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The Friday Forum questions the call to hand over more powers to the President

ECONOMYNEXT – A group of eminent personalities are questioning the call for handing over more powers to the Presidency by abolishing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which was passed by all parties in Parliament in 2015.

The group which calls itself the Friday Forum in a statement pointed out that For 30 years the people and political parties agreed that the office of the Executive Presidency of 1978 amassed to itself too much power undermining other public institutions like Parliament and the Courts.

“We have seen how during long years, these two institutions have been undermined. Up to 2019, we wanted to abolish the Executive Presidency and introduce a system of governance that gave authority to a Prime Minister and a Cabinet that were responsible to an elected Parliament. We also looked for Courts that were independent of the Executive,” it said.

The Forum agrees that the 19th Amendment has flaws and must be modified. But now we have a new discourse which is asking for a 2/3 majority to give MORE powers to the President, and indeed change completely the structures of governance, so that the President will exercise extensive powers.

“We must ask ourselves whether this new system with the concentration of power in one individual, is that the form of government we want to introduce through a 2/3 majority and Constitutional reform,” the statement said.

The Forum also said that this election is “a defining one, conducted at a time when the country is facing the double crisis of a debilitating debt burden, and an unprecedented economic and public health crisis. It is therefore important to reflect on our current situation, and cast our votes to help achieve the kind of governance that will hold our rulers accountable to us, and provide primacy of place to citizens’ well-being when they exercise their powers.”

The statement also pointed out that the country has not had a Parliament for the last 4 months “ and have no idea how funds have been spent, without authorisation by Parliament. We have witnessed how the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, has enabled many persons accused of serious crimes in our Courts, to obtain bail, stand for election, and hold high office in the government.”

The recent destruction of a cultural heritage site has been ignored by the Cabinet because holding anyone accountable will have political repercussions. Is it satisfactory that the public service and public institutions are no longer accountable, and ad hoc decisions determine important matters relating to the economy ( eg the MCC agreement), the environment- including the human /elephant conflict, public health issues, and the destruction of public property such as heritage sites,” the statement asked.

The Forum also pointed out that the military has moved out of its traditional role and is taking on all the responsibilities of civilian institutions on public administration, and even the Police. “ We have Military Task Forces which exercise significant powers and exclude the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers. They report directly to the President. We have governance according to gazette notifications that allow investigation of persons for spreading false information on Covid-19’.The army also has been made responsible for ‘de-radicalising’ those with ‘extremist ideas’ in their custody, under the Prevention of Terrorism law.  Others, including politicians who advocate violence against minorities in the community, continue to do so with impunity.”

It went on to say that the “administration of justice without fear or favour is in our collective interest. Do we not want governance that ensures the independence of the judiciary from political interference? Increasingly, we witness selective justice- some people prosecuted in the courts while no questions are asked about the conduct of others. They are not held accountable for their conduct, despite Commissions of Inquiry and prolonged investigations. Should we not vote for and demand, a strengthening, rather than undermining of institutions responsible for the administration of justice in our country?”

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The statement was signed by  Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, Dr. Radhika Coomaswamy, Dr. A.C. Visvalingam, Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, Prof. Ranjini Obeyesekere, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, Mr. Faiz-Ur Rahman, Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare, Dr. Geedreck Usvatte-aratchi, Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Prof. Camena Guneratne, Chandra Jayaratne, Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Mr. Priyantha Gamage, Shanthi Dias, Daneshan Casie Chetty, Manouri Muttetuwegama and Prashan de Visser.

(Colombo, July 30, 2020)

Reported by Arjuna Ranawana