The Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (elected in 2019), while addressing the inaugural session of the Parliament, said that Sri Lanka will draft a new constitution and abolish the 19th Amendment that curtailed the powers of the President and strengthened the role of Parliament.
Addressing the inaugural session of Parliament following the August 5 general election on Thursday, President Rajapaksa said: “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.” The new Constitution, he said, would prioritize the concept of “one country, one law for all the people.”
- Sri Lanka’s new Cabinet includes members from the Rajapaksa family.
- The Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) won a landslide victory in the recently held parliamentary elections (August 2020), allowing the influential family to consolidate power for the next five years.
- 19th Amendment:
- It was passed in 2015 during the former President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s term (2015-19).
- It sought not only to clip the President’s executive powers but also to strengthen the independence of key pillars such as the judiciary, public service, and elections.
- It brought back the two-term limit on the Presidency.
- It was hailed by many, including members of civil society, as progressive legislation in contemporary Sri Lankan history, even as its critics found it falling short in some respects.
- However, the Rajapaksa camp viewed its clauses as primarily intended to prevent its leaders’ return to power.
- It prevented dual citizens from contesting elections. At the time, two of the Rajapaksa family members including the current president were dual citizens of the USA and Sri Lanka.
- Its abolishment will strengthen Rajapaksa’s grip on power because the country will return to its previous constitutional status, in which the President could appoint officials for the police, judiciary, and public service and dissolve Parliament anytime after one year.
- New Constitution:
- The President said that the new Constitution would prioritize the concept of “one country, one law for all the people.”
- Sri Lanka’s constitution has been changed 19 times since 1978, creating a lot of uncertainties and confusion.
- Changes will be made to ensure the stability of Parliament and people’s direct representation while retaining the salutary aspects of the proportional representation system.
- Rights activists see the planned changes to the Constitution as an attempt to further empower the SLPP and the Rajpaksha brothers’ mainly Buddhist – Sinhalese speaking electorate.
- The Rajapaksa family, which dominated the government from 2005 to 2015, witnessed the climax of the country’s long civil war (1983-2009).
- The war divided Sri Lanka along ethnic lines – pitting the majority Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated government against Tamil rebels who wanted a separate state.
- The rebels were defeated by government forces in 2009.
Outlining his plans further, President Rajapaksa told Parliament that it was “essential to make changes to the current electoral system” while drafting a new Constitution, retaining elements of the proportional representation system currently followed. On the government’s task of reviving the country’s economy, he called for “out-of-the-box thinking” to overcome local and global challenges.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena assumed charge as Leader of the House, while Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) (United People’s Front), who broke away from the United National Party (UNP), was named Leader of Opposition.
The SJB secured 54 seats in the general election while the presence of the UNP, which led the former government, diminished to 1.