Sri Lanka passes controversial amendment giving sweeping powers to president

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves at his supporters as he leaves a polling station after casting his vote during the country’s parliamentary election in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aug. 5, 2020. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 23 October 2020

Sri Lanka passes controversial amendment giving sweeping powers to president

  • Constitutional amendment was among electoral promises of the ruling party led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his prime minister brother
  • The legislation, which concentrates power in the president’s hands, was passed without a referendum

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s parliament has approved a controversial constitutional amendment granting sweeping executive powers to the president, which the government says will ensure stability.

The 20th amendment to the constitution was passed on Thursday evening with 156 lawmakers in the 225-member legislature voting in favor of changes that would concentrate authority in the hands of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the cost of the prime minister and the parliament.

“As per the amendment, Sri Lanka has got a strong and stable executive, which can run the government consistently,” Justice Minister Ali Sabry told Arab News on Friday.
Rajapaksa will now be able to appoint and dismiss ministers and members of what had been independent commissions responsible for elections, public service, human rights and investigating corruption. He can also dissolve parliament two years and six months after a general election.

After 39 petitions were filed with the Supreme Court against the amendment, the judicial body ruled on Tuesday that several sections of the legislation — those that consolidate presidential power — should be changed or would need to be approved through a referendum.

Minister Sabry said that the changes had been made and no referendum was needed.

The constitutional amendment was one of the campaign promises of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by the president and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, ahead of the August elections.

While the ruling SLPP itself did not have the required two-thirds majority to change the constitution, the amendment was passed during Thursday’s sitting as eight parliament members from the opposition voted in favor of it.
Hafiz Nazeer Ahamed, a member of the opposition representing the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, said that he voted for the bill as he felt that a country such as Sri Lanka needed a strong hand to run it successfully.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has proven himself as a good administrator and he successfully combated the pandemic without heavy casualties and limiting the deaths to 14 only in the country, and his services were also appreciated for annihilating terror in the country in 2009 when he was the defense secretary,” he told Arab News.

Other members of the opposition see the passage of the amendment as a development “opposite in direction to the rule of law and democratization,” Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, senior lawyer and parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance, told Arab News.

“It is a damaging piece of legislation to the country,” he said, adding that it was regrettable that the amendment was passed with the help of some opposition members.

Dayan Jayathilake, the country’s former ambassador to Russia, France and the US, said that the new amendment would not benefit the country.

“I am disturbed over centralization of powers in the hands of a single person, which will change his character into dictatorship.”

Defenders of a liberal secularism

Updated 1 min 8 sec ago

Defenders of a liberal secularism


* 65% willing to defend French secularism in their country of origin.

* 62% oppose state restrictions on wearing religious clothing.


Thomas Abgrall LONDON

The opinion poll carried out jointly by Arab News and YouGov provides detailed data on the relationship of French people of Arab origin to secularism in France and reveals a generally benevolent view of the French model.

Indeed, 65 percent of the people questioned affirm that they would defend the French values of secularism in their country of origin. Among the over-45s 80 percent share this opinion. Less than half (46 percent) believe that the French model is not appropriate for Arab countries.

Secularism “the French way” is running up against a wall of incomprehension in the Arab-Muslim world, as strong tensions have demonstrated in recent weeks with some countries calling for a boycott of France.

The French model is mainly based on a triptych set out in the 1905 law on the separation of churches and state: the separation of politics and religion, state neutrality and respect for freedom of conscience. Even though the 1905 law was passed in an anti-clerical context, it is not fundamentally hostile to religion.

The French of Arab origin largely adhere to the 1905 definition of secularism but are reluctant to go beyond it. So 62 percent are opposed to the state restricting the wearing of religious clothing, with the proportion even higher among the younger generation (71 percent). However, responses varied according to the level of income. Of those questioned 34 percent of people with an income below €20,000 ($24,000) per year are in favor of more restrictive laws, compared to 49 percent of people with an income above €40,000.

Since the turn of the century, several laws have been adopted to limit the wearing of religious symbols, such as the 2004 law prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in schools, and the 2010 law prohibiting the wearing of the burqa in public spaces.

“The French Muslims have generally accepted these new laws and respect them, but are worried about new regulations treating Muslims very differently from other believers,” said Haoues Seniguer, lecturer at Sciences Po Lyon University and a researcher at the Triangle laboratory (ENS/CNRS).


  • 65% willing to defend French secularism in their country of origin.
  • 62% oppose state restrictions on wearing religious clothing.

More and more politicians are calling for strong measures in a more radical secularism, in particular to limit the wearing of the veil in public spaces, for example at universities, or when the parents of pupils accompany school trips.

There are two visions of secularism in France. On one hand, there is the liberal legacy of the Third Republic embodied by the French statesman Aristide Briand — who served 11 terms as prime minister and introduced the law of 1905 — for which secularism does not have to interfere with the religiosity of individuals. On the other hand, there is a militant secularism, which considers secularism as a form of individual emancipation with regard to religion.

This second vision of secularism is on the rise today, and it is creating tensions among French Muslims, Seniguer said.

The polarization around the debate on Islam and secularism is not new. “Militant secularism was reinforced at the beginning of the 1990s, in a context of the growing visibility of Muslims in the public spaces and of identity claims, as illustrated by the affair of the scarf of Creil in 1989 (when three Muslim girls were suspended for wearing scarves in school),” Seniguer said.

Moreover, this period has also coincided with that of a globalized Islam and the advance of Islamists in several countries, such as the FIS in Algeria, which has sometimes manifested itself in violence.

The new law against separatism or “consolidating secularism and republican principles,” which has been toughened since the assassination of Samuel Paty, the teacher murdered in a Paris suburb in October, will be on the table of the Council of Ministers on December 9. Enough to further fuel lively new debates on the future of French secularism.