Presidency and Parliament
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.
Data as of October 1988