20th Amendment, reality or fantasy? | Daily News

20th Amendment, reality or fantasy?

Chief Opposition Whip and JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake handed over the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on May 25.
Chief Opposition Whip and JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake handed over the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on May 25.

The latest issue that has generated interest in political circles is the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which has now been presented to Parliament by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which handed over the amendment to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya last week.

The chances of the 20th Amendment becoming a reality is, at this stage, quite remote given the current composition of Parliament. However, the issue is indeed relevant and the stances adopted by various political parties on this matter will be a pointer to their political trajectory in the coming months.

The JVP is trying its best to hold the government to its promise of abolishing the executive presidency. This was a major slogan for President Maithripala Sirisena when he was running for President against the then incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa in late 2014 and early 2015.

The United National Party (UNP) whose support was crucial for President Sirisena to beat Rajapaksa at the 2015 January elections, also supported the move at the time. The argument for the abolition of the executive presidency stemmed from the perceived excesses of presidential power during the Rajapaksa regime.

President Sirisena has, on several occasions after assuming office, re-iterated his promise not to run for President again. However, that decision may have shifted, judging by his recent declaration at the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) May Day rally that he would “not retire from politics” in 2020, the year in which presidential elections are due.

No-confidence motion against PM

To be fair, the political equation has radically altered since President Sirisena assumed office three and a half years ago. If the President hoped that, due to the high office he holds, SLFP parliamentarians would abandon Rajapaksa and flock to him, the opposite has proved to be true.

If the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was aimed at destabilising the United National Party, the reverse of that has happened as well: it is the SLFP that now stands divided with yet another group of MPs previously loyal to the President, switching allegiances.

This so-called ‘group of sixteen’ which includes senior stalwarts such as John Seneviratne, Susil Premajayantha and S. B. Dissanayake, have now joined the opposition. Although they have declared that they are an ‘independent group’ in Parliament, it is an open secret that the majority of them now support Rajapaksa, if only for the simple reason that it betters their chances of re-election.

Given this scenario, the President now has the support of only about 24 SLFP MPs in Parliament. Even if they did vote for the proposed 20th Amendment- which in itself is highly unlikely, it would require almost all other MPs except those in the Rajapaksa camp and the ‘group of sixteen’ to also vote for the amendment for it to see the light of day.

Thus, in practical terms, the proposed 20th Amendment is at best a purely academic exercise. The JVP may be able to present it in Parliament and even see it through with a simple majority but that will not meet the requirement of a two-thirds majority as this is an amendment to the Constitution.

Presidential election

In recent years, the UNP has maintained that it will support the abolition of the executive presidency. This in itself is ironical because the system was introduced by the UNP under the direction of J. R. Jayewardene. At the time, as Jayewardene consolidated his power with a stranglehold on the Sri Lankan political establishment, the SLFP was against it. Now, it is the SLFP that is promoting it!

That the UNP is supporting the abolition of the executive presidency is not a co-incidence. While the country’s first three Executive Presidents- Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and D. B. Wijetunge were from the UNP, the three subsequent Presidents- Chandrika Kumaratunga, Rajapaksa and President Sirisena were from the SLFP.

In forty years of executive presidential rule, the UNP has governed for only sixteen; twenty-four years have been under SLFP Presidents. Moreover, at the last two presidential elections in 2010 and 2015, the UNP did not field a candidate of its own, opting for so-called ‘common candidates’ instead.

When he devised the executive presidential system, it was Jayewardene’s calculation that, even in parliamentary elections the UNP had lost, it still retained a sizeable percentage of the vote. He therefore deduced that a direct election system such as the presidential election would always be advantageous to the UNP. In hindsight, it has not proven to be so.

Presently, the UNP’s popularity is not on the ascendancy. The burden of incumbency has taken its toll. If a presidential poll were to be held today, the UNP is no way guaranteed of success, because its hold on the majority Sinhala Buddhist demographic has slipped gradually over the past few decades.

The UNP has also learnt a bitter lesson: the candidate it supported in 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena has at times acted against its interests, as evidenced most recently during the motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. All these reasons contribute to the UNP’s decision to support an abolition of the executive presidency.

The new political party of the SLFP dissidents, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), though it is not formally represented in Parliament, commands the support of about 72 MPs loyal to Rajapaksa. They have been categorical in their opposition to the proposed 20th Amendment.

The Rajapaksa camp is already in the process of eyeing a return to power through the next presidential election. While they state that a presidential system confers stability at times of a separatist threat, they know that their political prospects are better if the executive presidential system is retained. Hence their strong and categorical opposition to the proposed 20th Amendment.

Parliamentary elections

The mainstream SLFP too is unlikely to support the 20th Amendment. This, to a large degree is because President Sirisena has more or less hinted that he would be active in politics after January 2020- and it is very likely that he will contest a presidential election if there is one.

Ironically, if President Sirisena perceives that it will be difficult for him to gain re-election, he could opt for another course of action: support the 20th Amendment, abolish the executive presidency and remain President in a mostly ceremonial capacity, governing with the party that wins the most seats at the parliamentary elections.

Whether such a scenario will eventuate depends on President Sirisena’s reading of the political climate. If he feels he could be successful at a presidential election- without the support of the UNP as he had in 2015, and with a SLPP candidate running against him- he would not want the 20th Amendment abolished.

If however, President Sirisena is of the view that his chances of being re-elected are less than encouraging, he could support and encourage the 20th Amendment both within his group of 24 SLFP MPs who remain loyal to him and also within the UNP. That could provide him some political breathing space- and he would have kept his original promise of abolishing the executive presidency.

At this stage, the most likely outcome is that the proposed 20th Amendment is a non-starter. Yet, it has ignited political debate on the pros and cons of the executive presidential system and led to political parties evaluating their options in anticipation of the national elections in 2020.

The extent of the contribution of this proposed amendment to our political arena is however likely to be limited to that.

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