Debate on 20th Amendment in three weeks | Sunday Observer

Debate on 20th Amendment in three weeks

6 September, 2020

Hours after the Attorney General Dappula de Livera advised that the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution did not require a people’s referendum for enactment, the draft law, submitted to the Cabinet by Justice Minister Ali Sabry received the go ahead from the Cabinet of Ministers on Wednesday. The following afternoon it was gazetted by the Government Printer.

The Government justified the expeditious move, as it said the President wanted constitutional backing to implement his vision for the country and he did not wish to be weighed down by the technical glitches and the fundamental flaws in the 19th Amendment which dragged the country backwards during the Yahapalana regime.

The Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera advised the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice that the ‘draft Bill will not require a referendum as per Article 83 of the Constitution and the amendment may be enacted with a two-thirds majority in Parliament’.

The draft will be tabled in Parliament within 14 days of the gazette notification (by September 17).

According to the gazetted Bill all but three articles in the 19-A will be repealed if the 20th Amendment comes into force by enactment in the House.

The provisions to be retained are, Article 14A citizen’s right of access to information (RTI), Article 31 (2) which restricts the President’s term to two and Article 30 (2) which defines President’s term of office as five years.

According to constitutional experts, a referendum is required to extend the President’s term of office, but a reduction in term will only need a two-thirds majority in the House.

As expected and declared by the Government that it received the people’s mandate on August 5 to institute a strong government, the latest amendment to the Constitution will reinstate the powers of the Executive some of which were alienated to the office of the Prime Minister and to the Constitutional Council creating two or three power centres within the Government. And if there was discord between these power centres nothing could move forward as far as Government programs are concerned.

Thus among the foremost changes is the revoking of the provision which compelled the President to seek approval from the Prime Minister to appoint the Cabinet of Ministers. Under the 20-A the President may seek the Prime Minister’s opinion, only if he feels it’s necessary. The particular Article reads, “The President shall, from time to time, in consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation to be necessary...”

The provision which prevents the President from dissolving Parliament until the completion of four and a half years has also been repealed so that the time constraint is limited to one year. The President will once again be vested with power to appoint the Chief Justice, Judges to the Supreme Court, President of the Court of Appeal and its judges, the Attorney General, Inspector General of Police, Secretary General of Parliament, The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman), Auditor General and officers to top Government positions.

The 20-A has abolished the Constitutional Council and with it, its power to appoint members to independent commissions.

The independent commissions, namely, the Election Commission, Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, Human Rights Commission, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, Finance Commission, and the Delimitation Commission are to continue under 20-A.

To make appointments to these commissions, the President shall seek the observations of a parliamentary council. The council will comprise the Prime Minister, Speaker of the House, Leader of the Opposition, a nominee of the Prime Minister and a nominee of the Leader of the Opposition who are both MPs. Under the 19-A the Constitutional Council which was headed by the Speaker and which also comprised two members from the Civil Society were empowered to make appointments to top positions in the public sector.

The Government said that the inability to remove the IGP even after he was implicated in the Easter Sunday terror attacks (before the present government came to power) was a major flaw introduced to the Constitution under the 19-A.

With regard to the composition of the Cabinet, the 20-A will remove the limit on the number of Cabinet Ministers which is 30 and the limitation on non Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers which is 40, at present. As per the new Amendment, the President will have the freedom to decide on the number if the particular Article is not replaced during the parliamentary debate. The President can once again exercise power to remove the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet while he has also been empowered to retain or take over any ministerial portfolio. Education Minister Prof.G.L.Peiris termed this as a major paradox in the 19-A, the President was the Chief of the Security Forces but he cannot hold the Ministry of Defence, - he said this flaw in the 19th Amendment required him to be ‘responsible in a subject where he didn’t have authority’.

Under the 20th Amendment the President is empowered to appoint three members to the Election Commission and appoint one of them as Chairman. The minimum age to run for President’s office has been reduced from 35 to 30 and the constitutional blockade to prevent dual citizens from running for Parliament and Presidency has also been removed under the 20-A.

Co-Cabinet Spokesman Udaya Gammanpila explaining the need to accelerate the 20-A said, until a new Constitution is drafted, the Government wanted to clear the path and remove constitutional stumbling-blocks which clearly got in the way of smooth governance.

He said the Justice Minister will table the draft law in Parliament 14 days after the gazette notice. Subsequently, interested parties are allowed to challenge the proposed law in the Supreme Court (SC) and the Speaker will also seek SC determination on whether the new piece of legislation is in keeping with the Constitution.

“Hence, the draft will be debated in Parliament counting three weeks from last Thursday,” Minister Gammanpila said adding that at the ‘second reading stage’ of the debate the members can propose amendments to the 20-A to add good features or remove any undemocratic features therein.

Although the Government holds two-thirds power in Parliament the SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena said they will not sit with the SLPP to steamroll the 20-A in the House. The main Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, headed by the UNP breakaway faction led by Sajith Premadasa has also vowed to fight the Government move to repeal 19-A while National People’s Party led by the JVP as well as the leadership of the TNA and the SLMC (part of SJB) too have been very vocal in expressing similar sentiments.

The UNP whose brainchild was the 19-A has expressed strong opposition to 20-A.

But the party which has been reduced to nearly one seat in Parliament at the last general election will not have a major say in this debate.