SJB MP Dr. Harsha de Silva (left) and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella at the media briefing yesterday in Colombo – Pic by Ruwan Walpola
- Slams proposed 20A as hollowing out checks and balances in 19A
- Says Amendment will centralise power in Executive and pave way to dictatorship
- Believes transparency, institutional independence and ability for citizens to hold President accountable will be lost
- Harsha questions how dual citizen President can avoid conflicts of interest
- Kiriella recalls that MR voted for 17A that originally introduced independent commissions
By Asiri Fernando
The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) yesterday pledged to petition the Supreme Court against the proposed 20th Amendment, describing it as rolling back democratic freedoms, including institutional independence, transparency and balance of power, to centralise all authority under the President.
SJB Parliam-entarians Lakshman Kiriella and Dr. Harsha de Silva pulled no punches in criticising the legislation, which is expected to be tabled in Parliament this month, saying it would “pave the way to a dictatorship”.
The two MPs insisted that the latest Amendment goes beyond the mandate given by the people and guts the 19th Amendment of all progressive proposals introduced in early 2015 to counter the overwhelming power of the Executive Presidency.
The two MPs condemned the abolishment of the Constitutional Council and replacing it with a Parliamentary Council, which would not have any civil society members but would be sorely made up of politicians. The new council will also only be able to make observations of any appointments made by the President and not recommendations and it would not be able to reject any nominees.
Kiriella and Dr. de Silva pointed out that this would severely limit judicial independence and the reintroduction of urgent bills as well as the reduction of the tabling time of bills from two weeks to just one, would limit the public’s chance to object to critical legislation. The 18th Amendment was brought as an urgent bill to Parliament and was tabled and passed in the same day.
Other provisions that the duo found alarming included removing limits on ministerial appointments, allowing the President to hold any ministerial portfolio and taking away the ability for a citizen to challenge a presidential decision by filing a Fundamental Rights petition citing the Attorney General.
“This Government came into power pledging to amend conflicting aspects of the 19th Amendment and to establish a stable government but what is proposed goes far beyond that. The abolishment of the Constitutional Council takes away all judicial independence. How can judges give independent and balanced decisions when their careers are on the line? The President can dissolve Parliament after just one year, so there can be five governments in five years. How can this bring stability?” Kiriella, who is also the Chief Opposition Whip, questioned.
Dr. de Silva pointed out that abolishing the procurement and audit commissions would weaken governance and encourage corruption. He also questioned why the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office were exempt from the purview of the Auditor General and warned that allowing a dual citizen to hold any position including the Presidency could create massive conflicts of interest in the future.
“Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority. Just because the Government has received a two-thirds majority that does not give it the moral or ethical right to destroy democratic institutions and gather power under one person. There are many problematic issues in this proposed legislation including but not limited to what happens if a person holding US citizenship has to negotiate on issues such as Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) or even the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant,” he said.
Dr. de Silva also raised alarm at the provision to exempt holding public officials accountable if they act in a partisan way during elections insisting that this restricted the space for free and fair elections in the future.
“We do not see these as positive changes for the public. These are regressive clauses that will take this country backwards and remove the freedoms that should be given to citizens by a democracy.”
Kiriella also gave a short recap of the evolution of events that led to the establishment of the 19th Amendment, pointing out that the 17th Amendment first introduced independent commissions to trim Executive powers and was brought by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and subsequently ratified on 8 September 2010.
“Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa voted for the 17th Amendment when he was part of Kumaratunga’s Government,” he recalled.