Col Hariharan Weighs in on Sri Lanka’s 20th Amendment
The month of September 2020 was a crucial one for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has been impatiently waiting to gain two-thirds majority support in the parliament in the parliamentary poll, to go ahead with his agenda. Gaining it with the reaffirmation of Sinhala majority will give him confidence to handle the nation, facing unprecedented economic woes due to global Covid pandemic.
In what appeared to be a hasty move, the government presented the 20th Amendment (20A) to the constitution bill to replace the 19th Amendment (19A) brought by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government to make the president more accountable to parliament and clipped some of his powers in key appointments of governance. This move provided a bone to pick for the opposition, demoralised after their dismal performance in the parliamentary election. There were chaotic scenes when the bill was introduced, with the Opposition staging loud protests inside the House, countered by equally loud counter protests by the ruling party members.
The 19A decentralised the appointments to the nine commissions including the Elections Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Finance Commission, the Public Service Commission, among others to a Constitutional Council. It rolled back the 18th Amendment earlier brought in by the outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa that removed the two-term bar on incumbent president from contesting a third time. Under 19A, the President also lost his power to sack the Prime Minister. It also placed a ceiling on the number of ministers and deputy ministers. Evidently, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa through the 20A has tried to not only undo 19A, but out do even the 18A.
Apparently, even within the government parliamentary group there was some criticism of the 20A when it met before the bill was fielded. According to the local media at least three ministers wanted the 20A to retain some of the provisions of 19A, which debarred dual citizens from contesting elections. There was also criticism of reducing the age of eligibility to contest the election from 35 to 30. Another change proposed in 20A was allow the President to dissolve the parliament after four years of its five-year term, instead of the earlier four and half years under the 19A.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives expressing its concerns in the 20A bill, said “It seeks to remove the checks and balances on the executive presidency. In particular, it abolishes the binding limitations on presidential powers in relation to key appointments to independent institutions through the pluralistic and deliberative process of the Constitutional Council.” This appears to be the essence of the problem. Eighteen political parties led by Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa have filed their objections to the bill at the Supreme Court, which is expected to dispose it off by first week October, 2020
Surprisingly, the President seem to have prioritised strengthening his constitutional position through the 20A fulfilling rather than implementing than more down to earth issues affecting the common man, particularly after the Covid pandemic has severely affected the economy and livelihood sources of the people.