With pressure growing on the Government to make major changes to the 20th Amendment, a party leaders’ meeting of constituent parties representing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has been summoned this evening (18) to further discuss the issue.
This is ahead of tomorrow’s separate meeting of the SLPP’s parliamentary group.
The SLPP party leaders’ meeting is to take place at the Presidential Secretariat. National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader and Minister Wimal Weerawansa said both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa would attend the meeting, where party leaders would get an opportunity to air their views on the controversial amendment and convey their stance to the President and the Premier.
In a letter to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier this month, the NFF had also expressed concerns over certain clauses in 20A.
Mr Weerawansa noted that 20A was now coming under criticism from even “nationalist forces” that worked hard to bring the President and the SLPP Government to power. “I believe we must consider the views of these groups seriously. At the party leaders’ meeting, we hope to convey the views of these groups along with our views on the amendment,” he said.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was “100 percent in agreement” that the powers of the President should be increased, party General Secretary and State Minister Dayasiri Jayaskara told the Sunday Times.
“However, we must acknowledge that certain clauses in the Bill have generated strong opposition in society,” he pointed out, adding these include attempts to rush through urgent bills and abolish the Audit Service Commission.
Mr. Jayasekara said the Government would do well to also heed the views of nationalist forces that helped propel the ruling alliance to victory at the recent elections. “It would be a mistake to antagonise those forces,” he cautioned.
There is no question that changes are needed to 20A, Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Leader Tissa Vitharana stated. “I have my own views regarding the amendment and I have also discussed it with our party, which also has its views on it. I hope that changes are made because such changes are needed,” he said.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will announce the Supreme Court’s determination on the 20th Amendment Bill on Tuesday. The parliamentary debate on 20A is scheduled to take place on Wednesday and Thursday.
Once clauses that require a referendum are amended, the Government will need 150 votes in the 225 member legislature to pass the amendment with a two-thirds majority. The SLPP and its allies currently have 145 seats in Parliament.
While Government leaders have expressed confidence that it will be able to muster the required number of votes, this is far from certain with not just constituent parties, but even some SLPP MPs expressing reservations over the amendment.
SLPP Kalutara District MP and State Minister Vidura Wickramanayake said he would wait to see what the Supreme Court had to say about the Bill, but added he too had reservations over it. “People were expecting a new Constitution. The Constitution is the basic law of the State. The fact that it has already been amended 19 times shows that the basic law is flawed. What is needed is a new Constitution and not another amendment,” he said.
In any case, if there is a need to amend the Constitution, he said the Government must not revert to the 18th Amendment, “which was one of the root causes as to why we lost the election in 2015.”
Religious leaders in particular came out in force against the amendment this week.
On Monday, the Chief Registrars of the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas issued a joint statement calling for the withdrawal of the amendment, while the Catholic Bishop’s Conference also issued a statement on Tuesday rejecting the proposed amendment.
The amendment also drew strong opposition even from those allied with the SLPP this week.
On Thursday, a group of Buddhist monks, including three who have openly supported President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP, wrote to the President raising concerns over the contents of the 20th Amendment. The monks, including the Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera, the Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera and the Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera, noted that the people had hoped the Government would take steps to introduce a new Constitution that would create a strong Government within a democratic framework. Instead, the proposed 20A paves the way for the creation of an arbitrary executive with powers over legislature and the judiciary, while the Cabinet is weakened.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, are also weighing their options in the fight against 20A. Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) National List MP Tissa Attanayake said the party was planning to hold another protest in Parliament next week when the amendment comes up for debate. He said the SJB hoped to elicit the support of other opposition parties in Parliament to join the protest.
Mr Attanayake pointed out that the Government had rejected a request made by the Opposition for a five- or four-day debate on 20A. “It was not even agreeable to a three-day debate. The Speaker will announce the Supreme Court’s determination on 20A in Parliament on Tuesday. The debate will begin the very next day and will end in two days. If the debate begins the day after the Court’s determination is read out, we will have no time to study it and prepare for the debate. The Government’s insistence on pushing ahead with a short debate at such speed shows it is using its parliamentary majority to act in a dictatorial manner,” he charged.
Mr Attanayake said the SJB hoped to take the matter up during the party leaders’ meeting in Parliament tomorrow and ask for further time to study the SC’s determination before the debate was held.
Meanwhile, in the Northern and Eastern provinces, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has begun an aggressive campaign against the proposed 20A. The party warned that if this bill was passed, it would lead to a monarchy where the President would be more powerful than Parliament and the Cabinet.