Sri Lanka’s President Vows Overhaul of Constitution, Electoral System

He plans to repeal the 19th Amendment, which limits presidential terms and executive powers.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka —President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced that his government plans to repeal the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which limits presidential tenure to two terms, and to draft a new constitution for Sri Lanka. The president also said changes would be made to the country’s electoral system.

“Our Constitution  … has many ambiguities and uncertainties, presently resulting in confusion. As the people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment, our first task will be to remove the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. After that, all of us will get together to formulate a new constitution suitable for the country,” the president said in his remarks at the opening of the ninth Parliament on Aug. 20.

He also pointed to “an unstable Parliament that cannot take firm decisions and succumbs to extremist influences” — a reference to the minority parties that had exclusively supported the previous government —as among the reasons for introducing electoral changes.

 

“While introducing a new constitution, it is essential to make changes to the current electoral system. While retaining the salutary aspects of the proportional representation system, these changes will be made to ensure stability of the Parliament and people’s direct representation,” he said, without further elaboration.

The 19th Amendment would be replaced by a 20th Amendment drafted by the newly appointed cabinet under the president’s plan.

Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Maithirpala Sirisena, introduced the 19th Amendment in 2015 to limit some of the president’s powers over politics. The amendment was adopted by parliament on April 28, 2015.

“The idea was to get rid of an executive president,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, a Colombo-based political analyst. “But they stopped short of it since that would require a referendum. Getting rid of the 19th amendment will not be easy. It will require a new amendment.”

The proposed change would re-enable the president to head ministries, dismiss and appoint ministers, and appoint officials of the state’s forces, judiciary and public services. It will also allow the president to dissolve parliament after one year.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother and former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was reelected prime minister on Aug. 5 as head of their coalition, Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance, which won 145 of the 221 seats in parliament.

“The precise changes they are going to bring about are unclear but hopefully they will maintain the essence of the 19th amendment — that is, checks and balances on the president’s power,” said Saravanamuttu.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa told parliament on Aug. 20 that several changes to the Constitution since 1978 had created confusion.

“The people have given us the mandate for a constitutional change,” he added. “We will repeal the 19th amendment as we promised the people. We will bring in a new constitution that the country needs.”

Prasad H Welikumbura, a social activist based in Colombo, said the 19th Amendment made the prime minister the key player in the country’s politics.

“I don’t think Mahinda Rajapaksa will like all the powers taken away from him,” said Welikumbura. He said that having a proper system in place is essential to ensure that all power is not concentrated in one person.

The 19th amendment abolished the system of urgent bills or emergency bills to prevent the passage of manipulative constitutional amendments. The 18th Amendment was brought in as an urgent bill by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet in 2010. It removed presidential term limits and included other measures that weakened checks and balances on the executive.

There is also uncertainty over what would happen to Sri Lankans’ Right to Information, which was introduced through the 19th Amendment. The law establishes the people’s right to know how the state is using public funds, among other things.

“Repealing the 19th Amendment means citizens will also lose their Right to Information, a fundamental right,” said Ishara M Jayasena, a lawyer who practices at the Supreme Court. This right should be protected to ensure good governance.”

Until the 19th Amendment, parliamentary committees in Sri Lanka were consultative in nature and were chaired by the opposition. Now, however, the Right to Information Commission requires three commissioners to function. It has yet to appoint two commissioners.

There has also been speculation in the local media that Sri Lanka could soon have a new deputy prime minister, as in the country’s ruling coalition there is a third player besides the Rajapaksa brothers — former president, Maithiripala Sirisena.

Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party is in alliance with the Rajapaksas SLPP and has 14 members in parliament. If he is not accommodated, he might withdraw his support, and SLPP could lose its two-third majority.

“The previous government introduced the 19th amendment to strengthen liberal democracy,” said Saravanamuttu. “The Rajpaksas [however] will try to ensure that they can hold on to power.”

In The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Sri Lanka’s performance improved slightly in 2019. Its ranking went up to 69, two positions better than in the previous year, but the country was still identified as a flawed democracy.

The small island nation in the Indian Ocean was embroiled in a civil war from 1983 to 2009, with the Tamil minority in the north demanding a separate nation.

Both the government in Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil militia led by V. Prabhakaran, have been accused of human rights abuses by international organizations. While there have been some efforts at reconciliation in recent years, Sri Lanka withdrew from its commitments to the UN Human Rights Council in February this year.

The war came to a bloody end in 2009, with the Sri Lankan army crushing the Liberation Tigers and killing Prabhakaran. Mahinda Rajapaksa was then the president and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the secretary to the minister of defense.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)

 

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