UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa made it clear at a press conference a short while ago that abolishing the executive presidency would not be a top issue for him, marking a major departure from his party’s position on the issue.
Addressing a press briefing at 7.15AM today, Premadasa who was flanked by Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickaema, Chandrani Bandara, Kabir Hashim and Ranjith Madduma Bandara said he needed “scientific surveys” to prove that abolishing the presidency was what the people actually wanted.
“Actually it is the cost of living that is the number one political issue” the UNP Deputy leader who is insisting on being the party’s presidential candidate told the media a few hours ago.
Repeatedly asked about his own opinion on the key issue, Premadasa ducked the questions saying “my personal view is of no value”.
In an apparent broadside aimed at civil society movements have resumed the push for the abolition of the presidency at the 2019 election, Premadasa said: “Everyone is coming up with their personal ideas and trying to place them at the highest position in the national political agenda.”
Asked if the 6.2 million votes in January 2015 not proof enough, Premadasa said things have changed since then. “Well if I may say so, mandates get outdated. We have to live with the times and we have to look at the existing contextual situation and act accordingly” Premadasa responded to a question by a journalist on whether he believed the 2015 mandate to be outdated.
Since 2014 the UNP has articulated that its position on the presidency was that it should be abolished. It was on that basis that the party supported the common candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 and championed the 19th amendment in parliament to curb the powers of the office. But now Premadasa and his loyalists fighting to get him the candidature are singing a very different tune.
Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera who is one of Premadasa’s main backers repeatedly prevented journalists probing the UNP deputy leader further on the issue of abolition of the presidency. An impatient Samaraweera repeatedly shielded Premadasa from being asked for his personal views on abolition of the presidency by moving on to different questions.
With calls for a candidate committed to abolition to be nominated from the UNP in order to allow other forces that backed the 2015 common candidacy movement to join the alliance mounting, the Premadasa faction stepped up efforts to prove that the Sri Lankan public was moving away from wanting the presidency abolished.
State Minister Harsha De Silva tweeted today (17) quoting a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives that purportedly showed that public support for abolition of the presidency was waning. The remarks were slammed by leading academics who accused the popular State Minister of changing his policies to suit his candidate’s whims.
Premadasa backers have repeatedly fallen back on “surveys” that show him to be the only candidate to be able to “beat Gota”
Premadasa has already articulated in private meetings with political party representatives that as President he will have to “have some power” and he does not support abolishing the office completely.
At the press conference Premadasa was also quick to disown a recent meeting he held with the Tamil National Alliance in order to win their support for his candidacy. The meeting between Premadasa and the TNA held at Minister Samaraweera’s residence two weeks ago was a widely publicised affair with UNP ministers claiming it had gone off extremely well and TNA had pledged support to the UNP Deputy Leader. Premadasa told reporters that the meeting was “nothing special” and that he had met the party several times even recently in Jaffna during the Enterprise Sri Lanka exhibition. “There was no such meeting as far as I was concerned of myself meeting TNA. We have spoken and discussed a gamut of issues. It is not an extraordinary event” Premadasa said.
Premadasa’s full exchange with journalists on the abolition of the executive presidency follows:
Journalist: Everyone wants Presidency scrapped what’s your opinion on continuing the office?
SP: I don’t think there has been a scientific survey done as to the necessity about what to do about the presidency, whether it is to be kept and maintained or whether it is to be abolished. But at the end of the day I am always willing to listen to the people of this country. If the people of this country so decides, I am there.
Journalist: That is neither here nor there.
SP: I am sorry it sounds wishy-washy to you. It sounds very coherent to me. As far as the executive presidency is concerned, in 2015 we made a pledge and certain drastic steps have been taken to reduce the powers of the presidency. Right now we are in the process of discussing, consulting and having initial discussions as to where the presidency should be placed, whether it should be maintained or whether it is to be abolished. There has been no scientific survey done as to the prioritisation of the maintenance of the presidency or its abolition. Everyone is coming up with their personal ideas and trying to place them at the highest position in the national political agenda. If I may say so, some of the surveys that I have seen, they are prioritising cost of living as the most important issue in the political agenda.
Journalist: But what is your personal view on the issue?
Mangala Samaraweera: Can we move on?
SP: My personal views are of no value. My views are based on people’s views. I have no monopoly on articulating and formulating policy. That itself is a democratic process.
Samaraweera: Can we move on? Can we move on?
Journalist: But where is the leadership?
SP: I am willing to give democratic leadership, not autocratic leadership. I don’t want to become an elected dictatorship. To coin a phrase of Lord Hailsham.
Journalist: The mandate you got in 2015. You don’t think that was a mandate to abolish the presidency?
SP: Well if I may say so, mandates get outdated. We have to live with the times and we have to look at the existing contextual situation and act accordingly. The best way to formulate and initiate policy is by consulting the widest possible spectrum of opinions and formulating policy.
Journalist: With all due respect……
Samaraweera: I think we should move on
SP: We would not take decisions in a closeted cupboard.
Journalist: So you feel the 2015 mandate is outdated?
SP: Whatever happened in 2015 as a country locally and internationally everything has moved on. The social context, the economic context, the political context. It is not a static situation, it is ever changing. We should have the widest possible consultations – not only with regard to the executive presidency.
Samaraweera: Can we move on?
Watch the full press conference here