Sri Lankan government tables 20A draft bill in Parliament
The Sri Lankan government’s proposed 20th Constitution Amendment Bill that aims to bolster the powers of the President was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, ending speculation that its presentation would be delayed amidst internal resistance from within the ruling party led by the powerful Rajapaksa family.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa raised a point-of-order and objected to the draft 20th Amendment being tabled in Parliament while a heated exchange of words later took place between the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the government MPs.
Holding posters, SJB MPs came down to the well of the House and protested.
The government on September 2 gazetted 20A, the new proposed legislation that would replace the 19th Amendment introduced in 2015 that curtailed the powers of the President and strengthened the role of Parliament.
The 19A was seen as the most progressive pro-democracy reformist move since Sri Lanka came to be governed under the all-powerful executive presidency in 1978. It depoliticised the government administration by ensuring the independence of key pillars such as the judiciary, public service and elections.
The 20th Amendment proposes to restore full legal immunity to the President, removing the provisions made in the 19A to take legal action against the President. Amidst an uproar by the Opposition in Parliament on Tuesday, Justice Minister Ali Sabri tabled the bill which was the original gazette issued by the government on September 3.
After the bill is presented in Parliament, anyone wanting to drag the matter to the court can approach the apex judicial body against it. The 20A has been tabled in Parliament and it is upto the Opposition to approach the court if they want to go against it, the government said.
GL Peiris, the Education Minister, on Monday had said: "After it is presented in Parliament for what is known as the first reading tomorrow, any interested party can approach the Supreme Court against it. Then the court will have further 3 weeks to inform its legality to the President and Parliament". Peiris headed a 9-member ministerial committee to review the 20A's original provisions after it faced internal resistance from within a faction of the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Party(SLPP) parliamentary group itself.
Yet Peiris' committee report was not considered for any changes based on the objections. "Any changes which the parties want could be discussed at the committee stage of the debate", Peiris said adding that President Gptabaya Rajapaksa had received two clear mandates both in November last year and at the parliamentary election held in August to abolish the 19A.
The 19A Amendment adopted in 2015 by the then reformist government was subject to much criticism by the powerful Rajapaksa clan as it prevented dual citizens from contesting elections. At the time, two of the Rajapaksa family members, including the current president, were dual citizens of the US and Sri Lanka.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to renounce his US citizenship to contest the presidential election in November last. His younger brother and SLPP founder and its National Organiser, Basil Rajapaksa, is a dual citizen of the US and Sri Lanka. There are five from the Rajapaksa family already in the government.
The 20th Amendment will require approval of no less than 150 members in Parliament, which the government has, and the enactment of the bill is a matter of time, although Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is at the ready to oppose it with what he calls “19th plus programme,” which is set to mislead the public for petty political gain.
During the August 5 general election, the SLPP sought two thirds parliamentary mandate or 150 seats in the 225-member assembly to effect constitutional changes, the foremost of them was the move to abolish the 19A. The SLPP and allies won 150 seats and have a two-thirds majority to affect the constitutional change they desire.
While Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the Sri Lankan President in November last year, his eldest brother Mahinda Rajapaksa won the general election and assumed charge as Prime Minister on 9th of August.