For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
• Constitutional amendments will give absolute powers to all-powerful Presidency
By Our Political Editor
Prime Minister, D.M. Jayaratne, sprung a surprise on ministers at the weekly Cabinet meeting last Wednesday. He circulated a brief two-page note calling upon his colleagues to approve a recommendation asking the Legal Draftsman’s Department to formulate a set of draft constitutional amendments. The parameters of the changes proposed were spelt out. Ministers lost no time in endorsing it.
Interestingly, some ministers did not turn up for Wednesday’s meeting. Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa was on an official visit to India, they believed that only routine matters would be taken up for discussion. Premier Jayaratne, who chaired the meeting, underscored the urgency by placing a note. That clearly showed the UPFA Government was giving priority to constitutional changes, notwithstanding protests from Opposition parties.
The amendments which the ministers decided on Wednesday to ask the Legal Draftsman to formulate relate to three aspects. They are:
(1) Changes to the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
(2) Delete existing Constitutional provisions that allow a President only two six-year terms, and
(3) Incorporate new provisions to the Constitution to enable the President to be present in Parliament every three months.
The ministers have asked the Legal Draftsman to give the matter high priority. It will mean the draft changes will go before the Cabinet either the coming Wednesday or a week later. That the Government is keen to push ahead with the constitutional changes became clear when President Rajapaksa addressed UPFA Parliamentarians last Monday, just a day ahead of his visit to India.
He told them that the MPs would be given an opportunity to discuss all the constitutional amendments before they were presented to Parliament.
The Government would not go ahead with any constitutional change that was opposed by the majority of MPs, Rajapaksa assured.
In terms of the Cabinet request to the Legal Draftsman, a string of changes are to be made to the 17th Amendment.
One is the abolition of the Constitutional Council. Though no such Council is operational now, the 17th Amendment (article 41 A) provides for a Constitutional Council comprising (a) the Prime Minister, (b) the Speaker, (c) the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, (d) one person appointed by the President, (e) five persons appointed by the President, on the nomination of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and (f) one person nominated upon agreement by the majority of the Members of Parliament belonging to political parties or independent groups other than the respective political parties or independent groups to which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition belong and appointed by the President. The Speaker shall be the Chairman of the Council.
More powers to the President
With the abolition of the Constitutional Council, existing provisions relating to the Constitutional Council’s powers and duties will be expunged. It is the Constitutional Council, which is at present, tasked to appoint the independent Elections Commission, the Public Service Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, the Finance Commission and the Delimitation Commission.
In formulating amendments in this regard, the Legal Draftsman is to provide for the President to make appointments to these Commissions. At present, the President is debarred from making appointments to any of these commissions unless such appointments have been approved by the Constitutional Council. It will also empower the President to appoint the Chief Justice, Judges of the Supreme Court, the President and the Judges of the Court of Appeal and Members of the Judicial Service Commission.
Along with these news powers, the President will have the power to appoint the Attorney General, the Auditor General, the Inspector General of Police, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman) and the Secretary General of Parliament. Provision is being made in the draft amendments requiring the President to consult the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament before appointments are made.
The Legal Draftsman’s Department is also to formulate amendments to delete Article 30 (2) of the Constitution. This provision states that “no person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the People shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the people.”
The move would mean that a President could contest any number of times for the Presidency notwithstanding the terms he or she has held.
A new provision is to be included in the amendments to enable the President to take part in Parliamentary proceedings every three months. The move is the result of a proposal made by Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF), at a party leaders’ meeting where constitutional reforms were discussed. He was of the view that the President should be afforded an opportunity to report to Parliament periodically on national issues and also answer questions raised by MPs, both Government and Opposition.
The Sunday Times learns that proposed constitutional reforms will come in three different packages. The first will be the set of amendments the Legal Draftsman’s Department has been asked to formulate after Wednesday’s Cabinet approval. The second set of amendments is to relate to changes in the electoral system. The third is to relate to the setting up of a second chamber or a Senate. Our front-page report explains how the Senate will function as the apex of a grassroots level organisation at the village level.
Constituent parties of the UPFA are also making their own representations on the constitutional changes they wish to have. One such party, which had talks with Minister G.L. Peiris, who is overlooking the constitutional changes is Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF). Among other matters, the NFF wants provisions enshrined in the Constitution to charge in the Supreme Court any persons who advocate separatism. It wants the onus of proof placed on the accused and for the Supreme Court to hear such cases within 90 days. Peiris wants to meet delegations from other constituent parties of the UPFA also for talks connected with the constitutional amendments.
However, the main opposition United National Party (UNP) said it would strongly oppose the constitutional amendments. Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya said in a statement that the amendments were against the country’s democratic framework. He said it was “stubborn action” and the party would voice its strongest opposition to the move. He said the same Government had vowed to abolish the executive presidency during elections in 1994.
Nevertheless, Government sources say they are confident more than 12 Opposition parliamentarians would support the constitutional changes – an assertion which confirms the UPFA would have more than the two thirds majority required to pass these amendments.