By Dharisha Bastians
An eleventh-hour bid to get consensus on the 19th Amendment ended in deadlock last night, with the SLFP demanding changes to two major provisions of the draft legislation that Presidential advocates say would completely negate the purpose of the reforms – to curb the powers of the presidency and depoliticise key State institutions.
Negotiations came down to the wire last night, but ended in a stalemate, although the SLFP insisted they were not trying to derail the constitutional reforms, the Daily FT learns.
President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a three-man committee of MPs supporting his 19A to thrash out issues the SLFP had with the amendment, following a party leaders’ meeting in Parliament yesterday morning. The SLFP was also invited to appoint three negotiators.
UNP MP Ajith P. Perera, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran and SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem were appointed by the President to negotiate with the SLFP group on the amendments.
The SLFP had trouble picking its representatives to debate the amendments to the draft of 19A, with its constitutional experts refusing to sit across the table, sources with knowledge of the discussions told the Daily FT.
The party finally nominated MPs Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Faiszer Mustapha and Rajiva Wijesinha to discuss the issues. The two teams met between 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. in Parliament yesterday.
The groups managed to reach consensus on most issues, with the exception of two, TNA MP Sumanthiran told the Daily FT.
The SLFP was demanding that the Constitutional Council, which will oversee the independent commissions, be largely made up of members of Parliament.
The SLFP was also demanding that the Supreme Court-mandated provision that the President shall act on the advice of the Prime Minister be withdrawn.
Before the draft amendment went before the Supreme Court, the provision permitted the Prime Minister to act alone. The Court suggested an amendment to the draft, allowing the President to act on the advice of the Prime Minister instead, which was accepted by the Government.
“The two issues that we could not reach agreement on deals with the heart of the 19th Amendment – which is about curbing presidential power and establishing the independent commissions. If these clauses are diluted, the 19th Amendment becomes almost nothing,” Sumanthiran told the Daily FT last night.
“If these key areas are deleted, in order to ensure passage of 19A, it would be a case of pulling the wool over the people’s eyes,” Sumanthiran said.
When the President’s nominees informed the SLFP negotiators that if they were to block the legislation on these grounds, they would have to inform the people, the SLFP members insisted they were not withdrawing support to the 19A, the Daily FT learns.
Sumanthiran, Hakeem and Perera met with President Sirisena late last night to brief him on the discussions.
President Sirisena’s clout within the SLFP will effectively determine whether he can convince them to support the amendment, political observers said.
The country’s 225-member Parliament is set to vote today on key constitutional reforms, widely-touted as the most progressive draft legislation since the 17th Amendment which set up independent commissions in 2003.
Twenty-three members of Parliament are tipped to address the House on the proposed 19th Amendment, which seeks to curb the powers of the executive presidency, repeal the 18th Amendment which removed presidential term limits and restore independent commissions.
Kicking off the debate in Parliament on 19A, President Maithripala Sirisena told legislators that it was one of the only amendments passed in Sri Lanka’s national Legislature that sought to slash powers granted to elected representatives, instead of increasing them.
The 17th Amendment was the only other such legislation to do so, President Sirisena told the House.
“We have a President who doesn’t want to be president again. In fact he is willing to have his powers reduced. This is a very healthy sign,” Tamil National Alliance Leader R. Sampanthan told Parliament yesterday when he addressed the debate on the crucial amendment.
The draft amendment will then move into committee stage, where amendments will be moved and debated.
Opposition parties including the SLFP have two main issues with the amendment; one such issue area relates to a provision in the draft amendment that empowers the Prime Minister to recommend ministers to the President.
The other is that the Constitutional Council should comprise a majority of members of Parliament.