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Consequences of 19A yet to unravel

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After much debate and deliberation which kept the nation guessing until the eleventh hour, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which considerably reduces the powers of the Executive Presidency was passed by an overwhelming majority in Parliament late on Tuesday night.

The political consequences of the event are yet to unravel. However, the next step in this exercise is to replace the current Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system with a hybrid of that system with the first past the post (FPP) system. That will occur in the weeks to come.

After discussions that were exhaustive, all but one of the Members of Parliament voted in favor of the 19th Amendment while another abstained. Several others absented themselves. This convincing majority suggests that those opposed to the changes had resigned themselves to the outcome.

The amendment that was approved does allow the President to retain some executive powers, in keeping with the directions of the Supreme Court. Most importantly, he retains the power to appoint the Cabinet of ministers and assign them their portfolios - in consultation with the Prime Minister.

The United National Party (UNP) government also had to compromise on the composition of the Constitutional Council. It wanted seven members who would not be parliamentarians; instead, they are now left with three, the others position would be filled by Members of Parliament.

Nevertheless, the all-encompassing powers envisaged in 1978 Constitution drafted by J.R. Jayewardene and further enhanced by the 18th Amendment introduced by Mahinda Rajapaksa are gone. In its place is a more moderate model where authority would be shared with the Prime Minister.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/logo/tis.jpg Also in place are independent commissions that will govern  appointments to key sectors such as the Judiciary, the Police, the Department of Elections, the Public Service and the Bribery Commission. These commissions will be appointed by the Constitutional Council.

Moreover the President, with limited powers at his disposal, is now limited to two terms of office. Significantly, this will eliminate the prospect of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa assuming the office of President again - a key factor in the current political scenario.

The passage of the 19th Amendment is commendable achievement not only for the nation but also for President Maithripala Sirisena. The President worked tirelessly on Tuesday to see the legislation through, playing the role of mediator between the UNP and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

That he was able to eventually muster the support of 214 parliamentarians is not only a testament to his political skills - it may also be a subtle indication that the balance of power in the SLFP is slowly but surely shifting away from the pro-Rajapaksa faction to the President.

The ball is now in Rajapaksa’s court. He has the chance to return to Parliament from the SLFP to serve under President Sirisena and have yet another tilt at power through the Premiership if that is granted to him. The President has said Rajapaksa can contest but has not guaranteed the Premiership.

If Rajapaksa opts for this, he stand to risk losing many of his loyalists - some of whom are accused of corruption during the previous government - who may not be granted nomination to contest the polls by the SLFP. The faction supporting Chandrika Kumaratunga will try its best to ensure this.

On the other hand, if Rajapaksa leads a broad coalition that includes the likes of Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunewardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and a faction of the SLFP, it is likely to split the SLFP vote right down the middle. Rajapaksa may prove a point but the ultimate benefactor will be the UNP.

The UNP, for its part, will proclaim that the passage of the 19th Amendment is its accomplishment and indeed, the party did toil long and hard, first in sacrificing its own candidacy at the presidential elections to President Sirisena and then being flexible about various changes to the draft amendment.

However, it must be noted that its support at the electoral level, especially in the South of the country, is untested. Even President Sirisena, who polled not only UNP votes but votes of other groups as well at the presidential election, lost these regions. This suggests that the UNP’s hold there is tenuous.

At a general election, votes will be split more along communal lines and among smaller parties which would be in the fray, so it would be a hard task for the UNP to record an absolute majority in the next Parliament although its record in the past four months will now be bolstered by the 19th Amendment.

Much will depend on the exact format of the electoral reforms that will be approved by Parliament. There is bound to be much bargaining about that too but the country can look forward to yet another period of campaigning after which, hopefully, a stable government will emerge at long last.

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