Presidency and Parliament

Sri Lanka Table of Contents

The most important national office is that of the president, who is defined in the Constitution as head of state, chief executive, and commander in chief of the armed forces. Although governmental institutions are divided in the customary way between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the president's powers as chief executive are formidable compared to those of the legislature. Thus, it cannot be said that the Constitution provides the political system with the benefits of a genuine separation of powers.

With Parliament's approval, the president appoints the prime minister and in consultation with the prime minister chooses the members of the cabinet. It is the chief executive, rather than the prime minister, who presides over the cabinet's deliberations, and who may assume any ministerial portfolio. The president also has the authority to dissolve Parliament at any time and call for new elections. The president cannot exercise this power, however, if the legislature has been in power for less than a year and does not consent to the dissolution, or if it is considering a resolution to impeach the president.

A striking feature of the governmental system is the huge size of cabinets. The Constitution designates twenty-eight minister-level portfolios, including two (the ministries of defense and plan implementation) held by the president. Additional ministers, however, may be appointed to take responsibility for special areas, such as the prevention of terrorism. District ministers, who play a major role in local government, are also designated. Including deputy ministers, a cabinet at one time may have more than eighty members chosen from the parliamentary ranks of the ruling party. In the late 1980s, ministerial rank and the resources made available through access to budgetary funds were, for individual legislators, an invaluable source of patronage and local level influence.

The president can announce a national referendum to seek popular approval of proposals of pressing national importance, including bills that have been rejected by Parliament. Other presidential prerogatives include declarations of war and peace, the granting of pardons, and the exercise of broad emergency powers. In the event of a public emergency, the president can invoke the power to enact measures without the consent of Parliament. The legislature, however, must convene no more than ten days after the chief executive's proclamation of an emergency. If a majority of the legislature fails to approve the state of emergency after two weeks, it automatically lapses; it lapses after ninety days if a simple majority of the members of Parliament do not approve its continuation.

The president is popularly elected for a term of six years. He or she may serve no more than two consecutive six-year terms. The Constitution stipulates, however, that the term of a chief executive who assumes office other than through a normal presidential election will not be counted as one of the two. Whether this means that Jayewardene's first term from 1977 to 1982, which began with his election as prime minister in the 1977 general election, would be counted toward the two-term total was unclear. The Third Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1982, allows the president to hold a presidential election at any time following his fourth year in office.

The Constitution states that the president is responsible to Parliament and can be impeached by the legislature if that body approves the measure by a two-thirds vote and the Supreme Court also calls for his or her removal from office. Grounds for impeachment include mental or physical incapacitation, moral offenses, abuses of power, bribery, treason, and blatant violations of the Constitution. The prime minister assumes the responsibilities of the president if the incumbent is disabled or is overseas. Parliament chooses a new president if the incumbent dies or leaves office before the end of his or her term.

During the mid-1980s, the powers vested by the Constitution in the chief executive, the unprecedented majority that the UNP won in the July 1977 election, the 1982 postponement of a new general election until 1989, and a strong tradition of party discipline provided Jayewardene virtually unchallenged control over Parliament. The Constitution gives the legislature a term of six years. But in November 1982, Jayewardene, elected the previous month to a second six-year presidential term, announced his decision to hold a popular referendum on a constitutional amendment, the fourth, which would extend the life of Parliament from six to twelve years (a general election was due by August 1983). As justification for the amendment, he cited both his popular mandate (he won 52.9 percent of the votes cast in the October 1982 presidential election compared to 39.1 percent for his nearest opponent) and the threat posed by an "antidemocratic , violent and Naxalite group" associated with the opposition SLFP that allegedly planned to seize power and "[tear] up all constitutional procedures." (The term "Naxalite" refers to a leftist, revolutionary and violent movement that emerged in India during the 1960s.) After approval by Parliament and the Supreme Court, the amendment was supported by a narrow 54.7 percent of the voters on December 22, 1982. The fact that the referendum took place during a state of emergency and that there were widespread reports of voter fraud and intimidation caused many to doubt the legitimacy of this procedural exercise. Observers noted, however, that members of the opposition were allowed to express their opinions freely prior to the December 22 vote and were given access to the media, including television. The Constitution stipulates that when the next general election is held, the number of members of Parliament shall be increased from 168 to 196.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress