Apparently for the first time since the presidential election on November 16, 2019, dissension has emerged among the members or the groups of the Government. That is on the content of the bill titled ‘20th Amendment to the Constitution’ which primarily seeks to roll back the 19th Amendment.
The ruling party initiated action in this respect at its very first Cabinet meeting after the victory at the August 5 general elections. The Cabinet endorsed a concept paper in this regard immediately, and it approved the relevant draft legislation on September 2. It has to be presented to Parliament after two weeks upon announcement in the gazette.
Fundamentally, the ruling party has intended to undo the provisions in the 19th Amendment, bar four areas. If it is passed in Parliament and signed into law by the Speaker, the president would get back the sole authority to appoint the Cabinet, a task that should currently be done in consultation with the prime minister. Also, the present ceiling on the size of the Cabinet is sought to be done away with, enabling the president to determine it depending on the requirement.
It is no doubt that the 19th Amendment is a hurriedly enacted piece of legislation with a lot of loopholes and lacunas. For example, it stipulates that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, but he cannot hold ministerial posts. The practical question that arises is how the president, as the commander in chief of the armed forces, can discharge his duties without the defence portfolio in his hand. Primarily, the 20th Amendment is brought to roll back the 19th Amendment bar four key provisions that deal with the term limit of the president, term duration of the presidential office and Parliament and the right to information.
Now, some provisions in the draft amendment are resisted by certain MPs of the Government. They have already raised objections in this regard in the public domain. These MPs conveying dissent are particularly opposed to the removal of the provision that bars dual citizens from becoming parliamentarians. Also, they are against the move to knock off the provision that restricts the size of the Cabinet to 30.
The ruling party has 150 seats in the House and of them Matara district MP Mahinda Yapa Abeywardane functions as the Speaker. In actual context, the Government has only 149 seats, one short of two-thirds. As such, it is absolutely necessary for the Government to retain the support of all of these MPs and to win over some from the opposition to secure the two-thirds majority by crossing the 150 mark.
Despite having resentment on some of the provisions, none of these MPs are placed in politics to openly rebel against the Government or to stick to their guns as far as the 20th Amendment is concerned. The Government is likely to bring about changes to the original draft when the bill is referred to at the committee sage of the debate later in Parliament. However, substantial changes to the original draft will not be done, and the minor group of MPs with dissenting views has no political wherewithal to oppose the government at this juncture. The main opposition is also way behind the Government in terms of its numerical strength in the House. Likelihood is that the Government leaders would prevail upon the dissenting MPs and reach some agreement to vote the bill without substantial changes to the original draft.
Still, the Government needs one more seat to make it 150 to pass the bill in Parliament. For that purpose, backroom discussions are underway with some MPs of the opposition to accommodate them on the Government.
PM holds talks with two opposition Muslim MPs
According to highly placed sources, two Muslim MPs from the opposition held talks with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in his office in the parliamentary complex on Tuesday. Daily Mirror learns that the Prime Minister referred them to Basil Rajapaksa who is the national organizer of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to work out necessary arrangements for their accommodation.
The SLPP, as the ruling party, has firmed up its position that All Ceylon Makkal Congress leader MP Rishad Bathiudeen and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader MP Rauff Hakeem will not be entertained. Instead, doors are open for the other junior members of their parties. They have already made overtures to the Government in this regard, and therefore obtaining two-thirds majorly is not going to be a problem for the Government at any cost.
The accommodation of a few MPs from the opposition will also reduce the political clout of the MPs harbouring resentments against the 20th Amendment.
After the enactment of the 20th Amendment, the Government will have another serious business of bringing about a new Constitution. Already, a committee of legal luminaries has started work in this regard. In the process, many people ask what would happen to the future of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which provided for the establishment of the provincial councils.
A faction of the Government is opposed to the provincial council system and advocates for jettisoning it. However, another section of the Government believes in the system and sees it as the next tier of Government to produce the next breed of leaders.
Besides, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has presented an alternative proposal to the provincial councils; that is to re-demarcate the boundaries of the provinces on the lines of historical kingdoms Ruhunu, Pihiti and Maya.
The prime minister has already mooted this idea; a move aimed at these ancient principalities of Sri Lanka or Tun Sinhale.