Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 150, 26 August 2020

Sri Lanka: Moving forward with the 20th Constitutional Amendment
Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare

In the news
On 20 August, at the inauguration session of Sri Lanka's new Parliament, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the intention of the newly formed government to amend the Constitution. 

In his inaugural address, the President stated: "As the people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment; our first task will be to remove the 19th Amendment from the Constitution. After that, all of us will get together to formulate a new constitution suitable for the country. In this, the priority will be given to the concept of one country, one law for all the people."

Issues at large
First, the strong perception of the need to make amendments to crucial legislation passed by the previous government. For example, the 19A has become important in this context, as it was seen as a political manoeuvre by the previous regime to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa returning to power. The existing legislation includes a two-term limit for the President, bar on dual citizenship bar, age barrier for eligibility and also limitations of the Presidential power in terms of vital appointments. Besides the 19A, there are also concerns regarding the 13th Amendment. 

However, there have also been voices against changes to the existing amendments. For example, CV Vigneswaran has stated that the 13A cannot be removed arbitrarily; he has also criticized the policy statement of the new government to be "of the Sinhala Buddhist, by a Sinhala Buddhist, for the Sinhala Buddhist" without acknowledgement of the decades' long concerns of the Tamil population.

Second, the President's intention of reforming the Constitution with the vision "one country, one law for all the people" carries different expectations for the multi-ethnic population of Sri Lanka. During the election, the Rajapaksas displayed their preference towards the majority Sinhala population to the extent that no SLPP campaigns were held in the North and the North East. The minority communities will continue to be on guard, but the President's actions so far offer hope; as Justice Minister and PC Ali Sabry assured: "We are hoping to produce an effective Constitution to the country with the consent of all communities."

Third, the new government carries the weight of expectations of the citizens who had suffered from both political instability and economic burdens in the past few years. The President's approach towards the assignation of Ministries was termed 'people-centric' to strengthen the local economy to meet the challenges with attention to the development of agriculture, fisheries, education, health, employment generation and traditional industries.

In perspective
First, with the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the 19A has become incompatible with the present government and can be removed without a fight in the Parliament. It is also inevitable that debate regarding the 13A will soon arise as the drafting of the new Constitution continues to progress. While the President has clearly stated his desire for "one country, and one law for all people" it remains to be proven through the manner in which the concerns of the minority populations are handled. However, it should be noted that the new government is taking a transparent approach towards the proposed 20A as it has been affirmed that salient features of the 19A such as the Right to Information Act (RTI) and the limit on the term of Presidential office will be retained. 

Second, the mandate received by the new government has enabled the President to move ahead with his election manifesto "Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor" that is sensitive to the needs of the people first and foremost. President Rajapaksa's tough outlook on the effectiveness and efficiency of the public sector will be a blessing for the citizens. Sri Lanka is therefore expected to make significant progress within the next five years.

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