Conflict Alerts # 162, 16 September 2020
In the news
On 3 September, the draft of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was issued as a Gazette notification with Cabinet approval. Due to various objections voiced, by both - the members of the opposition and the ruling party, the process of tabling the draft has been halted.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed a Committee to study the proposed draft and suggest recommendations.
The Minister of Education and Chairman of the SLPP Prof GL Peiris who heads the Committee stated: "the present government would allow and consider the views of the people, especially in the formulation of a constitution."
Issues at large
First, the crucial changes under the proposed 20A to the Constitution. Under this, the President is granted more power in terms of appointments to both Independent Commissions and high-ranking offices alongside complete legal immunity. However, the duties and functions of the Presidential office are not specified. The Constitutional Council is to be replaced with a Parliamentary Council that has no civil society representation. The limit on the number of Cabinet members is removed, and the Parliament can be dissolved in one year and include dual citizens. Hence with the 20A, the authority of the Executive Presidency that was curtailed by the 19A will be fully restored. This could be considered as the wish of the majority that voted for the two-third mandate as they believed that the 19A compromised the President's capability to act with decisiveness.
Second, the draft 20A has been met with objections by several parties. The leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, claimed: "the proposed amendment to the constitution is a first step towards a dictatorship." Surprisingly, MP Asanka Navarathna representing the SLPP also objected to the draft stating that "the 20th amendment looks like a document prepared in a hurry for someone's personal need." Consequently, the issue will remain under scrutiny for two weeks until the draft is revised and presented to the Cabinet for approval. As Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila commented "It's a progressive decision taken by the government to give a two-week period for public opinions till the draft is tabled in Parliament. Any mistakes in the draft amendment can be corrected at the committee stage." displaying more transparency than when the 19A was passed by the previous government.
Third, the international response. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed her concern as the proposal may deter the independence of the National Human Rights Commission.
While the return of the Executive Presidency with the restored powers might have been the wish of the citizens, there are multiple risks involving the proposed 20A. Notably, the Rajapaksas will be established at the top, as the dual citizen provision will allow Basil Rajapaksa to obtain a Parliamentary seat via the National List.
Similarly, the removal on the limit of Cabinet Members can see the return of oversized Cabinets that will prey on public funding.
Lack of civil society representation may result in corruption remaining undetected, and there will be less opportunity for the public to challenge Bills passed by the Parliament.
However, if the trust inspired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not misplaced, then the 20A will allow for the government to rectify the chaotic situation created by the 19A and restore political stability within the country.