19th Amendment , Whose baby is it?

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The Constitution of Sri Lanka which was introduced by former President JR Jayewardene in 1978 was amended again last week for the 19th time. Many are of the opinion that the Constitution was amended to increase the powers of the administrators or politicians and not to offer benefits for the general public. This view however can’t be made on Amendments like 13, 17 and the latest 19th.

The 19th amendment was passed in parliament after hours-long committee stage debates, corrections, deletions and additions on Tuesday night (April 28). 225 law makers or public representatives finally agreed on the Amendment which attracted 212 votes in its favor.  One member of parliament voted against it while another abstained from voting. Only 10 MPs were absent. Some absentees are in remand prison.

The Amendment received the legality on April 30 and is now in effect, except for four articles which will come into effect after the next General Election. This is because the appointments to the commission have already been made. It was a good sign that no party politics were seen at the vote. People’s Liberation Front (representing the House as the Democratic National Alliance), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress as well as the Tamil National Alliance supported the bill.

President Maithripala Sirisena was also in Parliament even on the second day of the debate. He was watching the vote being taken from his chamber at the Parliament complex. He also addressed the Parliament again and thanked all who supported the historical task he undertook, something which previous presidents left as a forgotten election promise. Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe also thanked all, making special mention of the support rendered by Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva.

Some have interpreted the passing of the 19th Amendment with a significant majority in the House as a great victory, following a decade long struggle. They showed the public how former presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa each promised not only once, but twice, and didn’t deliver regarding the matter. They also highlighted how they developed more power around them while promising to abolish the executive’s powers.

Well, a lot of changes have been made. Instead of completely abolishing the Executive Presidency, the amendment has made the president responsible and answerable to Parliament. Now, some parties are claiming for the paternity of the baby. Whose baby this?  Taking into account those who contributed to make this change, credit should go to Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera who dedicated himself for this cause for a long time. The priest pressed on the issue during the last Presidential election via his organization, National Movement for Social Justice. Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera went a single step forward with his organization, Pivithuru Hetak. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which has supported the abolition of the ‘system’ during its entire history, this time had a policy, ‘Whatever has been done is enough’.

Then, the most important question is what has really changed in the Constitution or what’s new? Among the important features of the Bill, we can see (a) The reduction in the terms of President and Parliament from six years to five years, (b) Re-introduction of a two-term limit that a person can have as President, (c) The power of President to dissolve Parliament effective only after four and a half years (unlike one year, as prevalent now), (d) The revival of Constitutional Council and the establishment of independent commissions (e) Immunity on President to be limited regarding criminal allegations and human rights violations (f) Size of the Cabinet of Ministers to be reduced to 30 and Deputy and State Ministers to be limited to 40 and (g) not allowing those who have dual citizenships to be elected to parliament.

Though abolishing the Executive Presidency was the one time slogan, Maithripala Sirisena, as the common opposition  candidate,  has  clearly mentioned that he will reduce the executive’s powers. However, the matter regarding ‘powers of the executive president’ also went to the Supreme Court. The ruling held that certain provisions, such as those making the Prime Minister the head of Cabinet and empowering the Prime Minister to determine the size of Cabinet, will require a referendum. So, the President remains the head of Cabinet of Ministers and he also appoints the secretaries to the ministries. He also can appoint Ministers on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The appointments to the constitutional council was the other much debated matter which is needed to re-establish the independent commissions to oversee various areas of governance. The 10-member constitutional council will comprise seven parliamentarians and three members from the civil society, instead of three legislators and seven independent members.

The next amendment to the Constitution is on the way. This amendment will deal with the the replacement of a new electoral system.  President Maithripala Sirisena has already taken steps for the task. He has provided a draft amendment to the Cabinet of Ministers asking them to forward their comments and proposals by this week. However, Minister Rajitha Senaratne is of the opinion that the process will take time as the government has to establish the Constitutional Council (CC) first and then the CC has to appoint other independent commissions including the delimitation commission. The time which the delimitation commission to complete its job of deciding the  new electorates will finally decide the 20th Amendment.

Last modified on Sunday, 03 May 2015 11:59

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