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Sri Lanka’s gazetted 22nd amendment bill is a diluted version of itself: CPA

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ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s newly gazetted 22nd amendment to the constitution bill does not curtail the powers of the president nor introduce checks and balances in any meaningful manner, contrary to the demands of the people of Sri Lanka, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said.

In the absence of any genuine attempt to address the inherent problems of governance, this attempt at reform will only worsen the existing political and economic crisis and destroy whatever little remaining faith citizens might have in constitutional governance, the organisation said in a statement issued on Thursday June 30.

“CPA has carefully considered the contents of the Bill and notes that the Bill does not revert the Constitution to the structure of government that prevailed under the Nineteenth Amendment (2015-19). The Minister of Justice had proposed two previous versions of this Bill (one as a Private Member’s Bill). The present gazetted Bill represents a significant weakening of the previous limited proposals by the Minister of Justice and leaves intact the unchecked powers of the Executive President,” the statement said.

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had previously claimed that the amendment, as drafted by him, will largely be a restoration of the 19th amendment which will see some of the powers conferred on the president by the controversial 20th amendment will be repealed.

The 19th amendment to the constitution, enacted during the Yahapalana government of former President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe saw some of the executive powers of the president curtailed and parliament significantly strengthened. That amendment was rolled back by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government after its 20th amendment to the constitution was passed in parliament, conferring the office of the president with even more sweeping powers.

Sri Lanka’s prevailing economic crisis which has precipitated a political crisis has brought to the fore the need to speedily introduce constitutional reforms, and Minister Rajapakshe’s 21st amendment (referred to in the bill as the 22nd amendment) promised to be a restoration of the more progressive provisions of the 19th.

However, the CPA, a public policy research and advocacy think tank, said the final version of the 21st (or 22nd) amendment bill that was approved by the cabinet of ministers on Monday June 27 was a watered-down version of the original.

For example, the organisation said, the proposed Constitutional Council has been significantly diluted from what prevailed under the 19th amendment.

“The proposed composition of the Council favours the government and enables the government to control or influence 7 of the 10 members. Thus, it is CPA’s view that the Council is merely an expanded version of the Parliamentary Council that exists under the Twentieth Amendment. The original intent behind the creation of the Constitutional Council under the Seventeenth Amendment, which was to de-politicise governance, involved two methods: one was to ensure a majority representation in the Council for non-politicians, and the other was to remove government dominance over the political members. The composition of the Council proposed in the Bill achieves none of those objectives and in turn, undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council,” it said.

Whilst some effort has been made to curtail the president’s powers in relation to the appointment and removal of the cabinet of ministers, the CPA said, these have all been rendered ineffective by the transitional provisions that make them applicable only from the next parliament. The president will also be able to appoint all secretaries to ministries at his own discretion, which the CPA said again protects the executive power concentrated in the office of the president.

Minister Rajapakshe, for his part, has called for wide support for his version of a 21st amendment to the constitution after the Supreme Court determined that the provisions of a competing draft by the main opposition required a referendum. The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB)’s 21st amendment concentrated heavily on abolishing Sri Lanka’s all-powerful executive presidency and, according to a determination by the Supreme Court, many of its provisions require a two thirds majority in parliament along with a people’s referendum.

“We have included everything that can be passed without a referendum,” Rajapakshe told parliament on June 21, defending his version of the amendment.


Sri Lanka justice minister calls for opposition support for his 21st amendment

The amendment bill gazetted over a week later, on Thursday June 30. The document can be found at this link.

In its statement, the CPA said that though Sri Lanka’s worsening economic crisis was the result of due to the failures of successive governments, the present holder of the executive presidency exacerbated the issue as a result of arrogating more power to himself through the 20th amendment to the constitution and “fatally undermined even the weak checks and balances and the separation of powers implemented by the 19th amendment“.

“The only appropriate institutional reform response to this unprecedented disaster through constitutional reform is the complete abolition of the executive presidential system and the return to a full parliamentary constitutional
democracy,” the CPA said.

The rhetoric used to usher in the 20th amendment in 2020 that called for unilateralist and centralised executive decision-making for economic development is directly linked to the present crisis and such a model must be unequivocally rejected, the organisation further said.

“Considering the multiple challenges confronting Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s economic recovery cannot and must not be yet again based on a heavy executive decision-making governance model. For these reasons, it is clear from the perspective of both constitutional principle and constitutional design that the Bill is not in any sense a meaningful
contribution to the necessary institutional reform that must be part of Sri
Lanka’s economic recovery,” it said. (Colombo/Jun30/2022)


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