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21st Amendment: The Tumultuous Journey of Sri Lanka's Constitution

The 21st Amendment will nullify the unchecked powers of the president, which are a product of the 20th Amendment.

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21st Amendment: The Tumultuous Journey of Sri Lanka's Constitution
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Amid the country's never-ending economic crisis, the Sri Lankan Cabinet on Monday, 20 June, approved the 21st Amendment to the Constitution aimed at empowering the parliament over the executive president.

It will be tabled in the parliament soon for a vote, two senior ministers have said.

"The 21 amendment was tabled and passed in cabinet today and will be tabled in @ParliamentLK soon. Like to thank @RW_UNP and @wijerajapakshe for pushing it through," Minister of Tourism and Lands Harin Fernando tweeted.

It will nullify the unchecked powers of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, which he possesses due to the 20th Amendment.

Sri Lanka has had, since 1978, an executive presidential system, which means that the president's power leads to the sidelining of the parliament and the prime minister.

It was introduced to rapidly push the country through development because of the belief that the prime ministerial system was hampering progress.

The first executive president was Junius Richard Jayewardene from 1978 to 1989.

The powers of the executive president, however, have been revoked twice in the past two decades, only for those legislations to be revoked again both times.

21st Amendment: The Tumultuous Journey of Sri Lanka's Constitution

  1. 1. 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Amendment

    Let us, however, start with the 17th Amendment, which was the first real reduction of powers of the executive president.

    Passed in 2001 by parliament under the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, it restricted the president from appointment judges in the upper judiciary, and also the president's involvement in independent commissions like the Election Commission.

    Similarly, in bodies like the Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission, the president had the power to make appointments but only with the consent of a Constitutional Council that would be independent in political nature.

    Then came the 18th Amendment in 2010, brought in by then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which reverses the progress made by the 17th Amendment.

    Independent commissions were not independent at all as they reported to the president. It also removed the two-term limit for the president.

    The 19th Amendment passed by the government in 2015 under the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, which once again weakened the president's authority.

    Incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was the main sponsor of this amendment.

    Even the UN Human Rights Council praised the 19th Amendment, describing it as a "promotion of democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions."

    It also eliminated the president's ability to fire the prime minister whenever the former wanted, and reintroduced term-limits for the president.

    Then all of that reversed, again.

    The 20th Amendment was adopted by the Sri Lankan parliament on 22 October 2020, and removed the checks on the president's power by dissolving the Constitutional Council, giving the president total control over the appointment of senior judges.

    The president was also given unrestricted control over the Human Rights Commission Election Commission, the Police Commission, and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.

    He could also use his power to pick important legal officers like attorney general, the auditor general, and the inspector general of police.

    Expand
  2. 2. 21st Amendment

    The 21st Amendment, therefore, will be the third time after the 17th and the 19th Amendments that the president's powers will be curtailed.

    The amendment, supported by Wickremesinghe, ensures that the role of Parliament is enhanced in governing the country.

    The president will now be held accountable to the parliament, along with the Cabinet of Ministers and the National Council. Oversight committees will also report to the parliament.

    Any new bill, the amendment adds, must be referred to the Supreme Court for it to ensure its constitutionality.

    Expand
  3. 3. Catalysed by the Economic Crisis

    The move seems to be in response to widespread public outrage over the the country's economic catastrophe under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

    The blame seems to be primarily on the executive presidency and the nepotism that has arisen from it.

    Public pressure forced Gotabaya's brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to recently resign as prime minister due to the government's handling of the economic meltdown, which is of a scale unseen since the country's financial crisis of 1948.

    Prices of essential commodities like rice, milk, and oil have skyrocketed.

    The main cause is the shortage of foreign currency, which has led to a huge reduction in imports of essential items like petroleum, food, paper, sugar, lentils, medicines, and transportation equipment.

    The roots of the shortage lie in the recent failure of the tourism industry, the failure to procure enough FDI, and the government’s refusal to take a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

    Tourism contributes to around 10 percent of Sri Lanka's GDP. It was already suffering after the 2019 blasts in Colombo. COVID-19 made it worse.

    Those sectors that earned foreign currency were devastated, thereby reducing its inflow.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Amendment

Let us, however, start with the 17th Amendment, which was the first real reduction of powers of the executive president.

Passed in 2001 by parliament under the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, it restricted the president from appointment judges in the upper judiciary, and also the president's involvement in independent commissions like the Election Commission.

Similarly, in bodies like the Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission, the president had the power to make appointments but only with the consent of a Constitutional Council that would be independent in political nature.

Then came the 18th Amendment in 2010, brought in by then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which reverses the progress made by the 17th Amendment.

Independent commissions were not independent at all as they reported to the president. It also removed the two-term limit for the president.

The 19th Amendment passed by the government in 2015 under the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, which once again weakened the president's authority.

Incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was the main sponsor of this amendment.

Even the UN Human Rights Council praised the 19th Amendment, describing it as a "promotion of democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions."

It also eliminated the president's ability to fire the prime minister whenever the former wanted, and reintroduced term-limits for the president.

Then all of that reversed, again.

The 20th Amendment was adopted by the Sri Lankan parliament on 22 October 2020, and removed the checks on the president's power by dissolving the Constitutional Council, giving the president total control over the appointment of senior judges.

The president was also given unrestricted control over the Human Rights Commission Election Commission, the Police Commission, and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.

He could also use his power to pick important legal officers like attorney general, the auditor general, and the inspector general of police.

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21st Amendment

The 21st Amendment, therefore, will be the third time after the 17th and the 19th Amendments that the president's powers will be curtailed.

The amendment, supported by Wickremesinghe, ensures that the role of Parliament is enhanced in governing the country.

The president will now be held accountable to the parliament, along with the Cabinet of Ministers and the National Council. Oversight committees will also report to the parliament.

Any new bill, the amendment adds, must be referred to the Supreme Court for it to ensure its constitutionality.

Catalysed by the Economic Crisis

The move seems to be in response to widespread public outrage over the the country's economic catastrophe under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The blame seems to be primarily on the executive presidency and the nepotism that has arisen from it.

Public pressure forced Gotabaya's brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to recently resign as prime minister due to the government's handling of the economic meltdown, which is of a scale unseen since the country's financial crisis of 1948.

Prices of essential commodities like rice, milk, and oil have skyrocketed.

The main cause is the shortage of foreign currency, which has led to a huge reduction in imports of essential items like petroleum, food, paper, sugar, lentils, medicines, and transportation equipment.

The roots of the shortage lie in the recent failure of the tourism industry, the failure to procure enough FDI, and the government’s refusal to take a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Tourism contributes to around 10 percent of Sri Lanka's GDP. It was already suffering after the 2019 blasts in Colombo. COVID-19 made it worse.

Those sectors that earned foreign currency were devastated, thereby reducing its inflow.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Tejas Harad
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