Liberal party opposes abolition of executive presidency in haste

The Liberal Party in a statement issued to media yesterday said that it had decided to oppose on-going efforts to abolish the executive presidency in haste and called upon all those concerned to study proposals it had put forward to a Parliamentary Select Committee to pave the way for a modified presidency based on the principles of separation of powers.

 The statement issued by Leader of the Liberal Party Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP said: "At its Executive Committee meeting held on Sunday February 22nd, the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka decided that it would oppose the move to abolish the Executive Presidency as described in the Discussion Paper on Constitutional Reforms issued by some elements in the government. As indicated in the proposals it put forward in 2013 to the Parliamentary Select Committee, the Party believes the country would be better served by a modified Presidency based on the principles of the Separation of Powers.

"Though the Party was prepared to accept a Common Programme based on the abolition of the Presidency, it is the authoritarian nature of the Presidency which it believes unacceptable. This has been a constant theme, from the days when the Party, uniquely, embarked in the eighties on serious study of Constitutional Reforms based on universally accepted political principles. 

When the Party drafted Gamini Dissanayake’s Presidential manifesto in 1994, it included the abolition of the Executive Presidency. But the candidate disagreed and requested that a modified Presidency be included as an alternative, to be put to the people at a referendum. His ready acceptance of the draft prepared then by Dr Chanaka Amaratunga showed the way forward with regard to retaining an Executive Presidency above, not party politics, but above petty party politics.

"The Party has decided to go back now to its well thought out proposals of 2013, which were similar to those advanced by the parliamentarian Vasantha Senanayake. The recent unashamed efforts to use it for crude political purposes whereby a Cabinet deriving authority from a Prime Minister makes clear the dangers of the constitutional reforms that have been suggested.

A Cabinet must be based on ability, both the ability to conceptualize and formulate policy, and the ability to effectively implement such policy. It should not be based on seniority, or promises given to obtain electoral support, save possibly in cases where important interest groups would not have a voice otherwise in collective decision making. But simply packing the Cabinet with one’s own supporters, and using their powers for electoral advantage, is absolutely unacceptable. Regrettably, there is no doubt that this would be the pattern in a future Cabinet too, as has been made clear by the effort to allow for the appointment of up to 100 Ministers in clear violation of the President’s manifesto.

"The Liberal Party advocates instead careful restrictions on the authoritarian nature of the Presidency through establishing and strengthening independent authorities that will act as a check on absolute power. These include Parliament, the Judiciary, the Public Service and also the Media. The latter requires a much more powerful Freedom of Information Act than is now envisaged.

"Commissions in charge of areas that must act as a check on the Executive must be appointed with the approval of the elected representatives of the people, consequent upon public hearings. Entrusting this task to a body appointed by a couple of politicians in Parliament will lead to horse trading and preclude transparency. Instead, Parliamentary Committees on the subject should first question nominees and make recommendations through a substantive report, with appointments ratified by Parliament. Restrict the term of office of the President to a single term, as is the case in the Philippines. Establish fixed terms for Parliament as well as the Presidency (and for all other elected bodies). Remove the judicial immunity of the President except for actions performed in his official capacity. Preclude the President from holding any Ministries except the Ministry of Defence

"Going along with these measures are the other pledges we have made, to change the Electoral System, to amend Standing Orders to strengthen the legislative role and the financial oversight role of Parliament, and to introduce Fundamental Rights. Instead of only entrenching the Right to Information, legislation to promote Rights should be in the form of a more comprehensive Bill of Rights. The draft prepared over five years ago could be used as a Working document to allow legislation to be passed within a couple of months.

"The Liberal Party is proud that it was the only party concerned in the last few years with amending Standing Orders so as to strengthen Parliament, and is glad that the amendments it proposed were finally discussed last week at the Standing Orders Committee of Parliament. It regrets that no one in the UNP attended, and the only Representative of the SLFP was the Deputy Speaker (though he contributed actively).

"The Liberal Party has also tabled a Constitutional Amendment to change the system of elections, and has also tabled a Constitutional Amendment to introduce a Bill of Rights. While there will be much in its proposals that may need amendment, it calls on all those concerned with restoring power to the people to study its proposals, suggest amendments, and promote their swift adoption by Parliament."

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