By P. K. Balachandran
The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) decision to revisit the draft 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution follows multiple dissensions over it both within the party and its alliance. Although the draft 20A was cleared by the Cabinet without objections and was even published in the gazette, the moment it came to the public domain, it ran into very rough weather inside the SLPP, the SLPP-lead alliance, the Opposition and the media.
This resulted in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointing a committee to go into the controversial issues and submit a report to him by September 15.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have been surprised when the Sinhala nationalist theoretician and Mahinda Rajapaksa acolyte, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekere, and a Sinhala nationalist lawyer, Manohara de Silva, protested against some of the provisions of the draft 20A. Left with no option, Gotabaya was compelled to tell them he would issue an alternative draft.
There is yet no clarity about what the Sinhala nationalist lobby exactly wants, but many suspect it fears the lifting of the ban on dual citizens standing for elections could lead to the infiltration of the pro-West Sinhala Diaspora and the pro-Tamil separatist Tamil Diaspora. Some like National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa, who are said to be against SLPP honcho and dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa, do not want him to be in Parliament again. The last time he was in, he took up the Economic Affairs portfolio and became Sri Lanka’s Economic Tsar, second only to the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa in power.
The general complaint against the draft 20A appears to be that it was prepared in a non-transparent and hurried manner by a set of lawyers close to President Gotabaya and associated with his organization ‘Viyathmaga’, which is a collection of non-political intellectuals and professionals. These non-political intellectuals generally have a dim view of politicians and consider politics, elections and parliaments full of the hoi polloi as a hindrance to good governance, justice, efficiency and national progress.
The draft 20A also represents the notion that the Executive Presidency should be an all-powerful office without any effective checks and balances, all for the sake of efficiency. It nullifies Parliament as a checking mechanism and envisages it only as a needed to pass laws and money bills. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet (all members of Parliament) will only be implementing agencies with little or no role in policy making or in appointments to key offices of state.
According to some MPs, this is not at all liked even by members of the ruling SLPP as they would be rendered powerless if all powers are given to the Executive President. The situation will be even more difficult for them if the President is a recluse, not easily accessible.
It is also said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is aggrieved, though he has not openly objected to the draft 20A. Perhaps his silence was meant to test the political waters or let the polity speak for itself. However, the moment he found that the 20A, in its present form, had created resentment, even in the SLPP’s own ranks, he set in motion a corrective mechanism and set up a committee to go into the issue.
Commenting on the reported objections from a section of the Buddhist clergy, a leading Tamil MP said perhaps, the Sangha fears that Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism would be appropriated by the armed forces and that the monks might have to kowtow to the new military standard-bearers of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.
Colombo District MP Mano Ganeshan said while Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists might want to deny the minority Tamils and Muslims their political rights, they are committed to preserving democracy for the Sinhala Buddhist majority. They see the draft 20A as a threat to the democracy they have been enjoying for the last 70 years.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leaders, who are allies of the SLPP, worry that with the 20A, their role in the government will be further eroded. Top minister Nimal Sripala de Silva has reportedly warned some opposition MPs that attempts might be made to buy them off in time for voting on the 20A. The SLPP leader asked them not to yield to blandishments from the SLPP.
The SLPP now has 149 MPs, but it needs 150 at the barest minimum to get the 20A passed by the required two thirds majority. According to Ganeshan, the SLPP’s managers are fishing for at least ten MPs from the opposition and are ready to take even Muslims, who they have been avoiding since the Easter Sunday blasts in 2019. But till date, there is little or no sign of any crossovers from the opposition.
To exploit the current predicament of the ruling SLPP for the benefit of the Opposition, and in the absence of any effort by the Samagi Jana Blawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa to act, former Speaker and UNP leader Karu Jayasuriya, initiated a mass movement to oppose the 20A.
“Everybody recognizes that the 19thAmendment has its flaws. The incumbent government could have amended some of its clauses to get rid of the dysfunctional aspects, and we in the opposition would have supported the move. But it is wrong to replace it with a draconian and dictatorial 20A. The solution to the ills of the 19A is not 18A plus,” Ganeshan said recalling the 18A of 2010 by which the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa got extraordinary powers.
The 18A was repealed and 19A was enacted in 2015 by the United National Party-led government.