By Dharisha Bastians
The highest levels of Government spent the weekend whipping up votes for legislation that will drastically alter Sri Lanka’s Constitution and restore independence to key arms of the State, with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution coming up for debate in Parliament today.
Getting the crucial amendment through the House will be a litmus test of the Maithripala Sirisena administration, after constitutional reform formed the bedrock of his election platform for change in the January presidential poll.
The bill was due to be debated and voted on last week, until the pro-Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA scuttled the business of the House with an all-night sit-in in the Well of the main chamber to protest President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s summons to the Bribery Commission. It is unclear if similar steps will be taken to scuttle a debate and vote on the amendment when Parliament meets today.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which joined President Sirisena’s National Government a few months ago, has decided to support the amendment, after the party’s Central Committee agreed to extend support. However, the party is also insisting on several amendments to the draft amendment, which high-ranking Government sources say could dilute the reforms.
SLFP strongman and State Minister of Housing Dilan Perera said the SLFP would support the 19th Amendment. The party had decided to extend its support following an assurance that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, comprising major electoral reform, would be also be enacted by the House as soon as possible.
UPFA MP and Mahajana Eksath Peramuna Leader Dinesh Gunewardane, who also functions as the de facto head of the Rajapaksa faction within Parliament, said they had no intention of supporting the 19th Amendment.
“Since the SLFP was given an assurance that the 19th Amendment and the 20th Amendment would be presented together, I don’t think the SLFP will support the bill either,” he said.
The Government needs 150 votes, a two-thirds majority in the national Legislature to enact the constitutional amendment. The number should prove possible to muster, provided there were no rogue elements within the SLFP that would go against the party decision and vote with the Gunewardane faction, authoritative Government sources told the Daily FT.
To defeat the amendment, the pro-Rajapaksa faction needs to muster 75 votes. Up to last night, this group had the potential to muster up to 66 votes. However, it is unclear if President Maithripala Sirisena’s call to arms on Thursday could have shifted positions somewhat, reducing that figure, Parliament watchers said.
Given the present composition of Parliament, 103 members of the UPFA remain technically outside the net of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe National Government.
Of this number, 90 MPs belong to the SLFP, which has decided in principle to back the amendment. If 45 among them vote with the Government on 19A, the amendment should be adopted, barring unforeseen issues, some analysts said.
The remaining 13 are comprised of small constituent parties within the UPFA, including the EPDP, CWC, Communist Party, LSSP and NFF.
Opposition parties, Tamil National Alliance with 14 seats and the JVP with seven seats, are largely expected to support the 19th Amendment.
The JHU, whose support was uncertain earlier this month, has decided to back the 19th Amendment. JHU strongman and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka told a press conference yesterday that many of their amendments to the original version of the draft amendment had been incorporated into the final draft.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution will slash some of the powers of the Executive Presidency, making the office more accountable to Parliament and repeal in its entirety the authoritarian 18th Amendment which removed a two term limit for sitting presidents, allowing an incumbent to contest for life.
The Constitutional reform package also includes restoration of the independent commission system and a Constitutional Council to de-politicise key institutions of the State, including the Police, Judiciary and elections.
If the amendment is scuttled in the House or the UPFA prevents its passage, President Sirisena is likely to opt for dissolution of Parliament and hold general elections seeking a fresh mandate for constitutional reform, sources said.
TNA faction requests leadership to reverse decision to support 19A
Three Tamil National Alliance Parliamentarians have requested Party Leader R. Sampanthan to reconsider the party’s decision to support the 19th Amendment.
All three MPs represent the Wanni District.
TNA Parliamentarians Selvam Adaikalanadan, Shivashakthi Anandan and Vino Noha Radhalingam have made this request.
The MPs requested Sampanthan to change the party decision since the Government had failed to address the problems facing the Tamil people.