The new President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is aiming at getting two-thirds majority in the April 2020 parliamentary elections to be able to bring about sweeping changes in the constitution to strengthen the Executive which was badly crippled by the 19 th.Amendment (19A) brought about by the previous regime.
Gotabaya is keen on either fully jettisoning the 19A or drastically pruning it to restore the powers of the directly elected Executive President.
The 19A, enacted in 2015 by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, had clipped the Executive President’s powers without commensurately increasing the powers of the Prime Minister and the parliament. The spheres or competences of the two centers of power over-lapped in many places causing confusion and conflict.
2015 to 2019 saw an endemic President-Prime Minister conflict bringing the country’s administration to a grinding halt every now and then. Projects, including those involving foreign parties, got stalled adversely affecting investor confidence.
Additionally, 19A had given a lot of powers to the non-elected Independent Commissions which it had set up to appoint personnel to the various arms of the State like the judiciary, police, public service and elections department. The Executive headed by directly elected President was sidelined. This, besides being undemocratic from a representational point of view, also spurred and encouraged incompetence.
President Maithripala Sirisena had bitterly complained that he had no power to sack the head of the police (IG) Pujith Jayasundara though his incompetence was glaring in the context of the April 21, 2019 multiple bomb blasts in Colombo. The current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has complained that the head of the police cannot choose his higher rung officers as these appointments can be made only by the Police Commission, which has non-policemen as members. Despite having elected bodies, crucial appointments were made by non-elected people in the Independent Commissions.
In his first-ever address to parliament on being elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he proposes to “amend the constitution as the 1978 Constitution, which has since been amended on 19 occasions, has given rise to many problems at the present time because of its inherent ambiguities and confusions.”
Unlike past Presidents who promised devolution of power bordering on federalism but did not (or rather could not) deliver, Gotabaya said frankly that he is not in favor of more devolution or federalism.
“In accordance with our Constitution, I pledge that during my term of office, I will always defend the unitary status of our country.” This is an assertion of what has been a reality since 1948, despite the Tamils seeking federalism since independence. Even dispensations like those of Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena which promised greater devolution of power, if not federalism, could not deliver for the simple reason that the majority Sinhalese were against federalism and greater devolution. Gotabaya frankly admits that it is pointless asking for or promising something which the majority will not approve of.
On the relative importance of the majority and the minority communities, Gotabaya said: “We must always respect the aspirations of the majority of the people. It is only then that the sovereignty of the people will be safeguarded.”
Driving home the point, he added: “The people who elected me to office desired a profound change in the political culture of this country. They rejected political agendas founded on race. The majority of the people proved that it is no longer possible for anyone to manipulate and control the politics of this country by playing the role of king maker.”
This was a reference to the November 16 Presidential election which he won solely with the support of the majority Sinhalese. He was also referring to the blow received by the politics of the small parties representing the minority Tamils and Muslims, which though small, had become king-makers in a fractured parliament.
Gotabaya said it is time the minorities realized that this situation could not go on as the voting pattern in the November 16 Presidential election shows. “I invite the politicians concerned to understand this reality. I call upon all to join together in the national undertaking to develop this country, and to reject the politics based on petty agendas that have sown division in our society in the past,” the President said.
National Security occupies the “foremost place,” in his agenda, the PresidentI said. By looking at security from a national angle, Gotabaya was ruling out giving police powers to the provinces as demanded by the 13 th.,.Amendment made at India’s insistence in 1987.
Wijedasa Rajapakshe’s Amendment Bills
Meanwhile, MP and former Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe proposed two constitutional amendment bills, designated 21 st and 22 nd Amebdment bills. Both are up Gotabaya’s street. The proposed 21 (A) increases the district cut off point for getting elected from 5% to 12.5%. This will eliminate small parties, end the splintering of parliamentary seats and make decision-making easier.
The 22A bill truncates the Independent Constitutional Council’s powers. It says that the President will appoint the Chief Justice and other judges of the Supreme Court and judges of the Court of Appeal (after consulting the Judicial Services Commission). He will also appoint the Attorney General, the Auditor General, Inspector General of Police; the Ombudsman and the Secretary General of Parliament. In all these matters, the President only needs to consult the Prime Minister.
Wijedasa’s 22A also envisages the President’s holding the cabinet portfolio of Defense as he is the C-in-C of the armed forces. The President could also take any cabinet portfolio in his capacity as the head of the cabinet. The amendment proposal also aims at reducing the number of ministers so that ministerial positions are not put up for political sale.
If the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramnuna-led alliance wins the parliamentary elections with a two-thirds or near two thirds majority, Gotabaya hopes to press forward with his economic and administrative reform programs vigorously.
He will get the freedom to appoint officers of his choice based on their competence and qualifications. He might stop appointments made purely to meet political or personal ends. The President could also take some necessary but unpopular political or economic decisions without the fear of being thwarted, as has been the case thus far.