Opinion

The 19th Amendment: get over it already!

Summary

The 19th was a piece of trash that did away with another piece of trash (the 18th). Stank.

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Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena (R) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (L) attend a commemoration ceremony to mark the 26th anniversary of the assassination of Sri Lanka’s then-president Ranasinghe Premadasa in Colombo on May 1, 2019. – Premadasa was killed by the LTTE militant group (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) on May 1, 1993. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

Let’s start with the brag. It also had to do with a peculiar political context where the champion and the intended beneficiary (Ranil Wickremesinghe) led a party that had minority representation in Parliament whereas the man whose powers were to be clipped, Maithripala Sirisena had just assumed office with a majority of the national vote. Three hearty cheers for the 19th, then!

The 18th would be effectively repealed, the braggarts said. It was. The 19th would embody the Yahapalana promise(s). We would have accountability and transparency. Democracy would be enhanced. Good governance assured. Cabinet would be limited to 30 ministers. Seniority and meritocracy will mark appointments and promotions, they told us. We know how that fell by the wayside! The independence of the judiciary would be restored, they promised. Well, they made a mockery of the last by turning the Supreme Court into a political circus almost immediately after Sirisena was sworn in as President.

How about the passage? The amendment was drafted. Nothing wrong with that. The Supreme Court was petitioned. Nothing wrong with that. The Supreme Court offered a determination. Essentially, important elements of the draft were shot down. Now what did the Yahapalanists do?  Did they follow yahapalana practice to the letter?

Well, the objections were of an order that amending the document in ways that took these into consideration would have violated established parliamentary procedure. Typically, at the committee stage, only minor corrections are made. In other words, yahapalana theory would have required the yahapalanists to withdraw the amendment, get back to the drawing board and come up with a fresh draft. They didn’t do that. They demonstrated that ‘yahapalanaya’ was a lie. A hoax.  It was voted on in the dead of the night by clearly irresponsible and perhaps tired and sleepy MPs. Sarath Weerasekera voted against it. Only he. Kudos to him.

The substance. It was done in such a way that no one knew who really called the shots. Ball-passing between the Prime Minister and the President became a common occurrence. Finger-pointing was frequent. It was the easy out for a bunch of people lacking imagination, suffering innovation-lack and who were absolutely incompetent. Things were so confusing that it took the  Supreme Court to say what was what and that too only with respect to dissolution-power.

Cabinet-size. This was a joke. The amendment-drafters left ‘National Government’ which the amendment-drafters left undefined. ‘In a “National Government, cabinet size would be determined by Parliament. The matter finally hit the ‘constitutional experts’ in the yahapalana camp only when it could no longer be hidden. When Sirisena took the SLFP out of the coalition, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, the big boss behind the drafting, unashamedly said that since the SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress) was with the UNP, it remains a ‘national government.’ In other words, in his mind, a bloated cabinet was still constitutional! The yahapalana braggarts maintained a dead silence on the matter.

Ah yes, the Constitutional Council (CC) which, the braggarts claimed, corrected the clauses of the 18th that crippled independent institutions. However, in reality, it was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s whims and fancies that held the day. The composition of the CC, naturally and understandably tilted in favor of the regime. It was politician-heavy, which of course wasn’t quite yahapanish and even the non-MPs were partisan. Check the names of those ‘civil society’ people in the CC, the names of those appointed to various commissions and the appointments and promotions recommended by the commissions themselves. Friends and loyalists. That’s it. Why else would some of these ‘independents’ resign the moment Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President?

So now we have the 20th. Much of the confusion has been sorted out. Some of the better elements of the 19th have been retained. Are we ok now? Of course not. Cabinet size is still not cleared, although President Rajapaksa has kept it within the ceiling mentioned in the 19th. The CC just rubber-stamped Wickremesinghe’s wishes. President Rajapaksa has far more sway and that’s not necessarily a good thing.  Nevertheless, unlike the yahapalana braggarts, he has recommended that the six senior most judges be promoted to the Supreme Court. If it was Sirisena, Wickremesinghe or even Mahinda Rajapaksa, this might not have been the case. That itself shows the flaw. It should not be dependent on whether or not the incumbent values meritocracy.

In effect, then, the 19th is nothing like its champions make it out to be. A piece of trash that did away with another piece of trash (the 18th). Stank. Get over it already.

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