Will the Executive Presidency “Go Out” If Gota Refuses to Go Home?


“Go Home Gota” and/or “Gota Go Home” is the resounding clarion call that is currently motivating and mobilizing a number of protest demonstrations throughout Sri Lanka. The underlying thread is that Sri Lanka’s Executive President Gotabaya (Gota) Rajapaksa should resign and quit. The social media too is replete with demands of a similar nature.

“#Go Home Gota” 2022 Protest

Even the “ Boney M” Group’s 1979 Album “Oceans of Fantasy”lead single “Gotta Go Home” has acquired a fresh lease of life in the internet among those who want Gota to go home. Indeed the repetitive refrain “Gotta go home, home, home, Gotta go home” sounds most appropriate to the prevalent domestic political situation.

The Boney M song also has the line “Going back home , Going back home”. That however does not seem possible at least for now. Gota does not want to go home!

Boney M song

Chief Government Whip and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando has stated in Parliament that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not resign. “As a responsible government, we state that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not resign from his post, under any circumstances,” Minister Fernando reportedly said. Apparently President Rajapaksa feels that 6.9 million citizens of the country who voted for him have provided a Mandate that cannot be overturned by mass demonstrations.

According to informed SLPP circles , President Gotabaya accepts that the people are protesting living conditions like shortages, rising prices, loss of livelihood decline of the rupee’s value etc. The people wanted these problems to end and their initial demonstrations were organic and genuinely spontaneous. However Gotabayaota opines – according to SLPP circles – that Sajith Premadasa his chief rival at the 2019 hustings diverted the protest demanding immediate action to resolve these problems into an agitation demanding the President’s resignation and a handover of Govt to the “Samagiya Jana Balawegaya” (SJB). Therefore Gota invited the opposition parties including the SJB to join a new interim Govt. This was spurned and the call for Gota to resign was renewed. As Such Gota will not yield and instead “stay put and fight” say these sources.

Against this backdrop it is now becoming increasingly clear that President Rajapaksa is not going to resign and cant be compelled to quit if he is not willing to do so. The inability or unwillingness of those opposed to him to cobble together a united “hostile majority” with a single-minded purpose indicates that even extreme measures like a no confidence motion against the Govt or an impeachment of the President are unlikely to bear fruit. Recent writings by former Justice ministry secretary Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama have made the Constitutional position very clear on this. Therefore the situation now is in a sense a stalemate.

Sajith Premadasa

However in a surprising move , SJB Leader and leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa called on all parliamentarians to seize the opportunity at hand and support legislation to abolish the Executive Presidency. Speakig in Parliament on April 5 Sajith Premadasa said “The time has come to abolish the Executive Presidency. Let us use this opportunity to change this system and introduce one with checks and balances. Let us use all the available emergency constitutional tools available and within this week bring laws to abolish the Executive Presidency,”

Sajith Premadasa

The opposition leader’s call to abolish the executive presidency was most welcome to all those who perceive the executve presidency as a major cause of the country’s ills. Yet there were some who were doubtful because some of Sajith’s key supporters and advisers wanted the executve presidency to be retained. Premadasa himself had not been vocally active against the executive presidency. He had also contested the 2019 presidential poll . It was felt in some quarters that Sajith’s call was merely a tactical response to Johnston Fernando’s assertion that Gota was not going to resign and nothing more . Was Sajith trying to convey an implied threat that If the executive president was not ready to resign then the executive presidency itself be abolished?

Sajith Premadasa in parliament few days ago

Much of these misgivings and doubts about Sajith Premadsa’s position diminished by an important event on the following day – April 6. It may be recalled that Jaffna District MP and Tamil National Alliance(TNA) spokesperson Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran had taken the initiative to convene two multi-party meetings to discuss the prevailing economic and political crisis afflicting Sri Lanka. The objective was to forge a collective position on these. Leaders and representatives of several political parties had met and engaged in brainstorming sessions. A consensus was arrived at regarding economic issues and a document prepared and submitted to the President.

“Monarch Imperial Hotel”

Now a third meeting was held on April 6th to discuss the on going political crisis. Several political party leaders and MP’s participated in a four hour meeting from 5.30 pm to 9.30 pm at the “ Monarch Imperial Hotel” in Kotte. Among those who attended the meeting were opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa, UNP Leader and former PM Ranil Wickremesiinghe, Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Muslim Congress Leader and MP Rauff Hakeem, TPA leader and MP Mano Ganesan, Former Ministers and SJB MP’s Eran Wickremaratne and Dr. Harsha de Silva.

Ranil Wickremesiinghe

After intense discussions it was resolved that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should heed the voice of the people and resign voluntarily. The Sri Lankan people cutting across ethnicity and religion demand it. Besides no effective turnaround of the economy is possible under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa dispensation. Steps should be taken to reduce or eliminate his power. The best way to do that is to abolish the executive presidency itself. The Sri Lankan people would gladly welcome the disempowerment of the ruling executive president by abolishing the executive presidency . In short the executive presidency “throne” on which Gota was sitting would be yanked away from under his posterior.

Sajith Premadasa stated that the SJB position on abolishing the executive presidency would be officially announced in Parliament the following day though he would not be in the House due to the TPA/SJB protest rally at Talawakelle. On March 7th SJB Kandy district MP and Chief Opposition whip Lakshman Kiriella announced in Parliament that the SJB was committed to abolishing the Executive Presidency. He said that the SJB will introduce a draft bill to the House shortly to abolish the Executive Presidency and asked the Government to support the move.“When we brought the 19th Amendment to the constitution, we had only 45 MPs but we managed to discuss with all parties and get the needed 2/3rd support for it. We can do this again,” Kiriella said.

Private Members Bill

It is learnt that efforts will be underway soon to draft the bill to abolish the executive presidency. It would most likely be presented to Parliament as a Private members bill by Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa himself. It is uncertain at this point of time as to whether the bill would be passed with a two-thirds majority by Parliament and subsequently endorsed by the people at a country wide referendum as required by the Constitution. However given the speed at which the SLPP led Govt is disintegrating and the widespread realization that the country has deteriorated under the present executive president ,there is much optimism that the bill would be passed by Parliament and approved by the people. If so the abolition of the executive presidency may be possible at last.

The fact tht the opposition leader himself is presenting the bill to do away with the executive presidency adds much importance and weight to the exercise.It is also significant that Sajith is the son of Ranasinghe Premadsa who was closely associated with JR Jayewardene in introducing the executive presidential system. Jayewardene was the first and Premadasa the second executive president of Sri Lanka.

No Confidence Motion

Nevertheless some political observers were doubtful of Sajith Premadasa’s genuine commitment towards the abolition of the executive presidency. They suspect that Sajith is not keen to bring about real change in political governance but only desires the acquisition of political power. These misgivings were somewhat reinforced when Sajith Premadasa suddenly embarked on a mission to present a no confidence motion (NCM)against the SLPP Government without consulting other opposition parties. Analysts see this as a rash, premature move that would only help the Govt consolidate itself. Many Govt MP’s who are functioning as “independents” now may be critical of Basil and the Govt but are not ready to risk new elections. Hence they would not vote for the NCM. This would strengthen the Govt. Sajith who is often dubbed s “Rajapaksa lite” should gve much thought before going ahead with this potentially counter -productive NCM.

What is more important and necessary at this juncture is to do away with the executive presidency. More and more People as well as politicians are becoming convinced that the executive presidency should be abo helplished for the betterment of the country. Moreover the abolition may even make it easier for Gota to go home. Abolishing the executive presidency could provide Gotabaya Rajapaksa an opportunity to make a dignified exit. Instead o clinging on stubbornly and facing the ignominy of being dragged out screaming and crying, Gota could help facilitate the executive presidency abolition and “retire” honourably.

Junius Richard Jayewardene

The genesis of the executive presidency in Sri Lanka needs to be examined briefly in order to place the current moves connected to the abolition of the executive presidency in perspective. As stated earlier it was Junius Richard Jayewardene (J.R. Jayewardene) known as JR who masterminded the change of Sri Lanka’s political system from the British Westminster model to that of one closely resembling the French Gaullist Constitution. Power shifted to the president who was transformed from a figurehead to an effective head of state. The post of Prime minister got devalued. Nevertheless JR did work through Parliament also by ensuring that the cabinet would consist of Parliament members only.

J.R. Jayewardene

JR had first articulated his vision of a presidential system in December 1966.When Jayewardene was Minister of State in the UNP Government of Dudley Senanayake (1965-’70) he made a ground-breaking speech at the Association for the Advancement of Science. J.R. Jayewardene in his keynote address of 14 December 1966 outlined his vision for an executive presidency and argued in favour of a presidential system based on the US and French models.

“The Executive will be chosen directly by the people and is not dependent on the Legislature during its period of existence, for a specified number of years. Such an Executive is a strong Executive seated in power for a fixed number of years, not subject to the whims and fancies of an elected Legislature; not afraid to take correct but unpopular decisions because of censure from its parliamentary party,” he said. The essence of JR’s “vision” is in the words “an Executive chosen directly by the people not dependent on the whims and fancies of an elected Legislature”.

JR’s advocacy of an executive presidency sent shock waves down the political establishment then. Relations between Premier Dudley Senanayake and State minister JR Jayewardene had deteriorated at that time. Dudley was firmly opposed to the idea. There were few takers for JR’s proposal even within the United National Pary. In that environment JR was unable to push his proposal further but never let go of his vision. J.R. Jayewardene pursued his goal of creating an executive president that was not dependent on Parliament with great zeal and patience.

Constituent Assembly

The chance for JR to espouse his executive president vision in the form of a tangible proposal came six years later during the United Front (UF) Government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1970-’77). Parliament had converted itself into a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. JR was then the Leader of the Opposition while Dudley Senanayake remained Leader of the UNP.

On 2 July 1971, JR moved a resolution in the Constituent Assembly. It read as follows: “The Executive power of the State shall be vested in the President of the Republic, who shall exercise it in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The President of the Republic shall be elected for seven years for one term only by the direct vote of every citizen over 18 years of age. The President of the Republic shall preside over the council of ministers.”

JR’s motion was seconded at the Constituent Assembly by Ranasinghe Premadasa who was then the Colombo Central MP and Chief Opposition Whip. JR argued eloquently, within the Constituent Assembly, in support of an executive presidency. The motion was shot down then .Constitutional Affairs minister Dr. Colvin R de Silva led the Govt onslaught against JR’s proposal. Even the majority of UNP Parliamentarians were not supportive as party leader Dudley Senanayake himself was firmly opposed to the idea. The JR –Premadasa motion was rejected by the Constituent Assembly then.

1972 Republican Constitution

The UF Government brought in the new Republican Constitution on 22 May 1972. The Governor General position under the earlier Soulbury Constitution gave way to the post of President. Power was vested in Parliament known then as the National State Assembly and while President William Gopallawa was the titular Head of State, the real power was retained by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973 and JR succeeded him as UNP Leader. He soon established his leadership position and brought the party under his full control. JR was now able to pursue his vision of an executive presidency from a strong position.

Parliamentary Elections were held in July 1977. The UNP manifesto of 1977 stated, “Executive power will be vested in a president elected from time to time by the people. The Constitution will also preserve the parliamentary system we are used to and the prime minister will be chosen by the president from the party that commands a majority in Parliament and the ministers of the cabinet would also be elected members of Parliament.”

The change to an executive president from prime ministerial system was a key aspect of the UNP electoral campaign in 1977. The UNP swept the polls and obtained 141 out of the total 168 parliamentary seats. J.R. Jayewardene became Prime Minister in July 1977. He began moving fast towards his cherished vision of an executive presidency.

2nd Constitutional Amendment

JR and a small group of ministers and party stalwarts in association with leading lawyer Mark Fernando (later a Supreme Court Judge) started working towards the goal of introducing the executive presidency. The preliminary discussion was on 7 August 1977. An amendment to the Republican Constitution of 1972 was first drafted. After discussions in Cabinet it was approved and certified by the Cabinet as “urgent in the national interest”.

Thereafter it was sent by the Speaker to the Constitutional Court which prevailed at that time, as an “urgent bill”. The Constitutional Court approved the bill within 24 hours as stipulated. It was then presented to the National State Assembly for debating and voting. The bill was adopted by the then National State Assembly on 22 September 1977 as the Second Constitutional Amendment. Executive power was transferred to the President and JR Jayewardene became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka on Independence Day, 4 February 1978.

Meanwhile JR was also working towards the goal of replacing the 1972 Constitution in its entirety with a new one. On October 20th 1977 the National State Assembly passed a resolution enabling the then Speaker Anandatissa de Alwis to appoint a Select Committee for Constitutional Reform. The essence of the Select committee mandate was “to consider the revision of the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka and other written law as the committee may consider necessary”.

Parliamentary Select Committee

The Parliamentary select committee was announced on November 3rd 1977.Initially the chairman was JR Jayewardene who was then representing Colombo West in Parliament. JR however had to vacate Parliament as an MP in February 1978 after he became President. Ranasinghe Premadasa who was also serving in the select committee was then appointed chairman on February 23rd 1978 by the Speaker. Premadasa was also appointed Prime minister.

Other MP’s from the UNP in the select committee were Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ronnie de Mel, KW Devanayagam and MHM Naina Marikkar. MP’s from the SLFP appointed to the committee were Sirima Bandaranaike and Maithripala Senanayake. Ceylon Workers Congress Leader Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman who had not joined the Govt then was also on the committee. The chief opposition party of that time the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF) refused to serve on the committee. In May 1978 both SLFP representatives withdrew from the select committee. Since the left parties had been wiped out in the 1977 poll, there were neither Trotskyites nor Communists in the committee.

The executive presidency ushered in through the earlier second amendment was now streamlined and incorporated in the new draft constitution. The executive president was now head of state and head of Govt.The electoral system was also changed from the first pass the post victor system to that of proportional representation. Sri Lanka became a Democratic Socialist Republic. The new Constitution referred to popularly as the “JR constitution” was formally promulgated on September 7th 1978.

Prof. Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson

After the presidential system was installed, Prof. Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson analysed it in his book ‘The Gaullist system in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka’. In it he observed: “What Jayewardene was after was a stable Executive which would not be easily swayed by pressures from within or outside. The outcome in the end was a President who in many ways and can in certain circumstances be more powerful than the French President.” A crucial point to note is that though J.R. Jayewardene introduced a presidential system, he did not provide for a cabinet appointed from outside Parliament. JR was also averse to a powerful Presidential Secretariat as a parallel centre of power to the Cabinet. Why was that?

Prof. Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson

In response to Prof. Wilson’s specific query on that issue, JR replied, “I must say I am very reluctant to appoint advisers who will be around the president. The reason is that I wish the president to have only his prime minister and the cabinet of ministers as advisers because they represent the people as Members of Parliament.”

J.R. Jayewardene also outlined this position at the convocational address of the University of Sri Lanka on 31 May 1978. This is what he said at the time: “I am the first elected Executive President, Head of State and Head of Government. It is an office of power and thus of responsibility. Since many others will succeed me I wish during my term of office to create precedents that are worthy of following. First, I will always act through the Cabinet and Parliament, preserving the parliamentary system as it existed without diminution of their powers. Second, I will not create a group known as the President’s men and women who will influence him.”

This then was JR Jayewardene’s definition of the Presidency he had set up. This practice of following the British cabinet model and confining such cabinet ministers to be members of Parliament has created an impression that the old system prevailed still in full force.

The executive President

Notwithstanding Jayewardene’s claims to the contrary the reality was that governance had changed utterly in Sri Lanka after the executive presidency. The executive President was both above as well as independent of the “de- valued” legislature.

What is important to note is the fact that an Executive president could function without relying on parliament but in practice required full parliamentary strength to be all powerful.

Galle Face protest via @Amaliniii

When JR Jayewardene ushered in the presidency he controlled Parliament with a five-sixth majority. Thus the gigantic majority of the UNP in Parliament enabled JR to exercise power authoritatively akin to a dictator. Jayewardene continued to retain this stranglehold on the legislature through several devices.

Constitutional “Dictator”

JR froze the UNP’s Parliamentary strength of five-sixths and further extended it’s term of office through the 1982 referendum; JR prevented crossing over of MP’s from government to opposition by Constitutional legislation; JR promoted crossing over from opposition to government through the infamous “Rajadurai” amendment to the Constitution. JR also got letters of resignation from all his MP’s other than S. Thondaman.Thus the first Sri Lankan executive president Junius Richard Jayewardene in practice became a Constitutional “dictator”.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an updated version of the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” Article appearing in the “Daily Mirror” of April 9th 2022. It can be accessed here: