Will 21st Amendment see the light of day with SLPP in two minds

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UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe took office as Prime Minister with the agreement that all economic responsibilities in the country should be placed under his control. Wickremesinghe also told the President that if the Finance Ministry portfolio was not taken over by someone who has public faith, he should take that over too.

However, no one was willing to accept the Finance Ministry portfolio and several others offered conditions that could not be met. The Prime Minister did not agree to those conditions as they were not important for the country’s economy. Therefore, Wickremesinghe finally decided to take over the Finance Ministry to continue negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The Prime Minister’s Office received reports that several people had conveyed their objections to the President on learning that Wickremesinghe was preparing to take over as Finance Minister. It was during this time that many stories about the 21st Amendment began to be reported. Owing to this, Wickremesinghe’s phone was busy as many started to call him to inquire about the news.

Harin Fernando also visited the Prime Minister’s Office to inquire about the news.

 “The public are discussing that the SLPP is blocking several progressive provisions in the proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution. Is that true? If so, what are we going to do?” Fernando asked while submitting three proposals to the PM.

The three clauses that Fernando put forward were blocking those who hold dual citizenship from entering Parliament, removing the power of President to remove the Prime Minister and delegating it to Parliament, and appointing heads of institutions on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

Wickremesinghe assured that everything would go smoothly, or he would resign.

The Prime Minister was also very busy last week as he was committed to finding solutions to the country’s economic problems. He set aside time to give interviews to the international media. He also gave an interview to Bloomberg, a world-renowned economic channel.

At the end of the interview, the channel’s representatives told the Prime Minister’s Media Coordinators Dinouk Colombage and Shanuka Karunaratne not to allocate time for the PM’s interviews in the evening, as the PM was visibly tired after carrying out duties entire day.

In the interviews, Wickremesinghe focused on creating an environment for international support to lift the country out of the economic abyss.

In an interview to a renowned Indian channel, the Prime Minister said that although China, Japan and the United States are Sri Lanka’s friends, India is a relative. All the international news channel representatives praised the Prime Minister’s knowledge, after concluding the interviews.

On Tuesday morning, Wickremesinghe met the Agriculture and Food Committee to discuss predicted food shortages. He instructed officials to endorse carrying out an ‘agriculture war’ at village level. Follow up of the said programme was handed over to Minister Mahinda Amaraweera and MP Chamara Sampath. The Prime Minister also instructed Vajira Abeywardena and Palitha Range Bandara to join the programme.

A group from the SLFP also met Wickremesinghe on the same evening. The 21st Amendment to the Constitution as well as allocating State ministerial posts was discussed at this meeting. The Prime Minister informed that no matter what ministry is given, everyone will have to work without salaries and other privileges. At the end of the meeting, the two sides decided to negotiate with the President and reach a final decision on the State ministerial posts that can be allocated to the SLFP.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister had received a number of complaints regarding the Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Eventually, Aruni Wijewardane, a senior Foreign Service official, was appointed to the post.

On Tuesday evening, Wickremesinghe and former Secretary Finance Ministry Dr. Samaratunga engaged in discussions with the heads of the IMF through zoom.

“If we had had this discussion 18 months ago, there would not be an economic crisis in Sri Lanka today.” That is how the Prime Minister started his discussion with the heads of the IMF. The IMF officials also unanimously approved it.

As the Prime Minister has instructed UNP Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene to inquire into medicinal drugs related issues in the country, a discussion was held last week with representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO representative in Sri Lanka, Alaka Singh, was among the delegation.

Afterwards, the Prime Minister and Ruwan Wijewardene also participated in a discussion on health issues. The Prime Minister called for the necessary steps to be taken to address the shortage of medicinal drugs.

Meanwhile, UNP National Organiser Sagala Ratnayake showed a tweet of a journalist about the CBSL inviting tenders for the recruitment of a gym instructor. The Prime Minister immediately instructed that it be stopped. He advised the officials not to go for such things when there is an economic crisis.

Meanwhile, Wijewardene met Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Gopal Bagle last week to discuss the country’s economic crisis. Discussions were held on obtaining medicinal drugs under the Indian credit facility. The High Commissioner said, the drugs should be obtained as soon as possible. The High Commissioner also informed Wijewardene that India is ready to donate medicines in addition to the Indian credit lines.

A group of doctors from the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) also met Wijewardene and pointed out the problems and solutions to the current medicinal drug crisis.

They pointed out that the Prime Minister’s Office should set up a mechanism to receive and distribute medicines and surgical instruments received as donations. They also noted it would have the maximum support of doctors.

Wijewardena promised the doctors that he would discuss with the Prime Minister and work out a plan.

21st Amendment

The much-awaited 21st Amendment to the Constitution, prepared by Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, was presented to the Cabinet on Monday evening, following a meeting of the Constitution Amendment Drafting Committee.

The committee meeting was held on the same day. In a video statement, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said, the Cabinet decided to present the copies of the amendment to party leaders in Parliament for further observations. The amendment was taken up for discussion again this Friday (27) and it will be sent back to Cabinet for final approval after that, the Premier added.

The 21st Amendment mainly focuses on reducing powers of the Executive Presidency and re-establishing independent commissions and the Constitutional Council that were introduced in the 19th Amendment. However, the increase in the number of Judges of the Superior Courts brought in by the 20th Amendment will not be touched.

According to the new amendment, Cabinet, non-Cabinet and State Ministers should be appointed based on the advice of the Prime Minister. A foreign citizen or a dual citizen will be barred from becoming a Parliamentarian once the amendment is passed. The constitutional amendment will apply to the President and Prime Minister from the first day of its implementation.

Amid the crisis in the country, political parties and civil society urged for the reduction in the powers of the Executive Presidency and to give more powers to Parliament. It is also proposed to give a certain amount of powers to the Prime Minister to bring order and strengthen democratic institutions.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), meanwhile, said on Monday (23), that it is concerned that while the 21st Amendment presented to Cabinet by Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe will restore the provisions of the previous 19th Amendment to the Constitution in connection with the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions, there are several vital provisions which were found in the 19th Amendment which are not incorporated into the draft 21st Amendment.

Issuing a statement, the BASL said the provisions of the 19th Amendment precluded the President from assigning to himself any subjects or functions.

However, the 21st Amendment does not incorporate such a provision and as such the President will be able to continue to retain Ministries and assign to himself any subjects and functions and take over subjects and functions of any Minister. The BASL is of the view that the 21st Amendment must include a provision amending Article 44(2) of the Constitution removing the power of the President to retain Ministries and assigning to him any subjects or functions. Such provision must be made operative as soon as the 21st Amendment is passed.

In addition, the BASL observed that the President’s powers to prorogue and dissolve Parliament are left intact, in contrast to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution where the President could dissolve Parliament only after four-and-a-half years following a Parliamentary Election. The BASL is of the view that the provisions in the 19th Amendment relating to dissolution of Parliament should be restored.

On 23 April 2022, the Bar Council approved the proposals of the BASL to restore political and economic stability in the country. In the 13-point proposal, the BASL proposed the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution by repealing the provisions of the 20th Amendment and restoring the 19th Amendment, and the re-establishment of the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions which existed under the 19th Amendment, while enhancing their financial independence, transparency, and accountability.

On the other hand, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna has expressed concerns about the proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has said the SLPP is not in favour of reintroducing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in its previous form.

However, he has stated that the party is agreeable to reducing the powers of the Executive President and handing them over to Parliament.

Therefore, it is still not clear as to whether the SLPP – the party commanding the majority support in Parliament – will support the 21st Amendment.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General has informed the Supreme Court that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution submitted by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya needs to be approved by the people through a referendum.

Additional Solicitor General Indika Demuni de Silva, on behalf of the Attorney General, told the apex Court that the Speaker has also been apprised of the requirement for a referendum for the adoption of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution presented by the SJB.

The Additional Solicitor General made this revelation when the five petitions seeking an Order declaring that the draft 21st and 22nd Amendments to the Constitution presented in Parliament are in contrary to the Constitution. These two amendments were presented in Parliament by Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Parliamentarian Ranjith Maddumabandara as Private Member’s Bills.

These petitions were taken up for consideration before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, Justices Arjuna Obeysekere and Janak de Silva. These petitions were filed by Attorney Nuwan Bellanthudawa on behalf of the Deshapremi Jathika Peramuna, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera on behalf of the Jathika Sanvidana Ekamuthuwa and Colonel
Anil Amarasekera.

More SLFPers to join

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members who accepted ministerial portfolios in the Government will face disciplinary action.

Vice Chairman of the Party, Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa said the SLFP Central Committee will meet to decide on the matter.

He said SLFP MPs Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera were sworn in as Ministers of Ports, Shipping, and Aviation and Agriculture, Forest Resources, and Wildlife, in defiance of the SLFP Central Committee’s decision.

“The Central Committee will meet this week to take a decision on this. What de Silva and Amaraweera did was in violation of the Central Committee’s decision,” he said.

Prof. Piyadasa added that the SLFP Central Committee unanimously decided to support all constructive measures taken by the Government to resolve the country’s economic crisis, without accepting ministerial portfolios.

He added that if any party member disregards this decision, the Central Committee will be forced to take disciplinary action against them.

Meanwhile, the Main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has also said the party will take disciplinary action against Ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara for accepting portfolios in the
newly-appointed Cabinet.

Despite this, Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said several SLFP MPs will take oaths as State Ministers soon. He was of the view that the SLFP will not conduct any disciplinary inquiry against those who joined the Government.

“No disciplinary inquiry has been initiated against SLFP parliamentarians who accepted Ministerial portfolios,” he said. Amaraweera said they will make a statement after other SLFP parliamentarians take oaths as State Ministers.

CBSL before COPE

Stressing that wrong economic decisions made by a few had led the country into an economic abyss and could be considered a criminal act, Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Dr. Charitha Herath recommended appointing a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate the causes of the current economic crisis as well as officials who neglected their responsibilities in this regard.

Dr. Herath made this recommendation when CBSL Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and CBSL officials appeared before the Committee to discuss the Auditor General’s reports and economic progress in the country at the moment.

When COPE queried about the root causes of the economic crisis, the CBSL Governor said that by March / April 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had informed Sri Lanka in writing that Sri Lanka lacked Debt Sustainability. Therefore, the then Secretary to the Ministry of Finance and then CBSL Governor had been informed in writing that existing loans would have to be restructured in order to obtain credit facilities, Dr. Weerasinghe said.

Accordingly, after having relevant technical discussions under the Finance Act, the Monetary Board of CBSL provided relevant recommendations to then Minister of Finance and other senior officials, Dr. Weerasinghe said, adding that relevant decisions are taken by the Cabinet including the Minister of Finance.

MP Dr. Harsha de Silva pointed out that the then Minister of Finance had never addressed Parliament and that Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who was speaking in Parliament on his behalf, had not informed Parliament of this fact.

He also pointed out that Sri Lanka’s debt was stable as of November 2019, according to the IMF report, and that, months after the presidential election, the IMF stated Sri Lanka’s debt was declared unsustainable.

With the intervention of the then Secretary to the President, tax revenue was increased by Rs 600 billion, Dr. de Silva said, querying as to who made this decision when the IMF clearly instructed not to tread that path.

At this juncture, MP Sarath Weerasekara responded, the said decision was taken to encourage entrepreneurs, he said.

The Committee inquired about the prevailing opinion in society about the loss of large sums of money due to the retention of the exchange rate in the recent past.

In response, Dr. Weerasinghe stated that the power to do so rests with the Monetary Board and the then member of the Monetary Board, Dr. Rani Jayamaha noted that she along with former Monetary Board member, Sanjeewa Jayawardena had strongly objected to the effort to keep the exchange rate at bay using Central Bank reserves.

It was revealed that the exchange rates were retained as per the wishes of three monetary board members and was done at the behest of the then Governor of the Central Bank, Prof. W.D. Lakshman, the then Secretary to the Treasury and appointed member, Samantha Kumarasinghe.

COPE emphasised the need to give the Central Bank the power to take decisions, based on accurate technicalities without the influence of outside parties.

The CBSL Governor said that although it was difficult to obtain the required foreign exchange for the next three to four months, he would try to overcome that challenge somehow while pursuing an agreement with the IMF.