Home Conundrum Of 19th Amendment: Sri Lanka’s Political Tug-Of-War & Its Implications For India

Conundrum Of 19th Amendment: Sri Lanka’s Political Tug-Of-War & Its Implications For India

The historic victory of Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena on 8th January 2015 is attributed not only to his commitment to encompass aspirations of diverse Sri Lanka communities but also to his reformist pledge.  Under the title of ‘100 day action plan’, Sirisena had vowed to reverse the concentration of power in the hands of President, a classic feature of Rajapakse’s second term, which trampled upon independence of democratic institutions. The ongoing clamour in Sri Lankan political parlance revolves around the proposed 19th Amendment, which aims to undo these draconian provisions emanating out of the 18th Amendment. While there is no denying that the present constitution requires amendment, this move has created much ado owing to conflicting views of individuals and political parties on the critical elements of the 19th Amendment. On 10th April 2015, the Sri Lankan government postponed to 21st-22nd April, a debate on Supreme Court approved sections of this amendment that was further postponed to 27th-28th April, 2015 with a vote to be taken on 28th April[i]  Irrespective of the date of passage of this proposed amendment, it has already opened a Pandora’s Box in Sri Lankan political arena.

Complex political equations surrounding 19th Amendment

On 15th March, the two main parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – formed a National Government with the purpose to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass the 19th Amendment abolishing executive Presidency and 20th Amendment which aims at bringing electoral reforms. The SLFP Parliamentary team has proposed to dissolve parliament following these two amendments.[ii]  Since March 15th, Sri Lanka has seen a strange equation or paradox in Parliament, with the SLFP having one foot in the government and the other in the Opposition. These conflict within conflict and divisions within divisions in the SLFP, are being compounded by the emergence of factions supporting former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.  It is in such an unbalanced and uncertain scenario, General Secretary Ranawaka of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a coalition partner of the current government, is threatening to block the 19th Amendment unless the vital clause is amended.

To further add to the complexities, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) has threatened to dissolve the Parliament and call for fresh General Elections if the 19th Amendment is not passed by the latter half of April 2015. Other political parties have criticized this move, as, according to the present constitution, it is the President’s and not PM’s prerogative to dissolve the Parliament, as he continues to hold powers of executive. This has also bolstered JHU’s reservations about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s activism, which may lead to transfer of power from President to Prime Minister than creating a check and balance system. 

Amidst this evolving labyrinth of political equations with some supporting, some opposing, some former supporters opposing, and some of the former staunch opponents supporting, President Sirisena has asked the coalition government partners to put petty party politics aside and work to fulfill the main promise made in the manifesto of the New Democratic Front coalition.

What does this Amendment aim to achieve?

Under the controversial 18th Amendment that was passed by Sri Lankan parliament in September 2010, which was proposed as ‘urgent’ by the Cabinet of Ministers, most of the clauses have a chilling effect on democratic institutions. For instance, it removes term limit for the President as he can seek re-election n number of times; independent commissions are brought under his authority, he is entitled to all the privileges, immunities and powers of a Member of Parliament and has unbridled power of appointing secretaries to the ministries and on dissolution of Parliament.[iii] This tabled 19th Amendment aims to curtail the amplitude of presidential powers in the present Constitution as promised by the current President in his election manifesto. [iv]

The confusions and contradictions

The Bill has some contradictory provisions. For example, while on one hand it says that the President shall be the Head of the Executive and the Government, on the other hand Article 42, Sub Article 3 states that the Prime Minister shall be the Head of Cabinet of Ministers. Both these provisions are incompatible with each other.[v]

This Bill also raises the question about the extent of discretionary powers of President and Prime Minister. Former External Affairs Minister and MP Prof. G.L.Peiris says that, ‘The final draft appears to say that the President is bound by the advice of Prime Minister. If he disagrees, he can raise the matter. But, in the final analysis, he cannot make up his own mind.  There is strong objection to that position. There is also a very strong view that the President must retain the essential power of intervening in situations where the provincial administrations cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. These are some of the extraordinary powers the President has under the 13th Amendment.’[vi]

While there is broad consensus that the absolute power given to President under the present Constitution is unacceptable, what raises concern is the process that is being adopted to enact this Amendment. As per some Constitutional experts, a Constitutional Bill like 19th Amendment cannot be rushed as an Urgent Bill. People of Sri Lanka are being deprived of their fundamental right to study, debate and give their mind to the proposed provisions. Also, the current version of the Bill is accused to be different in its tone and theme as against the original one which was presented by the Prime Minister on a specially convened session of Parliament on 24th of March.[vii]

Parliament had earlier fixed 9th-10th April  for the debate and passage of the Bill giving limited time to the Supreme Court to consider the issues meticulously; the Parliament cannot enact it into law until the Supreme Court determination is received. In the view of some analysts, this is undermining the procedure established by law as it narrows down the difference between an Urgent and a Regular Bill.

According to final draft of this amendment, the Prime Minister will become the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers.  General Secretary Ranawaka of JHU, which is a coalition partner of the current government, has accused  Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of smuggling in this crucial clause as it was not a part of earlier draft Constitutional Amendment approved by the Cabinet in March.[viii]

Finally, the problem is more compounded by the Supreme Court’s determination that some clauses should go through a referendum. The amendment has already been changed several times in a bid to get the backing of parliamentary opposition parties.

Questions arising out of current chaos

While it seems that the Sirisena government has a genuine political will to deliver on what it had pledged, it is equally evident that in an attempt of democratization of polity, some of the democratic practices are willingly or unwillingly being flouted. The haste which is shown for the passage of 19th Amendment is alarming, which may complicate the situation rather than resolving the pending problems.

If an impression gets created that all stake holders were not taken into the confidence while passing the Bill, then this Amendment, whenever it may be passed, will fail to enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of people. This can generate a severe backlash if instigated for vested political interests by political entities, some of whom already perceive the Sirisena government as a Western stooge.

Implications for India

This has exposed the fragile nature of Sirisena’s coalition, which comprises of varied political parties with confronting ideologies. With ruling coalition partners like  JHU filing a petition in Supreme Court against the constitutional changes and accusing Wickremesinghe of seeking to usurp Presidential powers and UNP unilaterally announcing dissolution of parliament if the amendment was not passed , the rift in this ‘rainbow coalition’ is widening with every passing day. It is evident that the minority UNP-led government in Sri Lanka has been thrown into crisis, whose certain actions were castigated and labeled as ‘pro-Indian’ by a few factions of Sinhala hardliners. While there is no doubt in the Indian front that this government has been friendlier with India than the previous regime and is demonstrating political will to resolve long-standing issues on domestic and bilateral front, any further erosion of current coalition may render the present government ineffective. This may derail the real task of nation building after suffering for nearly three decades at the hands of a devastating civil war. Also, this creates a fertile situation for meddling in Lankan politics by external stakeholders, whose stakes can be inimical for Indian and regional security interests.

The present complexities in Sri Lankan political parlance, as an outcome of clamour around 19th amendment can be seen as a ‘blessing in disguise’ for a China that has been worrying on account of its declining presence in this strategically located island nation, which ensures its connectivity to resource rich and market rich Africa and serves as an important block in its ‘string of pearls’. China is likely to leave no stone unturned to deepen the schism between the ruling coalition by hook or crook which may turn into a recipe for political instability in Lanka.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seeking to exploit the government’s growing political crisis and inherent fault-lines to make a come-back. He is vehemently promoted by some opportunist political parties like Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Sinhala chauvinist parties like National Freedom Front, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and Stalinist Communist Party, none of whom have shown any concern for democratic tenets in the past. A pro-Rajapaksa gathering in Nugegoda on 18 February, 2015; which mobilized more than 5 lakh Sri Lankans has already cast the die to create a conducive environment for Rajapaksa’s return. The recent  ‘Sunday Times’ report cites that he is operating from a Colombo-based Buddhist temple and is mobilizing 5000 monks to generate reactionary ‘Sinhala- Buddhist forces’ to back him.[ix] Any action which attempts to ignite ultra-nationalism may cast shadow over ongoing nation building process in Sri Lanka.

India has always been committed to its principled stance of non-interference in internal politics of its neighbours. Those who accuse India of promoting its interests in Sri Lanka should acknowledge that it is implausible for India to influence domestic politics of others when the new leadership at Centre is committed to throw off the yoke of historical baggage of trust deficit.  Any attempt to undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty will defeat the very purpose of enhancing mutual trust and taking bilateral relations to a new level. But it is equally true that it demands tremendous dexterity in diplomatic maneuvering to ensure that without being seen as a hegemon, India remains the facilitator of the inclusive nation building process in Sri Lanka, notwithstanding the changing political dynamics within that country. This is the real litmus test for Indian diplomacy.

The author is Research Intern at Vivekanand International Foundation (VIF). Views expressed are personal.

[i] http://www.colombopage.com/archive_15A/Apr21_1429602422CH.php

[ii] ww.asianmirror.lk/news/item/8259- parliament-to-be-dissolved-following-19th-20th-amendments

[iii] http://idsa.in/idsacomments/18thAmendmentMakingaMockeryof DemocracyinSriLanka_gsultana_071010.html

[iv] http://www.asianmirror.lk/news/item/ 5782-full-text-of-maithripala-sirisena-s-election-manifesto

[v] http://www.dailymirror.lk/68407/ 19a-riddled-with-confusions-complications-and-contradictions

[vi] ibid v

[vii]ibid v

[viii] http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150405/news/jhu-threatens-to-block-19a-143674.html

[ix] http://policythinktankpolicyexchangeuk.blogspot.in/

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Anushree Ghisad

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