Editorial/Opinion

20A stirs up a hornet’s nest in and outside Government

  • Pro-SLPP national organisations ‘suspicious’ over 20A
  • SC to take up 18 petitions against 20A on Tuesday
  • SJB invites UNP to join common opposition alliance
  • Tissa meets RW and Karu to resolve SJB-UNP crises

The much talked about constitutional amendment – the 20th Amendment to the Constitution – was last week tabled in the House amidst protest by the main Opposition, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).

It was Justice Minister Ali Sabry who presented the 20th Amendment Bill to the House. The Bill was presented without any amendments that were proposed by governing party stakeholders with the agreement that amendments to the piece of legislation would be made during the committee stage in Parliament.

However, the loud shouts of the Opposition legislators drowned Ali Sabry’s voice in the Chamber when the new piece of legislation was presented.

SJB MPs, holding placards saying “apita vissa epa” (we don’t want 20), kept shouting the slogan in chorus while wearing black bands and badges saying “No to 20”.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa claimed that it was a “dark day for the country’s democracy”. He noted that the Bill diminished the powers vested with the legislature.

“We register our opposition to the 20th Amendment. This amendment has provisions that will erode democracy in the country and only strengthen the Executive,” Premadasa claimed.

The Opposition legislators then took to the Well of the Chamber, continuing to chorus the anti-20th Amendment slogan.

Several governing party members gathered near the Justice Minister while several other governing party members also took to the Well of the Chamber. The protesting and the verbal barrage between the Opposition and governing party members lasted for over half an hour.

Despite efforts by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to get the Opposition MPs to return to their seats and recommence the day’s business, the Speaker failed in his efforts while the Serjeant-at-Arms stood by the mace.

As the protest became more intense, several SJB MPs noticed that the cameras inside the Chamber were turned off. SJB MP Kabir Hashim noted that it was unfair on the part of the staff to switch off the cameras.

The SJB legislators then walked up to the Speaker’s chair to express their protest against switching off cameras.

“Switching the cameras off is unfair,” MP Harsha de Silva claimed.

Meanwhile, Minister Wimal Weerawansa raised an objection later and pointed to a precedent that was created by former Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, where he had directed the cameras towards the Speaker and the Chair during disturbances in the Chamber.

However, while the governing party moved the motion to debate several import regulations, the subject of the 20th Amendment continued to dominate the debates during the first few hours.

State Minister Shehan Semasinghe, during his speech, said that there is no room for turning back on the 20th Amendment.

“I have seen how Parliament amended laws and regulations and how democratic the decisions were. The people were given relief after the Covid-19 pandemic. We will not bring amendments that are hostile to this country,” Semasinghe said.

“During the previous Government, we witnessed how no-confidence motions were passed in the House. They did so after suspending the Standing Orders of the House. We do not act in such an undemocratic manner. People have given us a mandate to do away with the 19th Amendment. We act according to that mandate given to us by the people and we don’t need the permission of the Opposition for that,” he noted.

The State Minister said that Opposition protests would not be allowed to disrupt the work of Parliament, which runs on public money. He further stated that the Minister of Finance will introduce a budget that will provide solutions to many problems, taking into account the strength it brings to the economy.

Meanwhile, Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage claimed that, there were several Opposition parliamentarians that were prepared to extend support to the 20th Amendment.

He noted that there are 17 Opposition MPs who are in discussion with the governing party to join the Government.

“We will get 20 MPs from the Opposition who will vote for this Bill and we will get 170 votes in support of the Bill,” he said.

However, Aluthgamage added that the Government has only tabled a draft of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and was prepared to consider any amendments submitted by the Opposition.

“We only tabled a draft of the 20th Amendment and doing so does not mean it has received parliamentary approval. The Opposition can challenge it in the Supreme Court (SC) and will take it up for debate in Parliament only if the SC approves the draft. The Opposition can submit their proposals at the committee stage. We are ready to consider their proposals,” the Minister added.

Aluthgamage continued to repeat the Government’s slogan with regard to constitutional amendments that the people had given a mandate to the Government to abolish the 19th Amendment and as such they could not disregard it.

“The 20th Amendment is not a demon, as the Opposition was trying to show. We will not do anything detrimental to the country during the tenure of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa,” the Minister said.

He further noted that the 19th Amendment was not introduced for the benefit of the people but to take revenge from the Rajapaksas.

Looking at last Tuesday’s parliamentary proceedings, it was evident that the governing party’s parliamentary group was well prepared to address the objections raised.

The day before the 20th Amendment Bill was tabled in Parliament; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa convened a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers on Monday (21) evening. The Cabinet meeting is usually scheduled on Wednesday evenings.

However, last week’s Cabinet meeting was called at 4 p.m. on Monday.

Also, the governing party parliamentary group meeting was held that evening at 6.30 p.m.

The parliamentary group meeting was convened at the Presidential Secretariat and chaired by the President while governing party parliamentary group meetings are usually held with the Prime Minister at the chair in the morning of the first day of parliamentary sessions that week.

The President, it is learnt, had reiterated the importance of getting the 20th Amendment implemented to overcome the confusions and obstacles to administrative work caused by the 19th Amendment.

President Rajapaksa has been resolute in his stance of abolishing the 19th Amendment sans the clauses on the presidential term and frequency of an individual to contest for the office.

Internal protests

While the 20th Amendment Bill was presented to Parliament last week, a group of national organisations that are stakeholders of the Government have once again expressed objections to some of the clauses in the proposed legislation.

The Federation of National Organisations, headed by Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, Attorney-at-Law Kalyananda Thiranagama, and Dr. Wasantha Bandara, held a media briefing to express displeasure at some of the contents of the 20th Amendment and the Government’s failure to address the concerns being raised by the public, including stakeholders of the governing party.

Dr. Amarasekera said the Prime Minister had appointed a nine-member committee to study and propose amendments and when the report was submitted, the recommended amendments were expected to be made, but the piece of legislation was presented to Parliament without any amendments.

“Given the situation, we have lost faith in the process,” he said. Thiranagama said that a report on the negative aspects of the proposed amendment presented to Parliament would be compiled within a week.

“Why wasn’t this discussed at the Cabinet meeting? Why cant’s the Government parliamentarians take this up for discussion? This is a serious problem. As a result of this conduct, there’s suspicion,” Thiranagama said.

He noted that the present situation has given rise to suspicion that there is an attempt to hide or cover up some issue.

“This cannot be done in a discreet manner. Why are they hiding it? Therefore, we wish to tell the Government, the President, and Prime Minister to reveal the recommendations of the committee,” Thiranagama added.

The Federation heavily criticised the inclusion of the clause enabling dual citizens to enter Parliament and engage in governance activities.

“There are foreign intelligence operatives all over. When these people take citizenship in a country, they declare allegiance to that country. What will happen if such a person becomes a minister? Can the secrets of the Cabinet be protected? A US citizen can enter the US Government. This is a dangerous situation,” Thiranagama said.

According to Dr. Bandara, there would not be any crisis if the Government removes the bad aspects in the 20th Amendment and retain the good ones. “A dispute has arisen over the amendment from within the Government because there’s something wrong,” he pointed out.

“If there is a provision stating that the Auditor General cannot conduct an audit on state bodies, all investigations would have to be halted immediately. These are fraudulent activities that have taken place since the Good Governance Government. People can question if people who supported the Good Governance Government are now behind the 20th Amendment in order to sweep aside the issues,” Dr. Bandara said, adding that there was suspicion whether some of the clauses in the new piece of legislation have been introduced with the intention of signing the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact agreement.

It is believed that a sum of Rs. 743 billion, which is circulated among 150 state institutions, would go unaccounted for as auditing of these 150 state institutions will not be allowed as per the proposed piece of legislation.

Dr. Bandara further observed that the people had given a mandate to the Government to present a new constitution and not a constitutional amendment. However, it is evident that there’s growing discussion over the report presented by the nine-member committee that was appointed by the Prime Minister to make recommendations on the 20th Amendment.

The failure to present copies of the report to the governing party members has given further rise to suspicion on the real intentions of introducing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, a senior Government minister said.

Speaking of the report that was submitted by the committee appointed by the Prime Minister to study the 20th Amendment and propose amendments, Minister Weerawansa said the Prime Minister has said that the recommendations of the committee report would be put forward during the committee stage of the 20th Amendment in Parliament.

When the media posed a question to Weerawansa on whether the amendments proposed by him and other likeminded individuals in the Government could be included in the new legislation at committee stage, he responded saying: “It is the Prime Minister of this country who is saying the amendments will be made. He appointed the committee and the recommendations made by this committee will be put forward by him. This is what the Prime Minister has publicly stated.”

SLFP prepares report

Stakeholder of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) last week said it will decide the party’s stance on the 20th Amendment following discussions with party members.

SLFP Spokesperson Weerakumara Dissanayake told a news conference last week that the party will vote for the proposed 20th Amendment.

“While the SLFP takes the positives in the proposed amendment, we will also intervene to further improve it,” Dissanayake said. He explained that the party was keen on looking at bringing the 20th Amendment to a constructive place, rather than debating if the party should vote for it. He added that discussions will take place during these two weeks and different opinions and ideas among party members will be considered.

The SLFP is also studying the proposed amendment and preparing a report to create awareness among party members. When a question was posed to the SLFP Spokesperson about the party’s’ support for the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 2015, which will now be repealed by the proposed 20th Amendment, Dissanayake noted that serious issues arose during the implementation of the 19th Amendment.

“This is why the former President, even during his term, said there was a need for an alternative,” he added.

He noted that the divisions of power created between the President, Prime Minister, and the Speaker was one of the key weaknesses of the 19th Amendment.

“If there is no conflict between those holding these positions, there is no issue with the 19th Amendment. But it cannot go forward if there are such conflicts. The mandate is to create a solution that does not cause such a conflict,” Dissanayake observed.

As for the independent commissions that were set up by the 19th Amendment, which are likely to be weakened and eventually abolished by the new piece of legislation, Dissanayake said it was important to look at solutions to address the weaknesses of the commissions as opposed to arguing if commissions should be abolished.

When asked if the SLFP will vote for the proposed 20th Amendment if it abolishes independent commissions, Dissanayake said there was time to discuss the matter and make a decision.

Petitions add on

As soon as the 20th Amendment was tabled in the House, petitions challenging the new piece of legislation started to mount before the SC. The number of petitions before the SC within 48 hours of the Bill being tabled in Parliament stood at 12.

The Constitution provides for interested parties to invoke the jurisdiction of the SC to determine whether any bill or any of its provisions are inconsistent with the Constitution within seven days of it being tabled in Parliament.

If the bill is not challenged in the SC, it can be taken up for debate after seven days. In the event the legislation is challenged before the SC, the Court has to deliver its determination within 21 days from the date of the petitions.

Parliament cannot take any action on the respective amendment bill during that period. The first petition was filed in the SC by a lawyer challenging the 20th Amendment on Tuesday (22).

The petitioner has stated that a referendum should be called for in order to pass the 20th Amendment.

The petition filed by a lawyer has sought a court decision declaring that the 20th Amendment draft bill, which has been presented in Parliament, requires a public referendum to be passed, as it violates basic rights.

The petition was filed by Attorney-at-Law Indika Gallage through Attorney-at-Law Dharshana Weraduwage while the Attorney General (AG) has been named as a respondent.

The application alleges that the proposed 20th Amendment curtails a number of basic rights and other provisions ensured by the Constitution.

The petitioning party has charged that the contents of the proposed 20th Amendment are severely prejudicial towards the public, such as the removal of the provisions allowing for filing fundamental rights (FR) petitions against the President; curtailing the powers vested with the Election Commission to file legal action against violation of directives issued by the Commission; preventing the Presidential Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s Office, and state institutions from being audited; and removing the restrictions placed preventing a person with dual citizenship from contesting general elections or the presidential election.

The petition has further stated that the proposed amendment has sought to reintroduce provisions allowing the presentation of emergency bills, which had been done away through the 19th Amendment.

It has also stated that the proposed constitutional amendment would abolish the power vested with the Bribery Commission to investigate an incident of bribery or corruption without a prior complaint and that it also removes the qualifications required to be appointed as the Auditor General.

The petitioner has stated that the proposed constitutional amendment violates the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution as well as other paragraphs, and therefore requests the SC to deliver a verdict declaring the draft bill will require a two-thirds majority in Parliament and a public referendum to be passed.

Six petitions were filed challenging the 20th Amendment Bill before the SC as of Wednesday (23), including by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The SJB was the second to file a case in the SC.

“Our lawyers went before the Supreme Court to challenge the 20th Amendment Bill,” SJB General Secretary MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara told The Sunday Morning after filing the petition.

The SJB charged that certain provisions of the 20th Amendment Bill violated fundamental rights as well as sections of the current Constitution.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also went before the SC over the same.

“Our legal team tendered papers to courts objecting to the 20th Amendment Bill,” TNA Leader MP R. Sampanthan told The Sunday Morning.

The TNA alleged that the Bill was contrary to the current Constitution and infringed the fundamental rights and other provisions guaranteed by the Constitution.

Public interest litigation activist and Attorney-at-Law Nagananda Kodituwakku also challenged the 20th Amendment Bill before the SC.

“People are the supreme authority. The Bill takes away the sovereignty of the people. The Constitution speaks of democracy, independent judiciary, and the separation of power doctrine. The Bill is a direct violation of all this.”

Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Executive Director Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and Anil Kariyawasam also challenged the 20th Amendment.

Six more petitions challenging the draft bill of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution were filed with the SC on Thursday (24).

The petitions were filed by former Southern Province Governor and former Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) Executive Director Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon and five other parties, citing the Attorney General as the respondent.

Tennakoon, in his petition, has claimed that certain provisions of the proposed draft bill severely violated the country’s Constitution. Hence, a two-thirds majority of Parliament is not sufficient to pass such provisions, the petitioner has pointed out, while calling for a referendum as well.

Accordingly, Tennakoon has sought a SC verdict mandating a referendum to pass the controversial articles of the proposed draft bill.

Meanwhile, another six petitions were filed before the Supreme Court on Friday (25). Thereby, 18 petitions in total have been filed against the 20th Amendment by Friday.

A special judge bench consisting of SC justices was appointed on Friday to consider the petitions filed against the draft bill of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

The judge bench, chaired by Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, consists of four other SC Justices, namely Buwaneka Aluwihare, Priyantha Jayawardena, Vijith Malalgoda, and Sisira de Abrew. The petitions will be taken up for consideration on Tuesday (29).

SJB-UNP alliance

The SJB last week invited the United National Party (UNP) to join the new alliance that is in the making. The invitation was also extended to the UNP to contest the impending provincial council election as an alliance with the SJB.

The invitation was extended by SJB General Secretary Madduma Bandara at a press conference last week where he had said that the message had been already passed on to the UNP.

“We invite the UNP to join the SJB-led alliance which is in the making. It will also be possible for the two parties to contest the provincial council elections together, if the two parties strike a deal to become partners to an alliance,” Madduma Bandara had said.

“I have already spoken to new UNP Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene as well,” he had further noted.

SJB MP Harshana Rajakaruna, who had also participated in the press conference, had said the ideal scenario would be to hand over the UNP leadership to Opposition Leader Premadasa.

However, a formal discussion between the SJB and UNP had not taken place on the matter of forming an alliance.

Tissa meets RW

Meanwhile, SJB National Organiser Tissa Attanayake had recently met with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

Attanayake had met with Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya separately in an unofficial capacity in order to address the conflict between the SJB and UNP and to look at working on a joint platform.

During the discussion with Wickremesinghe, Attanayake had requested him to look at resolving the clash between the SJB and UNP.

“When Maithripala Sirisena was being proposed as the presidential candidate, I opposed it. I felt a UNP leader should be the presidential candidate. I met with Wickremesinghe on an unofficial capacity. It was a meeting pushed by me on a private level. I also met with Karu Jayasuriya. I discussed resolving the present crisis with them. I asked Ranil Wickremesinghe to reconsider my request. I requested that he takes into consideration the people’s mandate and reach a decision. His response was that he will think about it. However, he is well known to slip through issues. I have worked with him for 35 years,” Attanayake said last week during an interview with a private radio station.