently, the local government elections were due to be held. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Secretary of the Treasury was instructed to release the requisite funds (which had been allocated in the budget for the elections). But the Secretary claimed that he had to refer to the Minister of Finance, who in the present case was the President. So, he referred it to the President as Minister of Finance, who took no action.  To date, the local government elections have not been held. Thirdly, there are independent commissions whose approval he needs to make certain appointments. But the present President claims that these independent commissions are part of the executive and therefore, under his control. Recently, in the case of the appointment of the Inspector General of Police, he had proposed a candidate. The Constitutional Council recorded four votes for, two votes against and two abstentions. The Chairman of the Council took it upon himself to consider the two abstentions as two negative votes issuing in a tie and he as chairperson broke the tie with his casting vote and permitted the president to appoint the candidate of his choice (who in the present case was a person who had been reprimanded by the Supreme Court (2023) together with three others fined Rs. 2M to be paid out of their personal funds to an individual for violating his fundamental rights, while being detained at the Mirihana Police Station).

Such is very briefly the current situation outlining very briefly how the Presidency centres around one person. In fact, the history of the exercise of presidential powers by all incumbents (with the exception of one) since its emergence in 1977, has been a “creeping centripetality” with disregard for the rule of law. The judiciary can make its decisions, but it has no means to enforce its rulings. (Shirani Bandaranayake served as the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka. She was first appointed to the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka in 1996, becoming Sri Lanka’s first female Supreme Court Judge. Bandaranayake was appointed chief justice in May 2011 following the mandatory retirement of Asoka de Silva. Bandaranayake was controversially impeached by Parliament and then removed from office by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013.) Such is the situation. From our brief review above, it is clear that once the President assumes office, as head of the executive. very little control over his exercise of office can be employed by the other branches of government, much less so by his team of advisors. (Impeachment is a political process rather than a judicial one).

Why Debate Between Presidential Candidates First 

In a game of cricket between two schools or countries, the game takes place between two teams. The captain leads the team and makes certain decisions, but cricket is a team game. In boxing, whether representing school or country, it is essentially a one to one. Obviously. The President of  Sri Lanka is not a team player.  He makes the decisions (in certain cases, having obtained the consent of the Independent Commissions in some instances – but often as in the case above, manipulating the functioning of the Commissions). The President makes decisions as the individual holding the said office.

So, there is no sense in linking a debate between the presidential candidates and their teams. The teams’ advice – the president may disregard them and often does. Therefore, the first requirement is that the presidential candidates’ debate take place one on one. (If the teams are to debate, then it can take the form of a round table discussion or a panel discussion or some other form with the presence of a good and efficient moderator). The outcome of the best imaginable discussion of the presidential teams would result in new ideas and proposals coming to the table – no more. (Cf. the proposals of Dhammika Perera, the SJB and NPP listed below). Will these policies be implemented?  It depends on who is the next elected president. That is why the debates are an opportunity for the candidates to distinguish themselves (why is X different from Y) and what is the manner of X’s leadership more effective then Y’s – and vice versa.

Our Need – A President Who Fulfils His Duties 

What we need is a president who does not act in view of the next elections, but a statesman who thinks of the future generations. There was a spontaneous coming together during the aragalaya, because there was a shortage of fuel. Electricity, cooking gas etc. It affected everybody and so the aragalaya cut across all levels of society. But their cry was “Gota go home!” For what purpose?  Gota went without firing a single bullet or using water cannons. They got Ranil instead, who has provided for the shortages, but made sure that there is no form of protests. Water cannons and tear gas greet the beginnings of any protest. The fear of protest is so great that two women walking to Colombo from Panadura were prevented.  But this is history repeating itself. The French Revolution did away with Kings and Queens. Instead, they got Napoleon Bonaparte. The Russian Czars were eliminated and they got the Communist party. And so it is in Sri Lanka. Kings were replaced by Parliamentary democracy, but it evolved into the Presidential system, in which power is concentrated in one person.    

The Kings of old in Sri Lanka were hedged in by duties to their people. When they failed in this – the judgment came from the people – the king could be dethroned. Thus, the opening paragraphs of the Kandyan Convention (1815) read:

1. That the cruelties and oppressions of the Malabar ruler, in the arbitrary and unjust infliction of bodily tortures and the pains of death without trial, and some times without an accusation or the possibility of a crime, and in the general contempt and contravention of all civil rights, have become flagrant, enormous, and intolerable, the acts and maxims of his government being equally and entirely devoid of that justice which should secure the safety of his subjects, and of that good faith which might obtain a beneficial intercourse with the neighboring settlements.

2. That the Rajah Sri Wikreme Rajah Sinha, by the habitual violation of the chief and most sacred duties of a Sovereign, has forfeited all claims to that title or: the powers annexed to the same, and is declared fallen and deposed from the office of king; his family and relatives, whether in the ascending, descending, or collateral line, and whether by affinity or blood, are flood for ever excluded from the throne, and all claim and title of the Malabar race to the dominion of the Kandyan provinces is abolished and extinguished.

Sri Lankan presidents have increased their powers, exercised them arbitrarily and enforced justice selectively. It is said that they have enriched themselves, that the IMF is insisting on legislation for the recovery of stolen assets to be enacted before the next tranche is released. But what have the people gained in all this – no local government as their first forum of complaint. No provincial government. A politicized law enforcement force.   

Would the presidents ever be subjected to an assessment as declared in the Kandyan Convention? In the so-called Dharmishta government or Yahaplanaya government, life goes on as related in the Parable of the Grand Inquisitor by Fyodor Dostoevyky in his 1980 novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In that parable, the situation is that Jesus has returned to earth. In a long diatribe directed at Jesus Himself, who has returned to Earth in Seville (Spain) at the height of the Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor defends the following ideas: only the principles of the devil can lead to mankind’s unification; give man bread, control his conscience, and rule the world; Jesus limited himself to a small group of chosen ones, while the Catholic Church improved on his work and addresses all people; the church rules the world in the name of God, but with the devil’s principles; Jesus was mistaken in holding man in high esteem. Jesus remains silent throughout the Inquisitor’s speech. Is this scenario being repeated in our day? Bread – as much as we can afford, but no reason to live?

It is true that queues have been eliminated. But how?  Without paying our debts. The cost of living leaves one third of our population without food security. The aid from the IMF has given the country respectability and with it the ability to borrow from various sources, thus increasing the debt. But how do we pay back the debt? Declarations that we are no longer bankrupt is not going to repay the debt.  We repay the debt by exporting and earning foreign revenue, not by building castles in the air and imagining a pie in the sky. Anybody – even a poor household – can live on debt, if they are not held to repay their debts or redeem their mortgages. Is that how we want to live?  Beggars are better off than us – they do not repay the largesse they receive. Bharat Jain, perhaps the wealthiest beggar in the world, can still be seen begging on the streets of Mumbai. Jain has accumulated a net worth of 7.5 crore. His monthly earnings from begging range between 60,000 and 75,000.It might be interesting to have the Declaration of Assets made by parliamentarians to discover how they have amassed sizeable wealth without needing to repay.

In Sri Lanka, the practice is for administrative instructions to be issued orally or by phone to the respective secretaries. There is no written record of action taken. So, it ends up – your word against mine or the passing buck game (as in the current case of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith versus ex-President Gotabaya Rajapkse). However, to the credit of the supreme court in 2023, in regard to the Easter Bombings of 2019, it ordered former President Maithripala Sirisena to pay a compensation of Rs. 100 Million, Former Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara and Former State Intelligence Services Chief Nilantha Jayawardene to pay a compensation of Rs. 75 Million each, Former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando was to pay a compensation of Rs. 50 Million.

In the light of what has been said above, whatever about the debate/ discussion between the two teams, there needs to be a debate – ideally, a series of debates – between the candidates. Each debate could focus on one central issue e.g. repayment of debt, education, health, IT promotion etc. The candidate is going to make out the difference between himself and the other candidate on policy AND implementation. (The office of President in Sri Lanka has evolved into making him almost like the philosopher-king of Plato – certainly ruling as king, but disputable whether as philosopher.)

Presidential Debates 

In USA, there has been a long tradition of debates between presidential candidates. The first was reportedly between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. The format of the 1858 debate was the first spoke for one hour, the second for one hour and a half and then, the first had half an hour to reply. The formats have changed and evolved. Cf. <CPD: 1948 Debate (debates.org)>. In 2020 (the most recent), there was the debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.  The format was 90-minute debate with candidates standing at podiums. Divided into six time segments of approximately 15 minutes each, with topics selected and announced beforehand by the moderator. Each segment opened with a question, after which each candidate had two minutes to respond. The moderator used the balance of the time in the segment for a discussion of the topic.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 to ensure, for the benefit of the American electorate, that general election debates between or among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States are a permanent part of the electoral process. CPD’s primary purpose is to sponsor and produce the quadrennial general election debates and to undertake research and educational activities relating to the debates. The debates between presidential candidates can take many forms.

It can be said without much reservation that the I960 debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were the most significant, groundbreaking American political campaign events of the twentieth century. Ashmore contended that the debates marked “a final shift in American political technique”. Two presidential candidates charged into relatively uncharted political waters by agreeing to go on live television, together, without scripts or notes. This was a radical departure from typical presidential campaigning. There had been political debates before I960, but none had been televised nationally. The I960 Kennedy-Nixon debate negotiations were historic in that they established the first set of televised general election presidential debates. They opened a whole new method of campaigning for the presidency. Their importance, though, is based  mostly in the precedent they set. Unwittingly, Nixon, Scribner, Kennedy, and Reinsch established a process by which presidential debates would be negotiated and staged for  over forty years. This was the enduring legacy of the I960 debates between Kennedy  and Nixon.  As more recent debates over the debates have demonstrated, these debates were not put together overnight. Much planning and thought went into them. However, the story started much earlier than most people might realize.

Debate is a process that involves formal discourse, discussion, and oral addresses on a particular topic or collection of topics, often with a moderator and an audience. In a debate, arguments are put forward for common opposing viewpoints. Debates have historically occurred in public meetings, academic institutions, debate halls, coffeehouses, competitions, and legislative assemblies. Athenian democracy developed around the 6th century BC in the Greek city-state (known as a polis) of Athens, comprising the city of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica. Although Athens is the most famous ancient Greek democratic city-state, it was not the only one, nor was it the first.  Multiple other city-states adopted similar democratic constitutions before Athens.  By the late 4th century BC, as many as half of the over one thousand existing Greek cities might have been democracies. Athens practiced a political system of legislation and executive bills. Participation was open to adult, free male citizens (i.e., not a metic (residents without political rights, about 30% of the population), women or slaves.)  There was open debate. In Imperial China’s Han Dynasty, debate amongst scholars was most famously portrayed in a series of debates known as the Discourses on Salt and Iron, held in 81 BCE. In Ancient India, there was Shastrartha (= Shatra + artha = philosophical and religious debates in which scholars participated to reveal the inner meaning of Hindu scriptures known as the shastras in Ancient India). One has to listen to the debates in the Sri Lankan Parliament to hear plenty of sound, little logic, almost no desire to learn from one’s opponents, but with the majority getting their way in the vote (in the Online Safety Bill, not totally incorporating the opinion of the Supreme Court – Sumanthiran noted 13 discrepancies. But once signed into law, the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over the enacted law.  Such is the situation in Sri Lanka). In the debate between the presidential candidates, it is the voters, who have to be enabled and assisted to make their rational choice.

Presidential Debates In Sri Lanka 

Because of the unique exercise of executive power by the President of Sri Lanka, together with a significant impact on the Legislature and Judiciary. The debate between the presidential candidates should provide the voter with a reason to choose based on two criteria -the POLICY/ POLICIES of the candidate/s concerned and the CHARACTER of the candidates. How do the policy and the character of the one differ from that of the other? To ensure this the candidates cannot be allowed to regulate their debate themselves.

In the budget of 2022, the President declared an allocation of 200 M to set up a faculty of medicine in Uva Wellasa. How far will that allocation get in today’s value of money? Building up a dream world is possible for anyone with imagination; but laying the foundation for a realistic world is something quite different. Acclaiming and boasting of one’s performance or projected aims, attacking one’s opponents defending one’s course of action – are available to anyone. It is only the realist who can make the best of what is available. And therefore, the Presidential debates need to be organized in such a way that there is a moderator, who will frame the issues, the setting of a time limit (strictly adhered to) for the response of the candidates, a general discussion between the two candidates for a limited time and then, two minutes each for the candidates to make their final summary.   (This was more or less the format of the debate between Biden and Trump in 2020). In Sri Lanka, in several of the talk shows, the failure of the moderator to strictly enforce the rules, result in people going round in circles or setting up “straw man” pr “red herring” arguments.

Dhammika Perera has proposed an outline plan with practical steps to increase the per capita income from $4000 to $12,000 by assigning tasks that every ministry can and should achieve. <Dhammika Perera | SRI LANKA 2030 A DEVELOPED NATION>.  There is also the paper of Harsha de Silva entitled Blue Print Out of the Debt Trap & Towards  Sustainable Inclisive Development: A Ten-Point Common Minimum Program for Sri Lanka’s Economic Recovery <BlueprintEnglish.pdf (newswire.lk)> and the policy statement of the NPP < Statements of Policies | NPP Sri Lanka>. In the debates, what needs to emerge is 1. How are these policies different from each other? How do they compare and contrast with one another? 2. More importantly, how are they actionable? Within what time frame? What would be the outcome in the short term (six months), medium term (two years) and long term (at the end of the term of office of this elected president)?

With the best of good will, not all the expected outcomes will be achieved. Thus, in his 2008 run for the White House, President Barack Obama promised to shut down the prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and on his second full day as president he issued an executive order to close it within a year. Eight years later, that has not happened, though the number of people imprisoned there has dropped from 242 to 55. Various world and national events took place preventing a complete closure. But there was at least action and a reduction of numbers at Guantanamo Bay. Besides policy, character is important. Prima facie, popular conceptions must not be set aside. Thus, it is hardly likely that a an individual who is popularly known as Mr. 10% or another who is known “Rataran” (gold) supposedly for snatching gold chains of females would be a character to choose for a thrust against corruption. We know of the racing cars that were imported and seen in Sri Lanka, but they have vanished without trace. Can the owners of such vehicles be trusted?

Some observations need to be made about the possible debates. Much more can be said, but this is a basic framework.

First, the debates may take place in one language, but there should be a simultaneous translation into all the major languages in Sri Lanka – English, Sinhala and Tamil. While one channel relays the debate in the original language, other channels could relay it in simultaneous translation.

Secondly, the Presidential debates need to be organized in such a way that there is a moderator, who will frame the issues, set a time limit (strictly adhered to) for the response of the candidates, a general discussion between the two candidates for a limited time and then, the final two minutes each for the candidates to make their final summary. (This was more or less the format of the debate between Biden and Trump in 2020). May be some other format is chosen, but the principle is that real issues need to be faced such as economy and debt repayment, education, the flight of talent from the country etc. What specific and realistic action is the candidate willing to take in the immediate future (and not in the next 25 or 50 years!). Speakers should keep to the point and time limit.

Thirdly, the debate is one thing. The Mass Media play an important role in a democracy. Following the debate, there should be a fact check by the Mass media with their discoveries made available to the electorate in print or on mass media.


It is too much to hope that 100% of the electorate will be influenced by the debate/s. There are those who will not change even if someone appears from the dead. There is going to be selective listening on the part of more than a few. But, we hope, that the majority are persons of good will and facts based on the truth will persuade them one way or another. Finally, let me recall a very significant event – Martin Luther’s Ninety five theses. The Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences is a list of propositions for an academic disputation/ debate written in 1517 by Martin Luther (1483-1547) then a professor at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. But it went well beyond academia and sparked popular interest. Slowly, the popular acceptance of content of the ninety five theses, together with the configuration of political forces at the time, resulted in the so-called non-Catholic or Protestant Churches. (The term Protestant derives from the letter of protestation from German Lutheran princes in 1529 against an edict of the Diet of Speyer condemning the teachings of Martin Luther as heretical). It has been called a political revolution expressed in the language of religion. If the debates are held in Sri Lanka, this would be the first debate between potential presidents. Let us hope that the debates together with the informed choices of the voters, carries Sri Lanka beyond debate to “revolution” in terms of system change and an era of welfare for all. Let all beings be happy.

*Nihal Abeyasingha (Retired University Lecturer, Faculty of Humanities, University of Kelabniya

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Latest comments

  • 0

    A comprehensive study on Political debates.
    However, an unspoken word of Vipula Wanigasekera is already in the arena:
    “It is known that most Sri Lankans vote on perceptions than policies.”

  • 1

    The public still do not know who contest from which political party. As it is, RW is from UNP but parliament is from SLPP or SLFP. RW is not elected by people but selected by SLPP/SLFP members. Almost all previous Presidents and the currently selected President always wanted to get rid of the executive Presidency but never did it. For its happen, the people and parliament have to be given that opportunity before next Presidential election. So, there should be a referendum and parliament election before the Presidential election. You should not allow a Presidential election when there is a President in Power because he can misuse his executive powers to change the results.

  • 0

    “It is known that most Sri Lankans vote on perceptions than policies.”
    Fully agree. GR was perceived as a no nonsense go getter but the action man turned out to be an arrogant thug without even basic intelligence. Voters, having lost faith in mainstream parties & there being no credible option, the focus now seems to be on a ‘pickle of all sorts’, which includes a former terror organisation. At the end of the day, we vote with our hearts & not our heads.

    A Presidential debate as in the US would be beneficial for the more intelligent voters to make an educated decision but according to the unique constitution of SL, the President & the ruling party could be from different parties (French President Macron does not represent a party) We have seen that before with the President, & the PM from the ruling party, pulling in different directions. Since the Presidential election will be first, we have to elect a President based on the candidate’s vision & objectives, which should be argued convincingly, thereafter, at the general election, other political parties, which will be nominating their candidate for PM, have to thrash out in a debate where they agree or disagree with the objectives of the all powerful serving President, which the public have endorsed by electing him.

    • 1

      If the President & PM, irrespective of the party they represent are ‘in sync’, there will be synergy but, most likely, in practice, it would be otherwise.
      In the current scenario, I prefer AKD as President because he promises abolition of the expensive Presidential office & bringing to justice those responsible for crimes against the state but that would be opening a can of worms & the prison system will need to be expanded to bang up all those corrupt politicians & their cronies, so, I am not holding my breath. I will be happy if only the generous perks & privileges of politicians are abolished &, at least, the sharks are named & shamed officially, even escaping a jail sentence
      However, when it comes to forming a govt., the NPP lead by AKD is not my choice. I have doubts about a ‘socialist’ party with 20 or more groups arriving at a consensus & with the JVP, with its communist ideology, pulling the strings as well. In my opinion, if the UNP &/or SJB can form a govt. without Sajith or Ranil at the head & AKD is intelligent enough, as President, to work together, would be the ideal solution.

      • 0

        Thank you, Raj-UK.
        At least you are consistent in liking AKD. However, there are some things about this which you may not be aware.
        I have taken a quick look at this article by Mr Nihal Abeyasingha. It is very good, and he has taken a great deal of trouble writing it. However, there are very few comments on it. Why?
        The previous article by this author,
        was also good. However, when it first appeared, the photograph was different. I realised that a mistake had been made, and now we have the proper photograph. Prior to the change, the photograph that appeared there was of the Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe that appears here:
        This retired Former Chief Epidemiologist, is the Secretary to the National People’s Power. Tilvin Silva is General Secretary of the JVP.
        Confusing these two persons has had unfortunate repercussions. I’m not sure where we go from here.
        Mr Nihal Abeyasingha is quite right in saying that the debate among the candidates for Presidents should come first.
        Panini Edirisinhe, 51B, Golf Links Road, Bandarawela

        • 2

          “It is very correct to say that Mr. Nihal Abeysinghe should give priority to the debate between the presidential candidates.”

          That may be what you think, please elaborate us little bit more as to why you are forced to think so ? we should not all behave like grass eaters right ?

          SINHLAA BUDDHISTs and lankens in general are controlled by SADU SADU effect. If one would say yes, the other would not disgree but say the same. This is very common to our people than to others.
          Many others in CT surely dont have the same opinion. I for example, do believe, the both kind of discussiones should be performed to the order first the panel discussion on economy and later between two presidents as done in the US. Why should we change the order ?
          In this context, everyone but you knows that the priority for reviving the nation should be given to nothing else but the economy that needs to be revived.
          No doubt we should elect a good candidate for the presidency. But if he would not have a good panel of advisers for the proper guidance, he will surely end up like “gottabhaya” driven out of the country by the struggle.
          SRILANKA woul dnot be succeeded only by stage rhetorics.

          Real change can only be made by Ranil Wickramasinghe by strenghthening his hand with a powerful mandate in Parlament.

          • 0

            Had anybody else asked, I would have given the request made here by “leelagemalli” some thought. But since LM wants no debate, just extension of the term of the Dictator into the 22nd Century, I’m not going to bother with responding to his request.
            Conduct the election Pronto is what we say!
            Panini and other “Right Thinking Lankans”

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