Colombo, July 11 (Counterpoint): The exist of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the Sri Lankan Presidency on July 13 will pave the way for an improved version of the 22 nd. Constitutional Amandment (22A), informed political sources say.
After the Supreme Court’s determination on the draft 21 st. Amendment (21A) tabled by the Samagi Janatha Balawegaya (SJB), the powers of the Executive Presidency could only be marginally pruned without going for a referendum. Therefore, the draft prepared by Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe, titled 22A, with some Presidential powers pruned and others kept, was going to be taken up by parliament.
But parliament could not take it up because of the exacerbation of the economic and political crises in the country. The activists of the ‘Gota Go Gama’ (GGG) movement began to press for the immediate resignation of President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who were seen to be in cahoots to maintain the status quo.
On July 9, matters took an unexpected turn for the worse, when masses of people, who had converged on Colombo, stormed and occupied the official residences of the President and the Prime Minister and burnt the private residence of the Prime Minister.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were left with no option but to declare that they would quit. The President said he would do so on July 13, and the Prime Minister said he would do so once an alternative all-party government was formed.
Adoption of 22A
With Gotabaya, a votary of a very strong Presidency and centralization of power, exiting, the decks would be cleared for the adoption of 22A with improvements, within the parameters of the existing constitution, and without going for a referendum.
No matter what the composition of the successor government, the political parties currently in parliament will support 22A. All of them, including the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) headed by the Rajapaksa brothers, are now agreed that the Executive Presidency under the existing 20 th. Amendment (20A) is completely discredited and no longer tenable. It the concentration of power in the hands of the Executive President under the militaristic Gotabaya Rajapaksa which had heaped miseries on the Lankan masses and brought the country into international disrepute as a defaulter on foreign loans.
While the complete abolition of the Executive Presidency is not possible immediately (and is also not considered wise by key sections of the Sinhala majority who fear secession by the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces) pruning of its powers along with the enhancement of the powers of the parliament is considered possible and desirable too.
Except for the extremists of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) and other such left radical groups, which want the entire political system to be discarded and replaced by a village-based peoples’ democracy, others would prefer a hybrid system as envisaged by the 22A.
Gota Go Gama Movement
In fact, the ‘Gota Go Gama’ (GGG) movement has recommended something like the 22A. The GGG set out its demands in a statement published in DailyFT on Monday. Point 4 of that list calls for a “reduction of the Executive powers of the President”. Point 5 calls for the abolition of the Executive Presidency “as soon as possible” (not immediately).
If approved by parliament, the draft 22A will be entered in the constitution as the 21st. Amendment (21A). 22A re-establishes the independent Constitutional Council replacing the Parliamentary Council of the 20A. The CC will, in turn, appoint the Chairmen of the various Independent Commissions, (ICs), which would, in turn, oversee the work of each sector of the government and make key appointments.
The Independent Commissions are: the Elections Commission, Public Service Commission, Police Commission, Judicial Commission, Finance Commission, Bribery and Corruption Commission, Delimitation Commission, Human Rights Commission, Audit Service Commission and National Procurement Commission.
The CC comprises the parliament Speaker (chairperson), the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, one Member of Parliament (MP) appointed by the President, 5 MPs comprising one ruling party MP, one MP from the party of the Leader of the Opposition, three non-MPs appointed by the Speaker in consultation with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and approved by a majority of MPs in parliament, and one MP from a party other than the one represented by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
It is learnt that in the revised 22A, the Speaker’s power to appoint three non-MPs would be taken away and given to the ruling party and the Leader of the Opposition, as it is feared that the Speaker’s nominees would be the ruling party’s nominees.
The 22A enjoins that all appointments reflect Sri Lanka’s pluralistic society and that the non-MPs appointed should be of high repute. The term for CC members is three years. And vacancies must be filled within 14 days as earlier, appointments were delayed to scuttle the Commissions.
Even though the President appoints CC members, he has to make the appointments within 14 days after receiving recommendations from CC. Failure to do so will result in the appointment being deemed to have been made according to the CC’s recommendations.
The CC’s nominations are necessary for high offices such as Attorney General, the Governor of the Central Bank, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, and the Secretary General of parliament. The CC will meet at least twice per month. The quorum is five. Its decisions should be made by consensus or approved by at least five members.
The 22A enhances the Prime Minister’s power over the President. However, he will be unable to exercise the new provisions in the current (the ninth), parliament. The new provisions will be effective from the next 10th. parliament. This is a significant concession to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the votaries, of a strong Executive presidency, like the Sinhala nationalists, including the current Justice Minister and the architect for the 22A, Wijesdasa Rajapakshe.
However, according to informed sources, in the improved 22A, the above mentioned provisions will come into effect immediately as the person who takes charge as Interim President would not have come to that office as a directly elected person on the strength of his own Presidential election manifesto as Gotabaya Rajapaksa did.
The 22A says that the President will take his decisions on appointments to the council of ministers and the distribution of portfolios among the ministers “on the advice of the Prime Minister” and not in “consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation is necessary” as is the case now under the 20A. However, in the improved 22A, the provision to keep this provision in abeyance during the term of the current parliament will be taken away.
Changed Political Climate
It is felt that anyone taking office as Executive President under 22A will have no objection to these revisions as the political climate in Sri Lanka has drastically changed. Even Sinhala majoritarian nationalists are critical of the concentration of power in the hands of an Executive President. It is a bane, not a boon.
However, the President will keep the Defense portfolio, as he is the Supreme Commander of the armed forces. As per 22A, in the case of the absence or exist of a minister, the President can take over that ministry, but only for 14 days.
Prime Minister’s Term of Office
The draft 22A provides that the Prime Minster shall remain in office during the term of the cabinet, unless he quits or ceases being a parliament member. However, this rule will not apply during the life of the present parliament the draft says. It remains to be seen if this provision will be retained in the revised 22A.