Amendments to 20A at Committee stage | Sunday Observer
Govt and clergy say no in its present form

Amendments to 20A at Committee stage

18 October, 2020

The Supreme Court (SC) ruling on the petitions against the proposed 20th Amendment will be announced in Parliament by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on Tuesday, October 20.

Yet, the media, citing an allegedly leaked document last week reported that the five-member bench headed by Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, which heard the petitions, has ruled that the Bill can be passed in Parliament with a two-thirds majority, provided the government introduced amendments to four Articles in the proposed Bill at the Committee Stage. These reports claimed the questionable Articles that were inconsistent with the Constitution were Article 3, 5, 14 and 22.

Article 3 refers to the powers and functions of the President, Article 5 refers to Immunity for the President from lawsuits, Article 14 refers to summoning, prorogation and dissolution of parliament and Article 22 refers to offences spelt out under Election Commission directions.

Amendments during debate

The Government, through the Attorney General, conveyed to the SC at the outset of the hearing of the petitions that it planned to introduce amendments to correct the said inconsistencies in the draft Bill at the third reading of the Parliamentary debate. The amendments to the Bill were filed in a motion during the SC hearing and also referred to the petitioner’s lawyers at the behest of the Bench.

After the 20th amendment was tabled in Parliament, a record 39 petitions, many opposing and some supporting the amendment were filed in the Supreme Court. The bench which heard the petitions included Justices Buwaneka Aluwihare, Sisira de Abrew, Priyantha Jayawardena and Vijith Malalgoda. The hearing of the petitions began on September 29 and concluded on October 5.

Despite the undertaking by the Government to introduce amendments to remove questionable clauses, several organisations, individuals and religious entities continued to express concern over the proposed law.

Among them is the Yuthukama organisation which made a significant contribution at the November 2019 Presidential election and the subsequent General Election where the SLPP-led government coalition received a landslide and a near two-thirds majority which was considered impossible under the present system of election.

The organisation has written to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa seeking to revise seven clauses in the proposed 20th Amendment. The organisation underscored that their action strove to uphold justice to the massive people’s mandate received by the Government in August this year.

Seven proposals

It has pointed out that the following democratic features should be included in the proposed 20th Amendment Bill that is currently before Parliament.

The seven proposals are:

  •  Limiting the number of Cabinet Ministers to 30 and non-cabinet ministers to 40.
  •  Removal of the Article permitting emergency Bills in parliament - it will limit the right of the people to go to courts against undemocratic laws.
  •  Removal of the Article which allows State Ministers, in addition to Cabinet Ministers to hold office after a dissolution (in an election phase).
  •  Appointments to high posts and Independent Commissions to be made by the President on the recommendation of Parliament.
  •  President to consult the Prime Minister in appointing the Cabinet of Ministers.
  •  Have regulations to prevent non-citizens and dual citizens from running for Presidency or Parliament.
  •  The institutions of which the State or local government bodies hold more than 50% shares to be subject to Government audit.

The Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas and the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have also raised concerns about the 20th Amendment being implemented in its original form.

Holding a press conference, the top representatives of the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas on Monday said the proposed amendment “undermines the system of checks and balances that maintains equilibrium between the executive, legislature, and the judiciary”.

The two Sects echoed the concerns expressed earlier by the Malwathu and Asgiriya Chapters and endorsed that a new Constitution that upholds the rule of law and democracy should be the national priority today.

However, the chief prelates of the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas stated later that they were not consulted before the decree to oppose the 20A was made by the Sangha Sabha.

Unwise gesture

SLPP MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who defected to the Government from the UNP due to the former’s non-friendly people policies and extended allegiance to the President during the last election was the latest to join in the chorus opposing the 20A.

In a letter to the President, he wrote, “When the country was struggling to overcome post-covid-19 economic woes and other serious challenges aggravated by the global pandemic it was an unwise gesture to create a Constitutional crisis and political upheaval in the country.

Refuting the allegation that the 19th Amendment was a fearsome ‘boogeyman’ all over, he has pointed out the removal of IGP and the Attorney General is neither governed by the 19A, nor the appointment of a Cabinet Sub-committee on economy where Ranil Wickremasinghe was accused of having an arbitrary kitchen cabinet with his own team.

He has presented ten points to argue his case why the 20th Amendment is detrimental to a democratic governance.

Listing these out he said, certain duties and responsibilities thrust upon the President under the Constitution, including being responsible for free and fair elections, and being accountable to parliament has been removed by the 20A.

He said it has also removed people’s right to challenge an action or a lapse on the part of the President via a fundamental rights petition.

The former UNF MP has also stressed that the removal of the Audit Commission and procurement commission, two organs of the government which are important to curtail bribery and corruption in the State sector as another flaw.

Among the other issues are the removal of limits on the number of members to the Cabinet and other ministerial positions, powers to dissolve parliament one year after an election, re-enactment of provisions to present emergency bills, permitting dual citizens to run for executive and legislature, exempting the President’s office and Prime Minister’s office from the purview of the Auditor General, removal of certain powers from the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption and removal of the constitutional pledge “the country will not be divided” are serious concerns.

The parliamentary debate on the 20th Amendment is expected to begin next week.