20th Amendment in Sri Lanka

The controversial 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution that envisages expansive powers and greater immunity for the Executive President was passed recently in Parliament with a two-thirds majority.

What are the 19th and 20th amendments?

  • The 19th Amendment was brought in by the previous Yahapalanya (Good Governance) government of the United National Front of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It rolled back the 18th amendment that had been brought in by the preceding President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
  • The 18th amendment had removed the two-term bar on running for office, and centralised more powers in the hands of the President.
  • One of the first acts of United National Front was to bring in the 19th amendment, which restored the two-term bar on running for the presidency that was contained in the 1978 constitution; laid down the minimum age of 35 years for a presidential candidate; and also barred dual citizens from the office.
  • It reduced the term of the presidency to five years from the six years laid down in the 1978 constitution.
  • The President also lost his power to sack the Prime Minister. It also placed a ceiling on the number of ministers and deputy ministers.
  • The 20th amendment Bill, which was gazetted recently, reverses almost everything in the 19th Amendment. It only retains from it the two-term bar on the presidency, and the five-year term.

Concerns 

The Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives has flagged the following concerns in the 20th Amendment Bill –

  • It seeks to remove the checks and balances on the executive presidency. In particular, it abolishes the binding limitations on presidential powers in relation to key appointments to independent institutions through the pluralistic and deliberative process of the Constitutional Council.
  • Its replacement, the Parliamentary Council, is a mere rubber stamp of the executive, with no genuine deliberative role envisaged for its members. It is a regression to what was in place under the Eighteenth Amendment, effectively providing sweeping powers to the President to appoint individuals to key institutions, and with it, politicising institutions that are meant to function independently of the political executive and for the benefit of citizens.
  • It has also removed “the opportunity for citizens to challenge the executive actions of the President through fundamental rights applications has been removed, suggesting that the President is above the law.
  • The checks on presidential power within the executive are abolished by the removal of the requirement of the Prime Minister’s advice for the appointment and dismissal of Cabinet and other Ministers. The appointment and particularly the dismissal of the Prime Minister are no longer dependent on the confidence of Parliament but at the discretion of the President.
  • Parliament is disempowered against the executive by the restoration of the President’s power to dissolve Parliament at will at any time after the first year of its term.