Parliament last night passed the historic 19th Amendment to the Constitution with an overwhelming majority in a marathon session, though the triumph was marred slightly for President Maithripala Sirisena’s minority Government when it was forced to compromise on the composition of the Constitutional Council to get the legislation through the House.
The 19th Amendment was passed by 225-member Parliament with 212 votes in support of it, 1 vote against it from MP Sarath Weerasekara and 1 abstention (Ajith Kumara). Ten MPs, including former Premier D.M. Jayaratne and Basil Rajapaksa, were absent during the vote.
The passage of the 19th Amendment will be recorded as a major victory for the Sirisena Government, after President Sirisena made constitutional amendments to slash the powers of the presidency and de-politicise state institutions, a central pledge of his election campaign.
The amended bill was passed after amendments moved at the Committee Stage were adopted late last night.
“This is a historic moment, we now have a President who is responsible to Parliament,” said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe after the final vote tally was read out by the Speaker.
“Maybe all our hopes were not realised in this amendment. But we managed to reach a consensus,” the Premier said, congratulating the House.
“It is the people’s wish that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was also presented and adopted as soon as possible,” Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala De Silva said at the end of the session.
De Silva also said that the Parliament could not be satisfied be with the passage of 19th Amendment alone but a similar bipartisanship was required to approve the crucial electoral reforms via the 20th Amendment. “People are expecting this and I hope all MPs will rise to the occasion,” the Opposition Leader added.
He also said that some tried to give the impression that the SLFP and the UPFA were against the 19th Amendment but this wasn’t true. However, he said there was constructive criticism in the national interest.
De Silva also described the passage of the 19th Amendment as a victory for the people and commended the leadership given by President Sirisena who had succeeded where none of his predecessors could.
The adoption of the 19th Amendment followed a long day of hectic negotiations between the Government and the SLFP and four hours in Committee that continued well into the night. Parliament finally adjourned for the day past 11.00 p.m.
Despite much sound and fury by the pro-Mahinda faction of the UPFA, the members appeared to decide that they would not go down in history as opposing the 19th Amendment, even though the group launched several efforts to scuttle its passage.
The 19th Amendment was passed during its second reading at 7.00 p.m. with 215 votes in its favour, one vote against it, one abstention and seven absentees. Former Civil Defence Force Commander Sarath Weerasekera cast the sole vote against the amendment.
Highly-vocal MPs such as Dinesh Gunawardena, Bandula Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa and Namal Rajapaksa were among those who finally said yes.
As the debate on the 19th Amendment continued for the second day with 23 speakers taking the floor and little incident in the Chamber, frantic backroom negotiations spearheaded by President Sirisena himself took place till late evening, to gain consensus on amendments proposed by the SLFP.
Several party leaders’ meetings took place throughout the course of the day and President Sirisena also met separately with the UPFA Parliamentary Group to try to gain a consensus.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s team were finally forced to agree to the SLFP proposal that the Constitutional Council be comprised of a majority of members of Parliament. In line with Opposition demands, a compromise was reached that the Constitutional Council would comprise four MPs and three professionals, in addition to the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Opposition Leader ex officio.
Wickremesinghe told the House that both his party and the Tamil National Alliance were firmly opposed to including MPs in the Council that will recommend appointments to the independent commissions.
“This amendment doesn’t go as far as we want it to go, but it does go some distance,” the Premier said in his closing speech before the amendment was taken up for a vote on the second reading.
“We are a minority Government. We need the support of the Opposition in order to get this amendment passed. So we had to compromise,” the Premier said.
The decision before the Government ultimately was whether they were going to permit the passage of the 19th Amendment with the amendment the SLFP was insisting on, or whether they were going to let the whole amendment go.
Wickremesinghe said President Sirisena had broken the perception that an elected President would never give up power by his decision to present the 19th Amendment.
“He has done something historic. At one point President J.R. Jayewardene told me that once someone gets this office it will be very difficult to get him out. He told me we would simply have to wait until the term limits expire,” he quipped.
Eight amendments proposed by the SLFP were thrashed out by the six-member committee appointed by the President on 27 April and whittled down to two on which the Government and the Opposition could not reach agreement.
President Sirisena’s Constitutional Advisor Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne led a team of lawyers helping MP representatives to draft changes to the amendment to achieve consensus.
Attorney General Yuvanjana Wijeyatillake was also on hand to iron out legal issues in line with the Supreme Court determination.
Throughout the proceedings, UPFA MPs were arguing in the House that the powers of Parliament could not be arrogated to individuals who were not elected representatives, with regard to the Constitutional Council.
“The SLFP is opposing this provision that allows the appointment of professionals to the Constitutional Council because outsiders cannot be given Parliament’s powers,” Minister T.B. Ekanayake told the House.
He also urged the Parliament to stop opposing provisions with the mistaken perception that the draft amendment was targeted at specific individuals, especially the sitting Prime Minister.
“Ranil Wickremesinghe is only the current Premier. His name is not written in this amendment, we must look at this intellectually,” Ekanayake said.
UPFA MP Sajin Vaas Gunewardane also told the House that the Opposition would vote for the 19th Amendment but only while ensuring the sovereignty of Parliament was protected.
UPFA MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage charged that the UNP was trying to put what he called ‘NGO-wallahs’ into the Constitutional Council.
DNA MP and former cricket skipper Arjuna Ranatunga told the House that this could be the final opportunity to pass this kind of legislation. “We may never again have a leader who is willing to give up his own powers this way,” Ranatunga said during his speech.
Political analysts and civil society groups hailed the passage of the 19th Amendment as a victory for the people since it boosted democracy and good governance.
Parliament was adjourned until 19 May 2015.