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The 20th Amendment Explained

2020 Nov 5

The recently passed Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka has garnered mass public and media scrutiny as a subject of extensive political debate. So, what is the 20th Amendment? What changes does it bring? What do these changes mean? Here’s all you need to know.

Background

The 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka, which establishes the fundamental principles by which the state is governed, has undergone nineteen amendments so far. 

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News of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s plans to replace the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was first revealed during his address to the newly elected Parliament on August 20th, 2020. In his policy statement, he expressed that “the basis of the success of a democratic state is its Constitution” and that the “ambiguities and uncertainties” of the nineteen amendments that have passed so far, have to be addressed. President Gotabaya framed the narrative of the 20th Amendment under the “one country, one law” principle.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill was published in a Gazette Supplement on September 02, 2020. The Draft Amendment revealed that several provisions of the 19th Amendment would be repealed while bringing back some key elements of the previous 18th Amendment of 2010.

Following a two-day debate in Parliament, the amendment was passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament on October 22, 2020.

What is the 19th Amendment?

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced by former President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in 2015.

Image from http://adaderana.lk/
Image from http://adaderana.lk/

The following were some of the key changes made to the Constitution:

  • The term of Presidency reduced from six years to five years.
  • The President can serve for no more than two terms.
  • A limit set on the number of ministers and deputy ministers (30 ministers and 40 state and deputy ministers).
  • The term of Parliament reduced to five years.
  • The President cannot dissolve Parliament until four and a half years of his/her term lapses unless it requests so through a resolution of a two-thirds majority.
  • Ensured the independence of certain institutions that provide oversight such as the Elections Commission, the Public Service Commission, and the National Police Commission.
  • Repealed the “urgent bill” procedure. The “urgent bill” previously allowed the Cabinet to endorse a Bill relating to an urgent concern of national interest through a rapid process – a provision that has allegedly been abused on several occasions.
  • Bills to be gazetted fourteen days (previously seven) before the legislative process, which would provide sufficient time to address legal challenges.
  • Freedom of information added as a fundamental right. 
  • Depoliticised the Constitutional Council by incorporating civil society representation.
What are the key changes made by the 20th Amendment?

Some of the notable changes of the 20th amendment are:

  • Full legal immunity granted to the President against prosecution. 
  • Grants the President authority to sack the Prime Minister at his/her discretion.
  • The President has no obligation to heed the advice of the Prime Minister regarding appointments and removal.
  • No limit on the number of Cabinet, State and Deputy Ministers.
  • The President can dissolve Parliament at any time following a year after being elected.
  • The replacement of the Constitutional Council (includes 10 members with no affiliation to a political party and 1 representative belonging to a political party other than that of the Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition) with the Parliamentary Council. The Parliamentary Council will only be given observational powers and consist only of members of Parliament, including the Prime Minister, Speaker, Leader of the Opposition and two nominees each of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, who shall be Members of Parliament.
  • Removal of the National Procurement Commission (a mechanism to ensure fair, equitable, transparent and cost-effective procurements performed by the Government) and the National Audit Commissions (a non-ministerial government department to enhance the accountability of public resources).
  • President is given the authority to appoint the Chief Justice, Justices of the Supreme Court, Chairman and Justices of the Court of Appeal, Members of the Judicial services commission as well as other key positions such as the Attorney-General, the Police Commission, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman), and the Secretary-General of Parliament. 
  • The minimum age limit for a person to run for President reduced from 35 to 30 years.
  • The previous law excluding dual citizens from becoming Members of Parliament retracted.
  • The Public Service Commission consisting of not more than nine members will be appointed directly by the President.
  • The President will appoint the Heads of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.
  • Every Bill has to be gazetted at least seven days (previously fourteen days) before being placed on the Order Paper of Parliament.
  • The President may seek to pass a Bill that has been rejected by Parliament through submitting it to a referendum.
  • The previously repealed “urgent bill” reinstated. The President may deem a Bill that is “urgent in the national interest” whereby the Supreme Court would determine its constitutionality within 24 hours and communicate this matter only to the President and Speakers. Following this process, the passing of the Bill would be expedited. 
  • The Auditor-General is not required to audit the accounts of the Offices of the President and of the Prime Minister. He will also not be required to conduct audits of “companies in which the Government or a public corporation or local authority holds fifty per centum or more of the shares of that company.
  • Article 155G (granting powers to the National Police Commission to appoint, promote, transfer and have disciplinary control and dismissal of police officers) repealed.
  • The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption and the National Procurement Commission (established by the 19th amendment) have been abolished.
Which provisions from the 19th Amendment remain?

Three key features that were introduced through the 19th Amendment still remain intact, following the passing of the 20th Amendment. They are:

  • The historic and widely praised decision to introduce the Right to Information Act under the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Sri Lankan Constitution – Article 14A through the 19th Amendment, has not been altered in any way. A citizen’s right to information has been globally regarded as a vital element in preventing corruption, promoting transparency and holding governments accountable. Interestingly, according to global RTI (Right to Information) rankings, Sri Lanka is recorded as having the third strongest legal framework for RTI in the world and the strongest in South Asia, as of 2017. 
  • The 19th amendment move to reduce the term of Parliament and Presidency from six years to five years has not been changed. According to the sections “Term of the President – Article 30(2)” and “Term of Parliament – Article 62(2),” both elections are to be held every five years.
  • The President’s term limit would also remain as it was in the 19th Amendment. While the 18th Amendment removed the limit on the number of times a previously elected President can run for Presidency, the 19th Amendment reversed the provision, thereby mandating that the President has a two-term limit and cannot run for President a third time. The 20th Amendment does not change this provision.

The 20th Amendment was passed in Parliament with 156 MPs voting for and 65 voting against the Third Reading at the committee stage. Members of the Opposition, religious leaders, civil society and the public have held varied opinions over the passing of the 20th Amendment. In similar news, the Government has also recently welcomed proposals from the General Public for the formulation of a draft Constitution to replace the Second Republic Constitution of Sri Lanka for consideration of Cabinet Ministers and the Parliament.