The shift caused by 19A | Page 2 | Daily News

The shift caused by 19A

President Maithripala Sirisena, on Monday, elaborated on the virtues of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which drastically curtailed the powers of the Executive. When JRJ introduced the new Constitution in 1978 leftist leaders such as Dr. N.M. Perera and Colvin R. De Silva warned it could be the death knell of democracy and faulted JRJ for ushering in a Bonapartist rule. Others called the new Constitution Gaulist, derived from the French hybrid system. Whatever it was, most agreed that the Executive Presidency, as it was constituted, allowed for too much power to be concentrated in a single individual which would leave room for abuse. Time was to prove how true these perceptions were.

Delivering the keynote speech at the inauguration of the 4th Asian Stakeholders Forum (AESF-1V) in Colombo, on Monday, President Sirisena said the 19th Amendment to the Constitution has strengthened the country's democracy and vowed to fulfill the mandate received by ensuring democracy and holding free, fair and independent elections. The President noted that Parliament was weakened due to the excessive powers vested with the Executive Presidency, under the 1978 Constitution.

“The 19th Amendment reduced those Executive powers enjoyed by the previous Presidents of the country”, he said.

True, recent history is replete with instances of how the Executive ran roughshod over parliament. Although public finance should come under Parliament this was observed in the breach. A classic example was the Divi Neguma fund which was vested under Basil Rajapaksa outside the supervision of Parliament. The country's first lady Chief Justice had to pay a heavy price for ruling against this move, being stripped from office by way of an impeachment that was ratified in Parliament by a kangaroo court read Parliamentary Select Committee.

Under the Executive Presidency Parliament was made a rubber stamp and the Prime Minister was given little or no leeway in deciding on matters of State. A tight leash was kept on MPs and inducements dished out where necessary to make them fall in line. Undated letters of resignation were obtained from MPs, with the sword of Damocleus hovering over them. Parliament’s composition was changed ad nasusam due to the unlimited resources at the command of the Executive enabling him/her to buy over loyalties of MPs. This was seen in full measure in 2008 when Mahinda Rajapaksa succeeded in getting 18 members of the UNP to decamp to obtain the two thirds majority needed to ram through the18th Amendment to make him ‘President for life’.

The 19th Amendment, while still retaining with the Executive sufficient powers to deal with emergencies, particularly where it concerns national security, is today sans the overbearing clauses that restrained the smooth functioning of Parliament. To begin with, it did away with the provision that empowered the Executive to dissolve Parliament just two years into its tenure. This has now been extended to four years, a mere one year short of the full term of Parliament. This will now give Parliament ample opportunity and leeway to operate with that degree of freedom which otherwise would have tied the hands of the legislature in implementing progressive policies for the benefit of the masses.

However, what was glaringly evident was the way created by the 19th Amendment for the holding of free and fair elections. The President recalled during his speech how stones rained on him while he was addressing a campaign rally and also how one of his election stages was set on fire. But this climate was brought to an end with the establishment of the Independent Elections Commission under 19A, as was amply evident during the Feb.10 LG elections which was so free and fair that the ruling party, which is ordinarily expected to triumph, suffered a severe reversal - testimony to the freedom and independence enjoyed by the masses under the truncated Presidency.

Ditto for the judiciary. The President said his government strengthened the independence of the judiciary, adding that a recent survey on the independence of the judiciary shows that Sri Lanka ranked among the highest in the Asian countries.

True, the judiciary today is unfettered, as demonstrated by the inordinate delay in trying those high profile corrupt elements in the previous government, which no doubt had a negative fallout on the government at the LG poll. In contrast, the county's war winning Army Commander was court-marshalled in double quick time and thrown in the slammer. On the other hand rapists and criminals close to the Rajapaksas mysteriously had their cases struck off the files of the Attorney General's Department.

What is more, the Special Presidential Commission probing the bond matter went to the extent of summoning the Prime Minister of the country to testify, while a powerful minister was given a roasting by the State Counsel at the hearings- a scenario which would have been unthinkable under Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Hence, if we are to echo the President's sentiments, the 19 Amendment has effected a virtual sea change in the country's political culture, ensuring freedom and independence for the people. 

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