Sri Lanka parliament votes to expand President’s powers

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s parliament has voted with more than a two thirds majority to expand the powers of the President and terminate an institution that approved the appointment of judges, the police chief amid warnings that the sovereignty of the people and rule of law had been given a blow.

The 225 member assembly voted 156 for and 56 against to pass changes which also allowed dual citizens to become legislators.

Among those who vote in favour was Diana Gamage, the secretary of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya.

The 20th amendment to the constitution overturned a 19th amendment that sought to limit presidential powers, establish the independence of the judiciary and the public service by approving the appointment of judges and senior officials including the police chief.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry said the changes would allow President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make decisions and bring prosperity to the nation.

“The constitutional change will strengthen the executive, ensure national security and bring prosperity and joy (sukither mudither) to the nation,” Sabry said told parliament.

Ruling party legislators said the earlier 19th amendment had led to conflicts with former President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe which had paralyzed the administration had led to a suicide attack by Islamist extremists and economic decline.

Opposition legislators and freedom advocates said the 20th amendment to the Sri Lanka’s constitution will undermine the rule of law and strengthen the executive at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary.

Opposition legislator Lakshman Kiriella said his party opposed the changes as it made the parliament a rubber stamp.

The change ended an independent constitutional council which approved senior appointment including judges, the police chief and elections commissioners and replaced it with a parliamentary council which could give its views.

Opposition legislators also opposed that bringing back the procedure of ’emergency laws’ with limited judicial review limited wider debate and the room for the people to oppose legislation.

Opposition legislator Eran Wickremeratne warned that undermining the independence of the judiciary and rule of law would discourage investors and hurt the economy as an earlier expropriation law had done.

“Investors want to know that their rights are assured and there is protection,” he told parliament.

“Undermining rule of law would discourage investment.”

He warned that Sri Lanka had no process for post-enactment judicial review of law.

Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court heard over three dozen petitions against the amendment and gave its approval with changes to four clauses.

Opposition legislators protested the including of several provisions that had not been included in the original bill or had not been submitted to the Supreme Court such as the expansion of the number of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges.

Seasoned political analysts said the problem went far deeper and was simply a new step that in a long decline that had been happening from shortly after independence.

“The people are the real owners of sovereignty both in terms of the classical liberal opinion and the domestic and international law,” Victor Ivan, a former newspaper editor who had agitated against the excessive presidential powers and the undermining of the judiciary said.

“In other words, the state power lies with the society and the rulers elected by the people are subject to the will and the control of the people.

“In this context, the 20th Amendment can be considered a constitutional adjustment that undermines and lets down the sovereignty of the people.”

He said Sri Lanka had denied citizenship to Indian plantations workers in 1948 and 1949, the official language action had deprived Tamil people reasonable use of their language and in 1972 the independence of the civil service had ended.

Opposition legislators blamed the 19th amendment for the economic downturn in recent years.

Other analysts however has pointed out that largely socialist policies involving price controls, an ‘ill-gotten gains’ tax that amounted to expropriation, a 100 day program that undermined the budget as well as increasing reliance on price controls.

The entire program was based on monetary instability involving currency depreciation and liquidity injections which led to two currency crises and the collapse of the rupee from 131 to 150 to the dollar in the first crisis and 151 to 182 in the second which led to output shocks and expansion of the debt as revenues collapsed and the foreign debt expanded.

Critics had blamed central bank independence which allowed the monetary authority to inject liquidity especially in 2018 amid tax hikes and energy price reform which had reduced the deficit, showing that no fiscal correction can solve debt problems or boost growth in the face of monetary instability.

In 2019 taxes were further cut in the face of the output shock coming from the 2018 currency crisis in a bid to boost economic activity.

Monetary instability had been a problem since 1951 when a soft-pegged exchange rate regime involving money printing had been set up leading to foreign exchange and import controls. (Colombo/Oct23/2020)

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