By Chandani Kirinde
The debate on the 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution Bill got underway in Parliament yesterday with Government MPs speaking in defence of it while Opposition MPs called on fellow lawmakers to defeat the Bill when it is put to a vote today.
Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs led the protest against the Bill last morning arriving in a motorcade from the Opposition Leader’s office at Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo-7 to show their disapproval for the Bill. They wore armbands and masks with the sign ‘No to destructive 20A’ to protest against the amendment in the Parliament Chamber.
Despite signs of disagreement within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to certain provisions in the Bill, most Government MPs spoke in support of the Bill choosing to blame the Opposition for bringing the 19th Amendment (19A) in 2015 to secure the position of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and turning the system of governance into a mess.
Most Government MPs argued that the failure to avert the Easter Sunday terror attacks was a direct result of the 19A which tied the hands of the Executive and led to internal friction thus resulting in the tragedy. Opposition lawmakers argued that, while the Easter attacks were a result of the failure of officials entrusted with national security, 19A had strengthened democracy and made the system more consultative and less authoritarian.
The only sticking point within the ruling by yesterday was the clause that allows dual citizens to be elected as MPs. Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara who is among those opposed to the provision voiced his Opposition in the House yesterday and requested the Government to reconsider it before a vote on the Bill is taken this evening.
There were also simmering tensions outside the Chamber with regard to the dual citizenship issue with allegations that SLPP National List MP Jayantha Ketagoda had attempted to put pressure on several of the MPs of the National Freedom Front (NFF) of Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa. The issue had led to a confrontation between Ketagoda and Weerawansa, NFF sources told the Daily FT.
The debate on the 20A Bill was opened by Justice Minister Ali Sabry who said that the Executive President under the 20th Amendment would not enjoy more powers than the powers vested in the Executive by the 1978 Second Republican Constitution.
“When we compare the constitutions in this country, the 1978 Constitution has the presidency with the highest concentration of powers. Subsequent amendments had reduced some of those powers and the 19th Amendment did the worst. The 20th Amendment would restore those powers of the presidency. Our attempt is to enable the President to exercise people’s power once again,” the Minister said.
Sabry said the 19th Amendment had rendered the post of President powerless and put national security in jeopardy. He cited the example of Easter Sunday attacks which is under investigation by several commissions.
“No one is taking responsibility for the failure to prevent these attacks. Various parties and individuals go before those Commissions and try to place the blame on others. None are taking responsibility. It is clear that we cannot move forward in this manner. We have to do away with the 19th amendment for the sake of people,” he said.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said that he was happy and proud of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution for it would become law without any political deals to get it passed in Parliament alleging that 19A was among the many constitutional amendments passed by making political deals to obtain votes.
He said the 20th Amendment will strengthen national security and defeat the 19th Amendment which destabilised the country.
“The previous Government rejoiced saying they had clipped the wings of the President, not realising that they had cut off the neck of the country’s national security and national unity. Three years after the 19th Amendment pruned the powers of the President, they were able to witness the repercussions for their actions.
“The head of intelligence revealed to the Easter Commission that at least 10,000 officials were aware that such an attack would happen but could do nothing to prevent the attack. It is shameful when we hear these and as a result of the actions of the Government so many lives were lost,” he said.
SJB National List MP Imthiaz Bakeer Markar who opened the debate on behalf of the Opposition urged the MPs to vote on the Bill according to their conscience and not on party lines.
“We have to do the right thing, no matter how difficult the circumstances are. We cannot raise our hands in support of a Bill that would lead to the death of democracy in the country. Those who raise in support of this amendment today will be the ones who will suffer because of it in the future,” he said.
He also questioned why the Government is in a haste to pass this amendment when it is already working on introducing a new amendment.
“The President has all the power. He has the two-third majority in Parliament as well. Parliament should be summoned to discuss how we should face COVID-19 pandemic as a country. But here, we discuss a constitutional amendment without talking about the welfare of our people,” Markar said.
The two-day debate will end at 7.30 p.m. following which it will be put to vote. Several amendments to the Bill will also be moved at the Committee Stage.