20A challenge 

Monday, 19 October 2020 02:19 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This week is a crucial one for the Government as Parliament holds a two-day debate on the 20th Amendment amidst growing criticism of the proposed constitutional change. 

In the run-up to the Parliamentary Election, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris repeatedly told reporters that if they achieve a two-thirds majority, they will work to set up and adhere to structures that will increase accountability. 

Essentially, Prof. Peiris pledged to do the work of the Opposition, despite being in power. Fast forward three months, and a growing band of people, including nationalist forces that worked to bring President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP to power, are displeased with the 20th Amendment. 

Ahead of the debate, the SLPP and its coalition parties met to decide what changes will be incorporated at the committee stage. The Supreme Court’s decision is already in the public domain, though it will be officially presented to the House tomorrow. Prof. Peiris has already assured changes at the committee stage will address all concerns expressed by the Supreme Court. 

The bigger challenge could well be reassuring its own ranks on the overwhelming amount of power that will be bestowed on the President if the 20th Amendment is made without significant changes. These includes concerns over the return of urgent bills, allowing dual citizens to hold top positions, and gutting all independent commissions. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Government came into power, in part by telling the public they will improve governance and minimise corruption. However, the proposed 20th Amendment threatens to severely undermine a key part of this endeavour by removing or gutting several key safeguards, including the National Procurement and Audit Commissions.

The National Procurement Commission was appointed under the 19th Amendment (19A) to upgrade procurement guidelines so that transparency of tender awards would be improved and a host of measures could be implemented to protect public finance. The guidelines, which have been ready since early 2018 were not passed in Parliament by the former Government, which was undoubtedly a massive oversight on their behalf but removing the commission entirely is an even bigger error. 

The multitude of issues that have cropped up in the recent past can be traced directly to the way tenders are awarded and how State-run companies are managed. The corruption and mismanagement will have an additional layer of impunity now if both the Procurement and Audit Commissions are scrapped. Removing the latter will ensure that public officials cannot be held responsible if their actions cause a loss to the State, reopening the door to an unhealthy nexus between politicians, public servants and nefarious business entities. 

Nearly 120 State-owned companies, including the debt-ridden SriLankan Airlines, will be exempt from Government audit under the proposed 20th Amendment. Among scores of other business entities to be excluded are Lanka Electricity Company (LECO), Sri Lanka Insurance, Lanka Hospitals PLC, Litro Gas Lanka Ltd., Lanka Sathosa, multiple plantation and electricity companies, and Lanka Coal Company Ltd.

Many of the detractors are concerned that the Executive will have overwhelming power, relegating the Cabinet, Parliament and Judiciary to little more than rubber stamping institutions. Following several tumultuous years, Sri Lanka’s democracy is once again at crossroads.