COLOMBO: Sri Lanka is going to roll back the 19th amendment to the constitution, which curtails presidential powers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said while addressing legislators during the inaugural session of the parliament on Thursday. His address follows a landslide electoral victory of the Rajapaksa family-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP).
The SLPP, led by incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, won over 59 percent of the Aug. 5 vote, or 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. The win consolidated the Rajapaksa family’s control on the country’s politics. The party is only seven seats short of having the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution.
“The basis of the success of a democratic state is its constitution. Our constitution, which has been amended 19 times since its inception in 1978, has many ambiguities and uncertainties, presently resulting in confusion. As the people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment, our first task will be to remove the 19th amendment to the constitution. After that, all of us will get together to formulate a new constitution suitable for the country,” Rajapaksa said in his address.
While the 19th amendment, introduced in 2015, strengthened the role of parliament, the SLPP during its electoral campaign has vowed to push for constitutional changes to increase the executive authority of the presidency.
“An unstable parliament that cannot take firm decisions and that succumbs to extremist influences very often is not suitable for a country,” the president said as he also indicated plans to change the country’s electoral system.
“While introducing a new constitution, it is essential to make changes to the current electoral system. While retaining the salutary aspects of the proportional representation system, these changes will be made to ensure the stability of the parliament and people’s direct representation,” Rajapaksa said.
Rights activists see the planned changes to the constitution as an attempt to further empower the SLPP and the Rajapaksa brothers’ mainly Buddhist, Sinhalese-speaking electorate.
“His government will bring in a constitution that will validate not only the Sinhalese language but that will make Sri Lanka essentially a Buddhist state. That means the little progress made on treating minorities fairly in this country will be slashed,” human rights activist Shreen Saroor told Arab News.
According to international lobbyist Muheed Jeeran, the president’s promise “will impress the so-called nationalists,” but he would do better by focusing on his vision of building a prosperous nation rather than “wasting time on majoritarianism.”
Sri Lanka’s economy is currently grappling with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which continues to stall tourism across the island country of 21 million people. Huge foreign debt only adds to the woes. At the end of 2019, the country’s external debt stood at $55.9 billion, which is 67 percent of its gross domestic product.
While right activists have sounded alarm over the planned constitutional changes, parliamentarian and former Minister of National Co-existence Mano Gansesan told Arab News that it is too early to rush to conclusions as it looks like the government will only remove some “incompatible clauses” of the 19th amendment and introduce new ones.