Progressive changes

Saturday, 8 December 2018 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Maithripala Sirisena has stated he is open to making changes to fix any procedural shortcomings of the 19th Amendment, while keeping its core democratic values. The fact that President Sirisena has praised the 19th Amendment, which he and his party supported to implement, is positive, but proposing changes without specifics and doing so while the country is gripped by a Constitutional crisis of his making is disappointing.

The 19th Amendment, when it was implemented in 2015, was hailed as strengthening democratic institutions and balancing power between the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary. It was seen as a progressive move that sought to limit powers of the Executive that could overreach those of both Parliament and the Judiciary. The efficacy of the 19th Amendment, together with the Constitution as a whole, as well as the gazette to dissolve parliament, are now before the Supreme Court with a decision likely to be given on Monday.

The removal of a sitting Prime Minister and the appointment of another when he clearly does not command the majority of parliament is a questionable act at best. Since then President Sirisena has refused to accept two votes on a no confidence motion and has insisted that even if all 225 members of parliament request him to appoint MP Ranil Wickremesinghe, he would not do so. His insistence that “compatibility” is a quality needed in a prime minister and refusing to consider a compromise has raised serious concerns about his dedication to democracy.  

Therefore any discussion on changes to the 19th Amendment to improve democracy should be taken with a pinch of salt by most Sri Lankans. It is also pointless without the Supreme Court decision and serves to only muddy the situation even more. For any changes to be made to the 19th Amendment parliament needs to be reconvened and two thirds majority accumulated, which is impossible in the present set of circumstances.   

Given the spate of events that has taken place since 26 October and clear signs that MP Mahinda Rajapaksa does not have a majority in parliament, which resulted in two votes on a no confidence motion, a vote after Rajapaksa’s address to the House, and a loss of vote on the Selection Committee, it is more likely that if a two thirds majority is created it would be to start impeachment proceedings rather than any changes to the 19th Amendment. Conversely if parliament is dissolved then the 19th Amendment will only be a focus once the next Parliament is convened after a general election and it is possible those lawmakers may have different priorities.

What Sri Lanka needs from President Sirisena at this point is to restore democracy by accepting the decisions of Parliament and the Judiciary. As political uncertainty begins to bite with downgrading of Sri Lanka’s sovereign rating, the suspension of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), concerns being raised by local and foreign business chambers and a drop in tourism arrivals the need of the hour is for the President to restore the balance of power by respecting the Constitution. Any other measure at this point in time will not make much difference to the big picture and big things are at stake.