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20A in parliament on Tuesday with no amendments

  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gives the go ahead
  • Committee recommendations on changes to be dropped
  • Constitutional clause barring dual citizens contesting elections to be dropped as envisaged
  • Provisions to allow Urgent Bills in Parliament to be dropped

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to move in Parliament the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, already gazetted, without any amendments.

He feels that a new draft constitution, now in the making, could incorporate any changes or additions. He also wants to invite all concerned, including opposition parties and civil society groups, to have their say when the draft is ready. “We will take the good and leave out the bad clauses,” a government source said yesterday. The intended deletions are to be done during the Committee stage.

This has paved the way for 20A to be introduced in Parliament on Tuesday (September 22). Opposition political parties, civil society groups and even individuals are set to go to the Supreme Court to challenge the validity of some provisions. They will have to do so within one week from Tuesday. The SC, in turn, will have to make known its findings within three weeks. Thereafter, President Rajapaksa expects 20A to come before Parliament next month and become a part of the country’s Constitution. This is ahead of the first budget of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna  (SLPP)-led alliance in November.

The most significant political outcome for the ruling alliance making the 20A draft a part of the Constitution is the withdrawal of a clause that debarred dual citizens from contesting elections. Some were campaigning for the withdrawal of this provision. The idea behind the move by sections to retain the provision was to shut out Basil Rajapaksa, the pioneer of the SLPP and the main strategist for the birth and success of the SLPP-led Sri Lanka Podujana Nidahas Sandanaya  (SLNPS) both at the last presidential and parliamentary elections.

Those in favour of dropping the clause argue that in granting dual citizenship, the government cannot be selective in deciding what rights they enjoy. If they are given all other privileges and perks as citizens, they argue, the same should be extended to dual citizens. Hence, there is an inequality in it, they claim.

This exercise to retain the debarring clause was matched by a fake news campaign which declared there would be no change in the existing number of cabinet ministers — a move that suggested Basil Rajapaksa will not be accommodated. This has turned out to be false and he will indeed join the Cabinet of Ministers to handle economy-related matters as he has done in the past. Even now, he is functioning as the head of a Presidential Task Force on Economic Recovery. Other additions are also in the pipeline. The 20th Amendment does not place a restriction on the number of ministers the President could appoint to the cabinet.

If 19A sought to reduce the powers of the President and vest it in the Prime Minister, there will be no change. The 19th Amendment required the President to consult the Prime Minister in naming Cabinet ministers. However, 20A does not refer to any such consultation. Similarly, under 19A, the President was not empowered to sack the Prime Minister; under 20A, a new addition enables him to do so. Premier Rajapaksa, who is sharp and politically astute, has gracefully accepted the position.

As he took his seat at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers last Wednesday morning at the Presidential Secretariat, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who chaired it, made a statement. He said that in his pledge to the people during the presidential election campaign, he had vowed to bring constitutional changes. Without such changes, it was difficult to run a country. He said 19A was the handiwork of some NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations). He, however, failed to mention that these NGOs were egged on by their financiers, some western embassies. Such embassies also miscalculated the outcome of last year’s presidential and this year’s parliamentary elections by believing SLPP would not win. That too after doling out funds for different groups, even one by young journalists, to “monitor elections.”

Whether journalists, young or old, should play that role remains an important ethical question. It does compromise their professional work and dilute their objectivity. Yet, none was able to come up with any serious irregularities raising questions over whether foreign observers were really necessary in the elections to come. In return for government hospitality, they would hand in a report and leave. A much better job was done by the Election Commission and the Police in ensuring there were no irregularities or large-scale violence.

President Rajapaksa told the ministers that there were some 19A provisions that were good. They have been included in 20A. As for the others, there was an opportunity for anyone, once the draft new Constitution is available, to seek amendments or changes. If you want to keep 19A, you can keep it, he noted in a tone that reflected his displeasure. Another factor to be emphasised, he declared, was the fact that 20A was not meant for Basil Rajapaksa. It was his own decision. He then allowed the ministers to air their views.

Four Ministers – Prasanna Ranatunga, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, S.M. Chandrasena and Pavithra Wanniaratchchi – expressed their strong opposition to the re-introduction of the clause that barred dual citizens from contesting elections. There was a heated exchange, at one point, between Prasanna Ranatunga and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. This is when Nanayakkara asked, “Are we talking of 20A or Basil Rajapaksa?” Ranatunga shot back “You referred to Basil Rajapaksa at the last meeting. Not us.” That prompted Nanayakkara to backtrack. He admitted and said he was now apologiaing for that. Ranatunga also alleged that some want to become popular with their remarks.

This was reported in these columns last week: “At a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers two weeks ago, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara struck a discordant note. He said that Basil Rajapaksa was an efficient person, but it was his opinion that the constitution should not be changed to accommodate dual citizens to contest elections. He came under a barrage of criticism. Minister S.M. Chandrasena said the SLPP would never have won the parliamentary election without Basil Rajapaksa’s strategies. It is he who had formed a party and taken pains to build grassroots level branches countrywide. Minister Pavithra Wanniaratchchi and Prasanna Ranatunga joined Chandrasena in protest, prompting Nanayakkara to turn to Premier Rajapaksa in exasperation. He politely pointed out it was Nanayakkara who had mentioned the name Basil thus triggering the exchange of words. It meant that Nanayakkara could have raised issues without naming anyone….”

Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who was one of three ministers insisting on the retention of the clause barring dual citizens from contesting, responded to criticism that he had supported 19A in Parliament. The other two are Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila. Though his party decided to vote for 19A he said, he had spoken against it in Parliament. He had said that pruning down President’s powers would create power centres. He was also opposed to the Cabinet of Ministers being restricted to 30. He said 6.9 million voters had elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President. Therefore, we would have to recognise this position even if our hands are tied. That meant he would go along with the new thinking that has emerged.

Minister Udaya Gammanpila, at this point, interrupted to point out that the National Audit Commission should be retained with all its powers. He said there had been huge corruption in some state concerns like the SriLankan Airlines. He referred to the Airbus deal where a former CEO had allegedly benefited to the tune of millions of US dollars in the purchase of Airbus aircraft. President Rajapaksa pointed out that such persons should be taken to courts. (In fact, court action is pending in this particular case).

When Weerawansa continued thereafter, he become locked in an argument with colleague Pavithra Wanniaratchchi. She had remarked that Weerawansa had supported 19A — a position which the Industries Minister denied. He also denied that he (Weerawansa) had a meeting over 19A with former President Maithripala Sirisena. This was at the time it was being formulated.

At this stage, President Rajapaksa intervened and said they should now get on with the agenda. When the list was over and the last item was “Any other business,” the discussion on 20A resumed. At this stage, Minister Wanniaratchchi said they would have to await the Cabinet Memorandum incorporating the changes to 20A. These changes, it was then expected, would be moved during the Committee Stage of the debate. It was pointed out that these were now being knocked into shape by the Legal Draftsman.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the trouble shooter for the government, declared such amendments were not necessary — a view endorsed immediately thereafter by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He said there was no need for it. There ended the matter.

The Sunday Times learnt that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa had a lengthy meeting days ahead of Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. Details of what they discussed remain a secret though one source said, “perceived apprehensions were cleared and issues in doubt were clarified.” The source added “they talked on taking forward the development policies under President Rajapaksa’s leadership and to take measures to resuscitate the economy.”

Several ministers remained silent during the cabinet meeting and did not express any views. They included Dullas Alahapperuma, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Janaka Bandara Tennekoon and Bandula Gunawardena. SLFP Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told media outlets that the 20A draft (meaning changes) was not submitted to the Cabinet. Amaraweera is well known for wanting to have his name in print or broadcast over air made a misleading statement. There indeed was a formal, official discussion on 20A and the decision was to go ahead without amendments. Another fact – Amaraweera is not an official spokesperson of the Cabinet and has no role in speaking for it. It did create confusion. Only he would know why he chose to speak on behalf of the cabinet. More so when it drew a flat denial from cabinet spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella as pointed out below.

PM’s committee observations

The 20th Amendment became the subject of too much speculation. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a committee last week to examine 20A that has already been gazetted. Details in this regard were reported in these columns last week. Hard on the heels of that came an official announcement from the Premier’s Office. It said: “Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a committee consisted with (sic) parliamentary representatives to study the 20th Amendment to the constitution.

“The Committee consisted with (sic) Cabinet Ministers, State Ministers and Parliamentary Members is chaired by Cabinet Minister, Prof G.L Peiris.

The committee members are Prof G.L Peiris, Udaya Prabath Gammanpila,  Mohamed Ali Sabry, Nimal Sripala de Silva, Wimal Weerawansa, State Minister Susil Premajayantha, State Minister S Viyalanderan, MP Dilan Perera and MP Ramanath C Dolawatta. The committee will submit the Committee report to the Prime Minister on September 15.”

The Committee chaired by Prof. Peiris had its meeting last Monday evening. One of the main issues was the removal of the existing constitutional clause barring dual citizens from contesting elections. Moving strongly in favour of retaining it were Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila. However, State Minister Susil Premjayantha, Dilan Perera (MP) and Justice Minister Ali Sabry were in favour of removing the clause. The Peiris’ report noted that there was disagreement and presented both positions.  Another similar situation arose with regard to reduction of the time limit from 14 days to seven days when Urgent Bills (now debarred) are allowed to be presented in Parliament. Both Weerawansa and Gammanpila urged that the National Audit Commission should function as an independent body. There were no objections raised and it was decided to retain the existing clause in the constitution over separatism when MPs are sworn-in.

The Committee members met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees last Wednesday morning. During the discussion, the Premier proposed a compromise over the dual citizenship clause that prevents holders from contesting elections. He said it could be confined only to the presidential election. It was agreed that the amendment would be made to the provision to allow dual citizens to contest all other elections. It was also agreed that the clause permitting the introduction of Urgent Bills in Parliament would be deleted at the Committee stage.

Justice Minister Sabry was to table a memorandum incorporating the changes. Questions over the response to the Supreme Court were to be met by the state explaining the provisions that were to be made during the Committee stage. He said the amendments were now with the Legal Draftsman. However, on Wednesday the cabinet had decided that 20A, now Gazetted, should be presented in Parliament and no amendments introduced. Such changes, the President has held, should come when a new draft constitution is introduced.

For the two cabinet spokespersons — Keheliya Rambukwella and Dr Ramesh Pathirana — briefing the media on the knotty events and 20A itself became an awkward task. The third co-spokesperson Udaya Gammanpila, who was a member of the G.L. Peiris Committee, was conspicuous by his absence. This is how the duo handled it:

Rambukwella: The 20th Amendment Gazette is out now. In addition, we are expecting a report from a Committee appointed by the Prime Minister. The amendment has been in the gazette for two weeks and will now be placed on the Order Paper of Parliament. Thereafter any person is entitled to go to the Supreme Court to challenge any clause on the basis it is not consistent with the Constitution. There have been different opinions about the proposed amendments. Views could be also expressed during the Committee stage in Parliament. Therefore, maximum transparency is being maintained regarding the 20th Amendment.

Q: Usually when a gazette notification issued by a cabinet minister, he is fully aware of the content. But in this case the Justice Minister says he is not fully aware of the contents of the gazette.  Can a gazette be issued in that manner?

A: This is about the responsibility. The responsibility is being taken by the President.

Q: We were told that a Committee prepared a report. But the Committee did not submit its report and therefore no discussion took place on the subject.  All went silent on it.

A:  That is not correct. They were not silent on it. About 50 per cent of the time of the cabinet meeting was on this subject.

Q: Was the Committee report discussed. Can you give a brief introduction?

A: When the Committee report is out, we will have further discussions.

Q: The 19th Amendment was approved in Parliament. But why is it that something which was approved in cabinet is being debated by the same ministers?

A: As you know the Prime Minister has appointed a Committee. There can be political issues. If there are amendments, we can consider them. We want to act in a genuine manner.

Q: Didn’t the cabinet discuss it earlier and reach a final decision?

A: The general framework was discussed, and agreement reached.  But in a democratic manner further discussion can be held.

Q: Will the proposed amendment be held back?

A: No that will not be held back.

Q: Isn’t the version being changed?

A: Who said so?

Q: According to your own version changes will be made.

A: Yes, further discussions will be held.

Minister Ramesh Pathirana:  We have not reversed the proposed amendment. We are only in the process of collecting more ideas and at the Committee stage the changes can be made.

Q: Our question is why wasn’t this discussed earlier?

A: We gave an opportunity to discuss

Q: But isn’t all these issues because there is a difference and there are questions?

A: There has been an opinion that more discussions should be held. That was the reason the Prime Minister appointed a Committee. You are speaking that we deviated from the normal tradition. This is something the people gave us a mandate for. We have not taken a tough stance like a dictatorship. We have given an opportunity for changes.

Q: Who made the 20th Amendment?

A: It was made by the President with the collective responsibility from the Cabinet of ministers.

Q: At least who are the lawyers who drafted it?

A: Why, we have given out the names?

Q: Those names were given for those involved in drafting the new constitution. Who are the lawyers who drafted the 20th Amendment?

A: It is the Legal Draftsman who did it with the approval of the President and the consensus of the Cabinet.

Q: Some ministers say they do not know who drafted it?

A: The Legal Draftsman drafted it.

Q: When will this be presented to Parliament?

A:  A decision will be taken at the party leader’s meeting

Q: Will this be taken in Parliament next week?

A:  Yes, it may be possible

Q: When the 19th Amendment was introduced, we were told that the powers are being reduced, but by the 20th Amendment the powers are being given to one person again?

A: While bringing a new constitution we are trying to introduce the 20th Amendment to address the urgent issues. During the elections this was explained to the people

Q: The new constitution may take two years. But what about the good features in the 19th Amendment?

A: The President’s term was one issue raised in 2015. That has been preserved. The Right to Information is another feature retained. Therefore, the features needed have been included. The people gave us a two-thirds majority to make the necessary changes to the Constitution. We will be betraying the public if we do not make the necessary changes.

Q: Will you assure that the Independent Commissions will not be affected by the 20th Amendment?

A: We have given that guarantee. We want to go for a better system.

The sequence of events over 20A underscores a worrisome factor. That it was introduced without adequate study was illustrated by one fact. Expressions of concerns by those within the Government over some of the provisions became an issue. So much so, Premier Rajapaksa had to name a Committee to study the provisions and report to him is another. It would be wiser if the proposed changes over independent commissions are insulated with a fool proof mechanism to ensure that they function better and do not become political toys.

This is particularly in respect of the Police Commission. In the Police, the state of affairs has become unprecedentedly politicised. It has come to a point where gazetted officers in charge of divisions are openly defying their superiors –something that never happened before. That discipline has deteriorated so low should be cause for concern for acting IGP Chandana Wickremeratne.

If the Government was pre-occupied with 20A, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) is preparing to challenge 20A in the Supreme Court. The party is in consultation with its lawyers. Its onetime parent party, the United National Party (UNP), held its Working Committee meeting this week. It is still preoccupied with organisational matters.

Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe ticked off three members — Navin Dissanayake, Anoma Gamage and Lakshman Wijemanne — for urging that the leadership issue be resolved by him resigning. It is the trio who demanded a secret ballot instead of the party leader choosing a member. Their request was heeded. Ruwan Wijewardene was elected deputy leader. He won 28 votes while his rival (Assistant Leader) Ravi Karunanayake polled only ten.

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said the Working Committee meeting was arranged specifically to elect a deputy leader. “Very soon, the party will have a new set of office bearers and undergo other changes,” he revealed.

Ruwan Wijewardene, who takes over the deputy leadership — once held by Sajith Premadasa — has many a challenge to face. He is already trying to re-unite the party by persuading Sajith Premadasa and his SJB to return. Other formidable challenges for him will include the re-organisation of the grassroots level branches of the party and raise the number of its youth members. For this, there is no doubt, he will need a robust team to re-establish communication channels from even the smallest branch to the biggest with Srikotha.

It is an especially important year for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. One of the most praiseworthy achievements for him is his adept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The poison pen campaign by groups abroad together failed in their efforts to pooh-pooh the drive against Covid-19. The anonymous material was circulated among Colombo-based diplomatic missions and opposition political parties. In many countries those afflicted are on the rise when Sri Lanka has kept it to below 3,500 cases despite serious economic constraints.

The President now wants to go ahead with 20A in its present form. No doubt, it has generated some controversy. Some provisions do require a second look, particularly in the light of their international implications. However, with stronger powers, President Rajapaksa is determined to push ahead.

Source  Sunday Times

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