On Friday, 21 October, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the 22nd amendment bill to the constitution curbing the powers of the president. The bill, gazetted as the 22nd amendment, will become the 21st amendment to the constitution after enactment. With 179 legislators in the 225-member assembly voting in favor and one against, the bill was passed by a two-third majority after two days of debate. The bill aims to curtail the president’s powers by replacing the controversial 20th amendment (20A) introduced in October 2020 under former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The draft bill of the 22nd amendment was the second version of an earlier notification gazetted by the SLPP-UNP government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Abolition of the system of executive presidency was one of the key demands of the four-month-long anti-government protests that rocked Sri Lanka this year amid a catastrophic economic crisis that forced Rajapaksa to step down.
Return of Constitutional Council
A key feature of the 22nd amendment bill is to bring back the Constitutional Council with a change in its composition. Introduced by the 17th amendment with the aim to depoliticize public services, the Constitutional Council is a 10-member constitutional authority tasked with maintaining independent commissions and monitoring their affairs.
The 22nd amendment proposes a new composition of the Constitutional Council, whose members will now not be selected by the prime minister and the opposition leader alone. In a press briefing held on August 10, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe announced that under the new proposal, “one member will be appointed by and of the ruling party, one by and of the main opposition, and one member from the majority appointment from and of the other parties.” Furthermore, he added, “The three civilian members of the Constitutional Council will be appointed by the Speaker with the approval of parliament without intervention by the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader.”
The Constitutional Council will also advise the president on the appointment of the Central Bank governor.
Rajapakshe said that the 22nd amendment, while being based on the 19th amendment, will “transcend the latter’s democratic features while also retaining the more progressive aspects of the 20th amendment,” reported Economy Next. The 19th amendment, which had significantly diluted the powers of the executive presidency, was introduced in 2015 by Wickremesinghe when he was the prime minister.
Other provisions of the new amendment seek to strengthen anti-corruption policies and restrict the president’s ministerial portfolios.
Critics say “merely cosmetic”
Although some politicians have hailed the enactment of the 22nd amendment into law as a “victory” for democratic values , there are many who criticize it for falling short of any real progressive change in the political system.
I voted in @ParliamentLK for the 22nd amendment to the #SriLanka constitution even though it falls far short of the 21st @sjbsrilanka proposed and much less than the 19th Pres @RW_UNP promised. Let’s see how many of the @PodujanaParty will support. pic.twitter.com/jDeOBBI3O0
— Harsha de Silva (@HarshadeSilvaMP) October 21, 2022
Taking to Twitter, opposition MP from Samagi Jana Balwegaya (SJB), Harsha de Silva, said that he voted in favor of the bill “even though it falls short of the 21st (amendment) proposed by SJB and 19th (amendment) promised by Ranil Wickremesinghe.”
The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a Colombo-based public policy and advocacy think-tank, released a statement on August 18 noting the shortcomings of the new law. It stated, “the Bill has drawn from the weakest aspects of the Nineteenth Amendment and Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution. If enacted it would set up a system of government which would not address the concerns of citizens, for a more accountable and transparent government and in the long run could further undermine democratic institutions and the citizens’ faith in these institutions.”
The editorial of national business daily DailyFT read, “The latest amendment to the Constitution is merely cosmetic as it does not make any substantive changes to the President’s powers. The centralization of power around a single individual holding office of the presidency still continues.”
Fresh protests by workers and students
Since coming to power, the Wickremesinghe-led government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on all forms of dissent in the name of seeking political and economic stability. On October 18, the Sri Lankan police arrested eight students from a protest march organized by the University of Kelaniya at the call of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF). The protest marked two months of arbitrary detention of IUSF convenor Wasantha Mudalige and activist Galwewa Siridhamma Thero under the Prevention to Terrorism Act (PTA). Mudalige, a student activist, was arrested during a protest in Colombo on August 18, alongside 17 others including the Thero, the convenor of the Inter-University Bhikkhu (monk) Federation (IUBF). The two have been in administrative detention since then without any charges or judicial review.
Defiant students chant slogans at the repressive Police, doing the bidding of their Fascist masters! pic.twitter.com/NKtVzqcYmv
— Mari (@EmDeeS11) October 18, 2022
Ahead of protests planned by @IUSFSL tomorrow I urge #SriLanka authorities to respect the right to p assembly. Law enforcement has an obligation to protect p protestors & must create a safe & enabling envir. for all to express their views. I'll be following the situation closely. pic.twitter.com/mjEvY8mVpy
— UN Special Rapporteur Freedom of Association (@cvoule) October 17, 2022
Meanwhile, petroleum workers in the country are protesting against the government’s bid to privatize the fuel market by allowing more competitors to enter the market as importers, producers, and retailers. The government’s decision will effectively end the monopoly of the publicly-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). On October 18, at least 4,000 workers under the umbrella of CPC Trade Union Collective (TUC), a combination of 11 trade unions, participated in a protest strike near the parliament, despite threats from the authorities to penalize them under the draconian Essential Public Services Act (EPSA).
Petroleum Products Special Provision Bill Amendment was passed today. This will allow global suppliers to enter as retail operators, eliminate CPC monopoly on Jet Fuel & liberalize energy sector. I thank the President, Govt MPs & everyone that supported to pass this amendment.
— Kanchana Wijesekera (@kanchana_wij) October 18, 2022
WSWS reported that the Wickremesinghe-led government plans to hand over more than half of CPC’s 1,200 filling stations to companies willing to enter Sri Lanka’s fuel market.