7 June, 2023


Ultimatum To Presidential Candidates: Who Will Deliver The 20th Amendment In The First Year?

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

It is too late to expect the current parliament to pass the Twentieth Amendment and end the practice of electing the Head of State. It is also too late to expect a magical deal between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe to drag their MPs kicking and screaming to obtain  the requisite two-thirds majority. There is also the vexed constitutional question whether or not a referendum is also needed to change the mode of electing the President. It is again too late and not at all fair to ask the Supreme Court to adjudicate on this matter so close to the next presidential election when it should have been properly clarified soon after the last presidential election. But it is not at all late to avoid the old mistake of letting presidential candidates make abolishment promises before the election and breaking them later. We have the most solemn illustration of it in the present incumbent. 

To be sure, it is the parliament and not the president who can pass the 20th Amendment. But our parliament has got so used to presidential whipping, it has lost its character to act independently even after the 19th Amendment. In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga won the parliamentary election first, while promising to end the presidency. Ever since, the question of the executive presidency has dominated every presidential election and never a parliamentary election. The main reason is that political parties have put the premium on winning the presidency and reduced the parliamentary elections to a subordinate role. In the process, political parties have been constantly self-destructing themselves – through perpetual infighting and pre-election alliance-seeking. We can see around the debris from every political party. Put another way, the executive presidency has devoured the party system in Sri Lanka as a condition of its own survival. So, we have come to depend on electing a president to end the presidency. That was the sum and substance of the last presidential election. What is it going to be this time?         

The challenge that civil society organizations must pose to the current presidential candidates should not be about making a slate of motherhood commitments including the routine promise to abolish the executive presidency. Instead, civil society organizations should issue a new ultimatum to presidential candidates that they commit to getting the 20th Amendment enacted, along with amendments to parliamentary and provincial council elections within one year of being sworn in as president. After the passage of the 20th Amendment, the new incumbent president will become the first post-presidential president, similar to the last president under the First Republican constitution. In other words, the new president committed to delivering the 20th Amendment should be under no illusion of serving out the full term like a pre-19th Amendment executive president. In another word, there will not be another Maithripala Sirisena.  

Before looking at how such an ultimatum will play out in the upcoming elections, let us see how it would work if it were to be successful in the elections. Politically, we can assume that the person who wins the next presidential election with the commitment to delivering the 20th Amendment, would be able to muster the requisite two-thirds majority in parliament. The question of the referendum requirement can be canvassed anew before the Supreme Court reinforced by the ‘mandate’ of the new president. One would hope that the Court would see the same light as Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama and hold that a referendum is not required to change the mode of electing a President under the Constitution. There is no need to revisit here the divided judicial opinions on this matter, except to add that Dr. Colvin R de Silva expressed an identical interpretation on the referendum question during the 13th Amendment controversy, as Dr. Jayawickrama is doing now – and as the Supreme Court did then with a majority ruling. 

If the Court agrees, the matter ends there and the 20th Amendment would be passed for good. If the Court decrees, on the other hand, that a referendum is needed, it can be piggybacked on the next parliamentary election to save some cost for our over-indulging in public plebiscites. Also, the next parliamentary could be dissolved by the President and a new election called any time after February 2020 (earlier than August 2020 when it is due), if for whatever reason a two-thirds majority support cannot be garnered in the current parliament. And it will be up to the new parliament and the new president to carry the 20th Amendment through the constitutional rites of passage. In sum, if a candidate who is committed to passing the 20th Amendment in the first year were to be elected as president, he would be able deliver on that promise without too many roadblocks. 

Possibilities and Challenges

A post-election risk is that the newly elected president could turn dark in his soul and go back on his commitment. This risk is minimal, because whoever wins the election undertaking to pass the 20th Amendment will have every incentive to deliver on that promise, and no incentive to go back on it and become a national pariah. The greater challenge, however, is to find a candidate who will make the 20th Amendment commitment and to make sure that candidate wins the election. There are quite a few possibilities here. 

The most optimistic but highly unlikely one would be where all presidential candidates commit to passing the 20th Amendment. If there is only one candidate committed to the 20th Amendment, and if he is also a reasonably strong candidate, then the onus will be on civil society foot soldiers to make sure that candidate wins. Things will get complicated if more than one candidate makes the commitment, and the need for strategic voting will arise. There will be no complication at all if it turns out that no candidate is willing to make the 20th Amendment commitment. That would be a different story, but yet a possibility and one that will call off the serious bluff of many of us – born again presidential decriers. So, what is it going to be?   

Already, there is one candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who we assume is not going to make the 20th Amendment commitment we are talking about. His reasons are simple. Presidency is the reason for his political being. Without it he has no reason to be in politics. Nobody would expect Mr. Rajapaksa to renounce his US citizenship just to become an MP. The question is whether Mr. Rajapaksa’s stand on the 20th Amendment will set an example to other candidates, or will he be put on the spot if one or more of the other candidates start making the 20th Amendment commitment?   

The second committed candidate is the JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake who is coming forward as the candidate of the progressive People’s Power movement. His announcement turned to be quite a stirring political event, unlike the rather soporific induction of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the SLPP’s presidential candidate. The one serious misgiving about the JVP candidacy so far is that there has been no mention of the 20th Amendment, and no indication of what Mr. Dissanayake will do to the presidency if he were to be elected as the next Executive President. 

The omission, intentional or inadvertent, is hugely disappointing, because it is the JVP that introduced the 20th Amendment Bill in parliament to get rid of the absurdity of having two elected sources of authority – the elected president and the elected legislature. Whether the JVP’s 20th Amendment Bill was hatched in collaboration with the ‘UNP-government’ and the ‘opposition-TNA’ is irrelevant now. What is material is that our great parliament wouldn’t even take the JVP’s 20th up for deliberation. With all of it – water under the bridge now, where is the 20th Amendment on the JVP’s new presidential platform? 

The bigger question is what is going on in the UNP? In short, what is going on in the UNP and in every other party for that matter is what the executive presidency is doing to Sri Lanka’s political parties. For sure, no one in the UNP is talking about the 20th Amendment. Suddenly, they are keen to move legislation to accelerate the provincial council elections. As far as I know, Sajith Premadasa has not said anything ever about the constitution or the executive presidency. Karu Jayasuriya, when he was talking about being a candidate by consensus, was quite clear that he would seek to become president only for the sake of ending the current presidential system. Now we do not know where he stands and what his thoughts are.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is as usual taking too much and saying little. Of the many things that he has been talking about, the one thing that struck me is his seemingly confident assessment that a majority of the people in the country want a constitutional change including the change to the presidential system. He is not alone in this thinking. DEW Gunasekara said the same thing at the 40th death anniversary of Dr. NM Perera. And there are a whole host of others in between and saying the same thing. 

The question to Mr. Wickremesinghe is this: if he so thinks that he is the right person to be the UNP’s/DNF’s presidential candidate, will he commit himself to implementing the 20th Amendment Bill in parliament within one year after election? Or is he on to another one of his long games, looking at a first full term and then a second term presidency, and give time to the UNP to get ready with post-2030 succession planning? It is not only Champika Ranawaka, but also people in general who are getting impatient with these games.

The onus is really with Ranil Wickremesinghe and Anura Kumara Dissanyake to set the 20th Amendment ball rolling. Once they start kicking it, others will be forced to do their kicking. There will be a lot of internal kicking inside the UNP, and so be it. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be put on the spot to decide if he should join in the kicking, or stand on the sidelines ball-watching. The civil society organizations must do their bit to keep the 20th Amendment ball (bill) at the centre of the political field.   

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Dear Rajan Philips
    Just look at the absolute power Mahinda Rajapaksa wields within the party and Ranil Wickramasinghe wields within his party. These INDIVIDUALS decide whether a particular piece legislation is good for the country or not (You and I KNOW what goes on at the back of their minds – leave that aside for the moment) As long as our representatives (who in turn are nominated by him/her for us to vote) are not free to vote according their conscience on the floor absolute power in the hands of an individual still remains unaffected be it in the form of a President or a Prime Minister. It is as simple as that. Parliamentary debates which we watch live on our TV are nothing but an expensive circus. Aren’t they exactly similar to school debates where you speak on the assigned side of a topic. Are we listening to his or her opinion? Is he voicing OUR opinion? Again dear Rajan wouldn’t you agree that this a very very expensive circus to watch
    considering the cost per day. What is the purpose of a voting at the end of the debate I have always wondered- party leaders could communicate that to the Speaker.
    In this background an external , independent party with some clout to counter serves a very significant purpose – true a long debate.
    As far as I am concerned the main objection for a directly voted President is the Himalayan cost of an election.
    While the true debate is whether an Executive President voted in directly is necessary or not this idea of a President selected by Parliament is the dumbest of all. For what?
    Let us abolish the Executive Presidency when we evolve towards a Parliament where our representatives are free to debate and vote according to their conscience and political parties where nominees for elections are selected by secret vote within the party ( sorry to disappoint fans of Namal , son of Rajitha and teledrama Paba)


    • 1

      The two issues you are raising: Costs of elections & below standard behavior of elected officials are common to all democracies; not b’cos it is necessarily true but b’cos that is how most public view them. However, it is also a fact that a good number of of elected officials in SL are crooks. But, the main reasons for the failure by politicians to keep major promises has nothing to do with them. I see two totally different reasons.
      1. Nature of the election system itself. The brutal election contests demands parties & candidates to make unrealistic promises in order to win elections but only a few of them can realized within short five year tenure. Sometimes, unexpected major events such as natural disasters, global recession or a terrorist attacks can derail Gvt plans by emergent new priorities or loss of public interest.
      2. Difficulties to come to agreement in the parliament either due to intentional sabotage by the opposition or due to the lack of cooperation from the minority parties.

      I think that the elimination of the presidency had to face both of these hurdles. It was SC decision requiring a public referendum that stopped the measure going through. As it stands now, the public has to come to terms with a way to deal with 13 A (to abolish or not) to make easy to eliminate the presidency b’cos the two are tied together. Therefore, I believe that, whether we like it or not, the current form 19 A will be the rule of law for a long time to come unless a military type dictator suspend the constitution altogether or if ethnic reconciliation becomes so strong that minorities no longer need ethnic parties, a real possibility as in the US! Then again, this is how democracy works: there is always some issue for the public to talk about!

  • 1

    I thought you guys hired Sira to help Dr Ranil to bring .in 19 and 20 and . and put in Dr Ranil’s New Constitution.
    As well as down grade Buddhism, and allow same sex marriages too, which were promoted as the pressing issues that you had to address to give us a happy ending..

    Although 70 % of our inhabitants are on 15.000 Yahapalana Ruppiah a year on average and 30% of them are on the Samurdhi Dole..despite the Yahapalana CB Boss Coomarasamy boasting that we are now the upper Mid Come Nation bracket..

    Wonder what happened?.

  • 3

    Looking at the possible and probable candidates for the presidential election. There is only one name which stands out. A man with experience, trust, discipline, patience and somewhat a visionary. It is the current speaker, Karu Jayasuriya. To be blunt, the current President and the Prime Minister the taken the country on false promises and utterly hopeless. The Rajapaksas are only for Rajapaksas. Yes they did some good things and many bad things. Sri Lanka does not need a despotic leader.
    Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot regime are cases in point. Sri Lanka , please do not go there. It will only bring more agony and fear.
    Decide with your head and not your heart

    • 1

      Soam unfortunately I cannot agree. Karu J left the UNP for the SLFP. Then he left the SLFP for the UNP. He is 78 years old and can barely walk. He should be thinking of the few years/months he has left rather than greedily seeking power.

  • 1

    JVP said, that they wanted Executive presidency abolished and they brought 20th amendment. Now, JVP is going to fight for the same Executive president position. That looks JVP doe snot have any straight mind. How can they become leaders when they are that lost as a political party.
    Other than that, either the Executive presidency or the Executive prime minister need to be cancelled. Who ever it is he/she needs to be come from Island wide vote and not from a district or parliamentary vote.

  • 4

    We don’t need amendments but instead a new constitution.
    British gave us the country with a surplus of million pounds and we were rank 2 in Asia.
    Within 72 years UNP and SLFP managed to bring Sri Lanka back to slavery again.
    Now some of them are changing the name to SLPP and trying to deceive us again.
    They will try their best to make us talk about them rather than the alternative camp.
    This time it won’t work.

  • 0

    We, layLankans, know that our Constitution is changed to benefit an individual or a group from the Lankan Elites.
    We inherited a Westminster democratic system but changed to the elected Executive President and an elected Parliament system. We find this system has lots of defects but the system is there to stay. Should we address the defects?
    Do we need the List MPs? Lawmakers rejected by the electors often are back as a List MP!. They often carpetbag, hop fences for a price and fuel the corruption rocket. The horse-trading is now sort of accepted. For a start fence hopping may be banned.
    Coalition GoSL will be the rule than exception. Can rules be made robust so that the GoSL of the time need not ‘bribe’ renegade groups of MPs.
    A new defect to surface is the Heroic-Angelification of the ilk of Gnanasara.
    The above submission is food for thought. A drastic change suggested by Rajan is a dream.

  • 0

    Who wants 20A ? Stick it up your ass. Nobody wants it. Repeal the 13A. That should be where the focus is.

  • 0

    Surely Rajan Philips, are you suggesting that our problems will be over and done with, if the next President {“….. Deliver The 20th Amendment In The First Year……….”}
    We will end up with an additional problem: What the hell do we do with the 20th Amendment?

  • 0

    There are few of Tamil nationalist /Leftist and Tamil Terrorist , who are behind that wanted to Weaken Unitary Nature of State of Sri Lanka. By aiming at undermining of that Nation majority of Sinhalese -Buddhist sovereignty to be shifted to Western domination by proposed 20th amendment of Republic Constitution.
    By abolishing Powers of Executive Presidency is key role played of that Colonial sovereignty is another insufficient attempt to resolve the ongoing all crisis an Island by current governance of UNP leadership led by Wickrmasinghe.
    All that so-called Left proposals aiming at disintegration of unitary nature of State.By crating Many CENTERS is only way to re-establishment of chaos, uncertainties and turmoil are weeds of Weak State in a Island -wide by poor governance of “Democracy “
    Undeniably this is well being of New Colonization political of reactionary Right wing forces which come from various corner of politics from ex LSSPs of Tamils elites has nexus with Old Left , that current leadership of JVP , while ex-JVP carders , some sections of SLCP ,and splinter groups extremists being behind that …UNP conspiracies .
    They have created a common platform for all evils elements which come under one umbrella of that politics of isolationism attack on anti -Rajapakese of family nepotism . Why is that ? It is easy slogan to misled masses of People income number of Elections. year 2020!
    By the result of that all right-wing element are politically alliance with by on governing of UNP. Therefor by so-called united Left and civilian liberties are more or less of non-Party incorrigible politicians are behind that colonial Sovereignty ,which proposed by “Democratic Nation Front” to be emerge to replace of that OLD UNP in
    by NEW Name.
    Western Capital led by USA to new colonial sovereignty of that slavery ,however ,is in fact much more intimate and complex under that next UNP regime looking for year 2020 incoming Presidential election.

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