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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power with the promise that his top priority was to amend the Constitution to ensure smooth governance, strengthen national security and the economy. But a strong leader is costing placing democracy in the slippery slope towards an autocracy.

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IPRI # 123, 22 November 2020

Domestic turmoil and South Asia
Sri Lanka’s 20-Amendment is more than what was bargained for

  Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare

The two-third mandate given by the people to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his newly formed government in August 2020 heralded a change in the political landscape of Sri Lanka. The people, disillusioned with the lack of strong leadership at the helm and burdened with a struggling economy, believed that a Rajapaksa government will be able to lead the country towards prosperity again. The competency of President Rajapaksa in the containment of the COVID-19 virus further strengthened people’s confidence and the landslide victory of the SLPP in the Parliamentary election was only to be expected. The newly formed government came to power with the expectation that the 19-Amendment (19A) which hindered the authority of the President will be repealed and be replaced with a new constitutional amendment. Within two months after the formation of the new cabinet, the 20-Amendment (20A) to the constitution was drafted and passed with two-thirds votes in favour. However, since the first draft reading in September, 39 petitions against the 20-Amendment are filed in the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the bill. Hence, despite the fact that the 20A was adopted with a majority in the Parliament, it is necessary to discuss the ground realities faced by the people of Sri Lankan after the adoption of the 20A.

Ground realities after adoption of 20-Amendment

First, a towering President with all powerful Rajapaksas. The 19A was one of the most controversial reforms brought to the Constitution which was later seen as a policy implemented by the former ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government in its own interest to prevent a comeback by the Rajapaksa. Former President Maithripala Sirisena in his latter days of his tenure admitted that 19A has caused major problems in governance, which is primarily caused by the rift between the Executive President and the Prime Minister. However, the 20A is controversial on its own right as it removes all checks and balances previously imposed on the Presidency, alongside other provisions for accountability of the position to the Parliament as well the citizens. Moreover, with fewer Presidential duties and the powers of the Prime Minister drastically reduced, 20A restores the Executive Presidency to full power. While the Presidential authority is needed to be boosted, the question remains whether the 20A is needed to grant the Presidential office this amount of unchecked and arbitrary power accompanied by complete legal immunity. President Rajapaksa, unlike his predecessor, has the majority backing within the Parliament, especially with his own brother acting as the Prime Minister and the opposition being crippled by limited numbers. Hence, it is unsurprising that many parties, including some of the more pro-Rajapaksa Buddhist monks, challenged the constitutionality of the new amendment.

Second, democratic institutions rendered redundant. A point of contention with regards to the 20A are the measures that effectively place a number of crucial democratic mechanisms including independent commissions such as the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Audit Service, the Commission to Investigate Bribery and Corruption, etc. under the direct control of the President or made redundant. With the replacement of the Constitutional Council with a Presidential Council, the President is also able to influence the appointment of high-ranking officials of the State such as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These clauses place democracy in jeopardy, as independent commissions are meant to be responsible to the citizens, and not be placed under executive control or the influence of any political party. However, with the 20A it is inevitable that these commissions, will be pressured to act in accordance to the wishes of the President rather than in the interest of the people. Likewise, the President’s influence over the Supreme Court is rather concerning, especially with the precedent of corruption allegations against the former Rajapaksa regime.  With the 20A in effect, the citizens would be left with little to no recourse in the face of corruption or other malpractices as the executive, legal, and judiciary arms of the State are tied with the extraordinary powers granted to the President.

Third shrinking civil society space. Furthermore, the 20A also limits citizen and civil society participation in the State law-making process. The introduction of ‘urgent bills’ in addition to limited time allocated to the reviewing of bills will make delegate citizens from active participants to mere observers of state functions. This is a precarious position as there is no provision for a Parliamentary debate or for the public to challenge an ‘urgent bill’ allowing arbitrary changes of laws. In addition, the President has an undue influence over the MPs as they can be sent home after a short period of time, risking the Parliament to function according to the wishes of the President to avoid dissolution. Hence, with the 20A not only are the people excluded from the law-making process, their representatives in the Parliament face the risk of being removed if they challenged the President’s vision.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power with the promise that his top priority was to amend the Constitution to ensure smooth governance, strengthen national security and the economy. Hence, it could be argued that the bolstering of the Executive Presidency was a pressing need. While some constitutional experts express that exchanging democracy for a strong leader might enable Sri Lanka to finally follow into the footsteps of Singapore, enabling development. Others are alarmed at the power 20A grants to the President undermining national concerns. Most agree that at the least, the President should be subject to accountability where all citizens are held equal before law. However, the undeniable truth is, in the aftermath of adopting 20A, the Rajapaksa dynasty is back on top and would consolidate the family’s grip on power. With the allowance made for dual citizens to contest in the Parliamentary elections, the number of Rajapaksa family members in the government will continue to rise. The number of protests against the 20A and the manner in which the bill was passed as the virulent wave of the pandemic was sweeping across the country is an indication that 20A might be more than what the people bargained for. A strong leader is costing placing democracy in the slippery slope towards an autocracy.


Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare is an UMISARC scholar at the Centre for South Asian Studies in the Pondicherry University.

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