SRI LANKA TODAY
PASSAGE OF THE 21ST AMENDMENT
Dr. Jehan Perera explains the more salient points of this recent amendment
The passage of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was not expected. There were two contentious areas, which members of the government and opposition disagreed on.
First, was the president’s power to dissolve parliament at his discretion after only two and a half years, and the retention of this provision is a clear political triumph for President Ranil Wickremesinghe. The 19th Amendment had limited the president’s power to dissolve parliament by affirming that it could only be done after four and a half years.
However, the 21st Amendment retains this presidential power to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Under usual circumstances, it’s not good democratic practice for parliament to be dissolved so soon after the people have given it a mandate for five years.
Second, was the contentious issue of the right of dual citizens to contest elections, and be elected to parliament and other high political office. The 20th Amendment gave dual citizens the right to contest elections, which the 19th Amendment had specifically taken away in the same way that the 21st Amendment now does.
This will be a blow to the ruling party, as its national organiser and power centre Basil Rajapaksa holds dual citizenship.
The passage of the 21st Amendment by 174 votes with only one dissension can be considered a victory for Wickremesinghe under whose leadership a significant restructuring of the state’s system of checks and balances has taken place with virtual unanimity.
By way of contrast, the ruling party has seen its disintegration into three or more parts. There were only about 30 plus MPs out of a total of 134 in the government who opposed the 21st Amendment and the effective removal of its party’s national organiser from parliament.
The passage of this latest amendment will reduce some of the powers of the president particularly with regard to appointments. He will lose the powers he had under the 20th to pick and choose whomsoever he wanted to be members of the independent commissions and high officers of state.
These officers included the Chief Justice, judges of the Supreme and Appeal Courts, members and chairpersons of the Election Commission, Human Rights Commission and Police Commission, and the IGP. This power will now be transferred to the Constitutional Council, over which the president will have influence but not unilateral power.
It is expected that the members of the Constitutional Council will reflect a genuine balance between the government and the opposition. They need to be selected by the president together with the prime minister and the opposition parties as well. The three civil society members of the Constitutional Council who can best ensure a nonpartisan selection will be appointed jointly by the prime minister and leader of the opposition.
In giving up some of his power in this manner, the president will gain legitimacy as a leader who has forged an unexpected consensus in a parliament that was hitherto bitterly divided.
The fragmentation of the ruling party will also permit the president to play a greater role as a visionary and a strong-willed leader in forging a consensual approach to the serious problems that the country is facing.
These include the economic crisis, and the long-term corruption and mismanagement that has reached epic proportions. The restructuring of the economy is going to be one that will place large burdens upon people at multiple levels and will best be introduced to them through a bipartisan approach.
Sustaining consensual government requires sincerity by a demonstration of consistency in word and deed. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa made this point when he said that the amendments should be brought with good intentions.
There was mutual accommodation in the process of reaching a consensus when the Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe agreed to the Opposition Leader’s request that the three civil society appointees to the Constitutional Council should be selected jointly by the prime minister and opposition leader, and not chosen through a vote in parliament, which would give the government the possibility of appointing all three.
Local government elections fall due in March 2023 and the opposition parties have jointly agreed that these elections must not be postponed as the term of the local government authorities has already been extended by the maximum duration of one year as permitted by the election law. As such every effort needs to be made to get the government to uphold democracy.