Opinion: Questions as to whether another review of the 20A is a sham to distract critics
ECONOMYNEXT – Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa combines years of experience in politics with undeniable charisma and an extraordinary ability to manipulate the most complicated situations to his advantage.
With controversy arising over the proposed 20 Amendment to the Constitution, is the Prime Minister using these skills to divert attention?
That bulldozed building in Kurunegala
Let’s take a look at an event that took place on the eve of the Parliamentary General Elections
Supposedly unknown parties bulldozed an old building in Kurunegala in the dead of night which some said was a house of ill-fame, while the Archeological Commissioner said was an ancient site.
Various guardians of our collective heritage emerged from the woodwork, particularly citizens of that ancient city, to voice their outrage against the perpetrator, and creating a politically sensitive issue on the eve of the poll.
The good citizens of Kurunegala guessed who had done the deed because the ruling-party Mayor Thushara Sanjeeva disputed publicly that the demolished building was an ancient site and called it a “cheap brothel.”
Enter the PM, who promptly appointed a committee of worthies to examine the issue. Let’s not forget, that the PM contested the parliamentary election from that District.
Within days, the committee recommended that the perpetrator be arrested, the Police formed six teams to look for the city’s First Citizen as headlines screamed “Manhunt.”
Sanjeeva, whom the police could not find, won a court order preventing his arrest and everyone was appeased. The outraged do-gooders calmed down and praised the PM for his actions and the Mayor was freed to campaign for MR and Johnston Fernando.
Another review of the 20th Amendment
Similarly, MR appointed another Committee comprising Ministers and Members of Parliament to review the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.
This is a curious event, because the proposed 20A, a was approved by Cabinet last week without changes.
In a two-hour session, the Ministers approved the proposal with none objecting to any clause.
Cabinet approval is the second of the several legal steps that are needed to turn it into law.
This new committee handed in its report to the PM yesterday, September 15, and is to present their findings of the proposed Amendment to the Cabinet of Ministers today, Wednesday, September 16.
Why re-examine it now?
Former Election Watchdog Rajith Keerthi Tennekoon asks the question why it is necessary to constitute a committee to study it and report back to Cabinet after the Ministers had already approved it.
It is probably because the Opposition and Civil Society has been able to raise enough of a stink to cause a smidgen of doubt in the minds of some Ministers as well.
There have been some murmurings emerging from the various smaller parties that constitute the Sri Lanka Podujana Party behemoth, partly because of how the Cabinet goodies have been distributed, SLPP sources said.
A few SLPP MPs and some strong supporters on the outside have also called for changes.
However, the party has come down hard on the dissidents, threatening disciplinary action against any naysayers.
Internationally, individual countries as well as multilateral agencies including the United Nations has expressed concern about its authoritative bent.
The 20A is a document that opposition commentators say takes us back to the1978, highly authoritarian, Basic Law enacted by the then J R Jayewardene government.
At that time President Jayewardene said there was “nothing he could not do except turn a woman into a man and a man into a woman.”
Our reading of the 20A confirms this view as the proposal concentrates power in the president as never before.
It takes away the powers from Parliament and vests it in an all-powerful presidency which has blanket immunity, can appoint Judges, including to the Supreme Court, emasculates the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions and stops the Auditor-general from examining the offices of the President and the Prime Minister, among other things.
Tennakoon says “all power will move to a kitchen Cabinet.”
In a chat with EconomyNext, Tennekoon also debunks the government’s position that all these changes were presented to voters during the campaign.
He says the government amassed a two-thirds majority in Parliament without clearly explaining what amendments were to be brought.
“They clearly don’t have the mandate to make these changes,” the former Governor said.
Questioned by the media, government leaders, including Justice Minister Mohamed Ali Sabri ducked the authorship of the 20 A. Opposition MPs are calling the new Constitution “an illegitimate child.”
On Monday, Education Minister G L Peiris told reporters that the “Cabinet takes collective responsibility for the 20A.”
Peiris, who authored the much more liberal 17A in 1988 that created independent elections commissions, said the 20A “merely clarifies some items such as whether the President can hold the Defense Portfolio.”
“A better constitution will be brought in later,” Peiris said.
In that, he said there will be “electoral reform which includes some first-past-the-post members elected and a campaign finance act that will curb spending by candidates.”
Civil Society has, for decades, advocated for both, as the elections are marred by heavy spending and widespread corruption.
“It is a sham,” says Tennakoon. “Why can’t they bring all the changes at once?”
There is also the very present danger that once the 20A in its current form is passed into law, the government will be vested with so much power that it will not be interested in making any compromises.
Is MR selling us a dummy pass?
The Prime Minister is an avid Rugby fan and in that game, often an attacking player will pretend to pass the ball to distract the defence and send them in the wrong direction, a move called a “dummy.”
Doing it successfully is called “selling a dummy.” So is this committee a dummy that will distract the naysayers and keep them quiet for a while, or will it be a genuine review?
(Colombo, September 16, 2020)
By Arjuna Ranawana