By Gagani Weerakoon and Skandha Gunasekara
The final vote taken on the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill was passed with a majority of 211 votes in Parliament yesterday.
The Bill received 212 votes in favour as the UPFA, DNA and TNA voted with the government. Digamadulla UPFA MP Sarath Weerasekera voted against, while Galle District independent MP Ajith Kumara of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) abstained from voting. Ten MPs were absent.
They were UPFA MPs Prabha Ganeshan, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, D.M. Jayaratne, Jagath Balasuriya, Janaka Priyantha Bandara, Premalal Jayasekera, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thera, Basil Rajapaksa, Keheliya Rambukwella and TNA MP A. Vinayagamoorthy.
Division on the Bill was called by the Leader of the House at the end of the committee stage debate which lasted for four hours from 7.00 p.m. to 11.00 p.m.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe thanked all those who supported the Bill and said that the passing of the Bill by a minority government was a victory of democracy.
Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva said that the opposition expected that the government would bring the 20th Amendment to the Constitution soon.
Leader of the House Plantations Minister Lakshman Kiriella called for a division by name at the end of the second reading stage debate.
The Bill received 215 votes in favour as the UPFA, DNA and TNA voted with the government.
When the House was moved for the committee stage debate, MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena got up and said the Opposition MPs had not been given Sinhala and Tamil copies of the Amendments to be moved to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill.
Leader of the House Minister Lakshman Kiriella: “Translations of the amendments have been provided.”
MP Gunawardena: “No Opposition MP has seen such translations. Do not try to bulldoze this through Parliament. Follow proper procedures. If you try to bulldoze this, we know how to face it. We demand that Sinhala translations of the amendments be given before we move ahead and the Speaker adjourn the House till then.”
Accordingly the Speaker adjourned the House for 15 minutes.
When the House resumed sittings at 7:45 p.m., Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said both the government and opposition had agreed to read the English version of the amendments and the translations would be provided to MPs soon.
UPFA MP Prabha Ganeshan said he did not understand the content and did not want to go ahead in the committee stage until the translated copies of the amendments were given.
However, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said that the committee stage could move ahead as party leaders had already agreed.
Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe presented the amendments on behalf of the government. MPs Vesudeva Nanayakkara, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Dinesh Gunawardena, Prof. G.L.Peiris, Douglas Devananda, Prof. Tissa Vitarana and Sriyani Wijayawickrema presented amendments on behalf of the opposition.
The government withdrew many of its amendments following disagreements from the opposition.
President Maithripala Sirisena remained in Parliament from morning and took efforts to end the tug-of-war between government and opposition MPs over two amendments to be incorporated to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill and to muster their support to get the bill passed.
The government did not agree with the proposal by the opposition to change two clauses envisaging that the President should appoint ministers to the Cabinet with the concurrence of the Prime Minister, and the appointing of three external persons to the Constitutional Council proposed in the Bill.
The opposition continued to warn the government throughout their yesterday’s debate that they would not vote for the Amendment if the government keeps the clause of the President seeking the Prime Minister’s approval to appoint Cabinet Ministers and insisted that the Constitutional Council should comprise of only members of Parliament.
Both the government and the opposition had submitted 174 amendments to be incorporated to the proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill at the committee stage. The government had 63 amendments, while the opposition had 111 amendments proposed. Of them 29 had been submitted by W.D.J Seneviratne, 55 by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, one by Geethanjana Gunawardena, one by Dinesh Gunawardena, two by Sriyani Wijewickrama, seven by Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, eight by Vasudeva Nanayakkara and eight by Douglas Devananda.
Opposition MPs stated in their speeches that the government plans to appoint Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, Former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives to the Constitutional Council and such outsiders should not be permitted to meddle with the law making processes.
However, President Sirisena who arrived soon after Parliament commenced sittings at 9:30 a.m. met with various groups of MPs seeking to solicit their votes for the 19th Amendment Bill which required a two-thirsd majority to be passed in Parliament in accordance with the Supreme Court ruling over the Bill.
The Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and the President met with their groups and lobbied for support for the Bill, according to Parliament sources.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill was presented to Parliament on 24 March and the debate scheduled for the Bill was postponed twice.
The bill was scheduled to be taken for debate on 10 and 11 April and then later on 20 and 21 April but owing to disagreements from the opposition it was postponed.
Eventually the second reading stage debate on the Bill took place on Monday (27) and yesterday and the vote on the second reading was scheduled to be taken at 6.00 p.m. but was extended by another hour and finally taken at 7.00 p.m.