Sri Lanka introduces bill to clip presidential powers

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s government has tabled a bill to curb presidential powers — the first step in reforming a political system widely seen as responsible for bringing the country to bankruptcy.

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe tabled the bill, known as the 21st amendment to the constitution, in parliament on Wednesday morning, parliamentary spokesperson Nimmie Hathiyaldeniya told Arab News.

“The bill will be forwarded now to the Business Council which will schedule the debate for the proposed bill,” she said, referring to the committee responsible for scheduling parliament’s agenda.

The amendment, which was approved by the government last week, will need the support of at least two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s 225 members of parliament to become law. It can be challenged in the country’s top court within a week of being placed in parliament.

If passed into law, it would reinstate democratic reforms made in 2015 under the 19th amendment.

The new bill is essentially a “duplicate of the 19th amendment,” senior lawyer and constitutional expert Y.L.S. Hameed told Arab News.

“The most important change in the 19th amendment was the introduction of the independent commissions,” he said. “They were done away with by the 20th amendment, but in the 21st amendment they are reintroduced – that is a salient feature.”

Under former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan constitution was amended in 2020 to give the president wide-ranging powers, which included making key appointments such as judges and the police chief.

Under the proposed amendment, the president would only be able to make such appointments on the recommendations of independent commissions that would be overseen by a constitutional council.

Another significant part of the amendment is that the appointment and removal of ministers must be done on the advice of the prime minister, Hameed said.

“It’s not just advice, normal advice,” he said. “It in effect means instructions.”

The president would also not be allowed to hold any ministerial positions except for defense.

Sri Lankans have staged massive protests since March to demand democratic reforms that Rajapaksa reversed after he was elected to office in 2019. Protesters blame the Rajapaksa family for alleged mismanagement of the economy and corruption, which led to the economic crisis that saw the island country suffering severe shortages of essentials, such as food, medicines and fuel.

The Rajapaksa political dynasty has been largely dismantled by the protests, which culminated last month with the ousting of Gotabaya, who resigned after fleeing to Singapore.

The South Asian nation is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program after it suspended repayments in April on its $51 billion foreign loans, as the inflation rate surged to a record 60.8 percent in July.