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Explained: Sri Lanka’s constitutional changes

Since the Rajapaksas have attained the two-thirds parliamentary majority. Their first priority is to get rid of the 19th Amendment, and replace it with the 20th Amendment. There are concerns, including in India, that the 13th Amendment may also be repealed.

Constitutional changes in Sri Lanka

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.

What is the 13th Amendment?

  • The 13th Amendment was a consequence of the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka between 1987-1990. It flowed from the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. Sri Lanka is a unitary country, and the 1978 Constitution had concentrated all powers in the centre.
  • The agreement was aimed at finding a way forward on devolution of political powers to the then North-Eastern province, comprising the Tamil dominated areas of the island country.
  • Under the terms of the Accord (also known as the Jayawardene-Rajiv Gandhi agreement), the Sri Lankan parliament brought in the 13th Amendment, which provided for a system of elected provincial councils across Sri Lanka. Thus it was not just the Northern-Eastern province that would get a provincial council but provinces in the rest of Sri Lanka too.
  • The irony was that while the North-Eastern provincial council could barely survive the violent and bloody circumstances of its birth and died after a short-lived futile struggle against both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, each of the remaining provinces in the Sinhala dominated areas have had elected provincial councils.