A new crisis within the rainbow coalition, just 66 days old, deepened this week. At issue is a 62-page draft Bill titled the 19th Amendment to the Constitution presented at Thursday’s meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.   A heated discussion ensued with two non-United National Party (UNP) Ministers, Patali [...]


Premier presents 62-page constitutional amendment, but deadlock over deadline

Ministers Senaratne and Ranawaka express reservations; special Cabinet meeting today to settle disputes -- SLFP insists on constitutional changes and electoral reforms together; UNP's call for April 23 dissolution unlikely to be met

A new crisis within the rainbow coalition, just 66 days old, deepened this week. At issue is a 62-page draft Bill titled the 19th Amendment to the Constitution presented at Thursday’s meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.


A heated discussion ensued with two non-United National Party (UNP) Ministers, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Rajitha Senaratne raising strong objections. They contended that this draft did not take into consideration all the amendments proposed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Their MPs do not hold any portfolios though they outnumber the UNP strength in Parliament thrice over.


The two ministers argued that the Bill should therefore be not gazetted to enable a public discussion nor presented in Parliament thereafter. The highlights of the SLFP’s draft constitutional changes appeared in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of February 22.


As a result of the objections, a special meeting of ministers has been summoned for 2 p.m. today (Sunday). The idea is to reach consensus between the drafts presented by Premier Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva on behalf of the SLFP. Whether general agreement on a common draft could be reached today itself remains the critical question. Time is running out with only 34 days remaining from the 100-Day Programme of Work. At last Monday’s meeting of the National Executive Council (NEC), Wickremesinghe agreed not to label his draft as an “Urgent Bill,” a move that would have excluded a public debate before Parliament approved it.


The meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers was rescheduled for Thursday instead of the usual Wednesday session in view of President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to London to take part in the annual Commonwealth Day ceremonies. He is now the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth. He returned to Colombo on Thursday morning. The meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. began only an hour later because of an unscheduled event and continued till almost 9 p.m.


Premier Wickremesinghe met President Sirisena. Accompanying him was Jayampathy Wickremeratne, a constitutional lawyer. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, now head of policy planning for the SLFP also took part in the discussion. Sirisena was briefed on the UNP’s position on the changes to the Constitution. Kumaratunga has been playing the role of an interlocutor of sorts between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena ever since she persuaded the latter to contest the January 8 presidential election. When the meeting ended, Sirisena and Kumaratunga went into a discussion of their own. It is only thereafter that the ministerial session began.


Yesterday, leaders of both the SLFP and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) were going through the draft presented by Wickremesinghe clause by clause. Some of the provisions in the SLFP draft have been incorporated in the draft 19th Amendment. They are the restriction of the term of the Presidency from six to five years and provision for a citizen to challenge the President under fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. No person elected as President twice will be eligible for re-election. Both the SLFP and the JHU are also making a close study of another document Wickremesinghe circulated to ministers on Thursday — a Discussion Paper on Constitutional Reform. He has also provided Sinhala and Tamil translations for easy reference. This paper highlights the main proposals in the draft 19th Amendment he presented. Highlights from a copy obtained by the Sunday Times appear in a box story on this page.


President Maithripala Sirisena, Chair in Office of the Commonwealth, meeting the Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II, during a private audience at Buckingham Palace, in London.

Among the significant highlights of the draft 19th Amendment is the setting up of a Council of State. It will comprise representatives of recognised political parties and independent groups. Thirty six members, of whom not less than ten are women, are to be appointed jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition with the approval of the Constitutional Council. Chief Ministers of all the provinces will be members. Twenty seats in this Council are to be apportioned amongst recognised groups in Parliament, in proportion to their representation. The functions of the Council of State will be:

  • The implementation of matters contained in the Statement of Government Policy. 
  • Adherence to the principles of good governance by all organs of government.
  • All Bills submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers for its approval and publication in the Gazette; and
  • All such proposals for legislation as may be referred to it for consideration by the Cabinet of Ministers.

Heavily biased propaganda by state owned media institutions ahead of the January 8 presidential election appears to have prompted the Government to seek constitutional safeguards to avert such situations. An Elections Commission is to be empowered to issue guidelines to “any broadcasting or telecasting operator or any proprietor or publisher of a newspaper.” The 19th Amendment seeks to make it a duty of the “Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and the Chairman of the Independent Television Network and the Chief Executive Officer of every other broadcasting or telecasting enterprise owned or controlled by the State and of the enterprise of every private broadcasting or telecasting operator, to take all necessary steps to ensure compliance with such guidelines….” These provisions will, however, not apply to those who within seven days from the date of nominations or the proclamation of a referendum inform the Commission of their intention to support any political party or independent group. In other words, this constitutional amendment will allow media organisations to endorse candidates or issues at an election. Customarily western media institutions followed the practice of such endorsements but many have since ended that.


The latest tussle within the coalition comes amidst a unanimous decision last Wednesday by the UNP’s main policy making body, the Working Committee, to seek dissolution of Parliament on April 23. It has in fact embarked on plans too. The Working Committee decided to appoint a committee to formulate a new programme under the Samurdhi or poverty alleviation. Its members include Karu Jayasuriya, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Eran Wickremeratne, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Harin Fernando. A Committee to organise the party’s May Day rally was also set up.


The UNP insistence on an April 23 dissolution is reflected in the draft 19th Amendment. It sets April 22 as the date on which those provisions should come into effect. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that such dissolution is unlikely. In fact, during his London visit, President Sirisena told members of the UNP branch there that it would take two months for constitutional and electoral reforms — the first admission that the April 23 deadline will not be met. In such an event, the UNP will be left with one of two choices — forget its repeated strong pronouncements and continue to function as a Government. That would of course mean considerable loss of face, particularly after first saying it would dissolve and later correcting itself to say it would recommend such a step to the President. The UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, in comments to the Sunday Times, was categorical of the need for dissolution saying a promise had been made by the party leadership to the rank and file.


The other option is to quit the Government and sit in the opposition. That would mean a considerable wait and going to polls straight from the opposition benches. That denies the party the strength it could draw if it went to polls whilst in a caretaker Government. In the case of the former, the party would still have the option to say it would stay to fight another day notwithstanding some embarrassment. However, in the event of having to quit, the party also runs the risk of being accused of walking away without fulfilling the pledges made in the 100-Day Programme of Work. The dilemma for the UNP is worse for another reason — some of its senior leaders the UNP say that with the SLFP now divided, or so they say, will be in a position to garner the largest number of seats if elections are held with dissolution in April. Whether such a number would be over 113, the majority in the 225-member Parliament still remains a question. The longer the delay, said one senior member who did not wish to be named, the bigger the worry. Adding to that, he said, were unfolding events where the party’s credibility was taking a beating due to perceptions that the UNP Government was defending those engaged in wrong doings creating “the impression that it was no better than the former Rajapaksa administration.” He lamented that nothing has been done to arrest the situation and warned it could be a fatal mistake to do so.

A salvo from the SLFP came on Tuesday. Opposition Leader de Silva and General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa held a news conference to spell out their party’s position. De Silva made it clear that the SLFP would not support in Parliament any move to only effect constitutional changes. He said they should come together with the electoral reforms. In other words, he is saying, that the proposed 19th Amendment too should have provision for the electoral reforms. He quoted the Commissioner of Elections as saying that it would take three months to complete the delimitation of constituencies. It is only thereafter that the SLFP would be in a position to agree to go for elections, the Opposition leader declared. “Otherwise we are not going to raise our hands in Parliament,” he said.


“The UNP is in a hurry. It is trying to take advantage of the constitutional reforms and take cover under the 100 Day Programme of Work. All parties are on the same wavelength to introduce a hybrid system of electoral reforms too. They (the UNP) should realize that we have the mandate in Parliament,” Opposition Leader de Silva told the Sunday Times. “They think they should rush for polls. They should avail themselves of the opportunity to discuss both the constitutional amendments and electoral reforms,” he pointed out. He said the opposition would raise in Parliament what he called the scandal of “insider trading” and “favouritism” in a Treasury bond issue involving Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. The Governor has claimed he is “not involved” but the Opposition leader said “if he is innocent, he should prove it by stepping aside until all investigations are completed. Even the three-member Committee appointed by the UNP seems to know nothing about the subject. This is a clear way of whitewashing the whole issue. What we need in good governance is not cover-ups of favourites but transparency and credibility. This is sadly lacking as the UNP tries to protect wrongdoers and the corrupt.”


Amidst the ongoing controversy, Governor Mahendran had allegedly transferred out the sister of Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, known to be one of those responsible for modernising the computer division. Ranawaka was one of those who raised objections to the appointment of Mahendran when his name came up at a Cabinet meeting. The Central Bank Governor was not available for comment. He had left Colombo for Singapore. From there he is learnt to have travelled to Dubai and there onwards to the United States.


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe responded strongly to the Opposition Leader’s remarks. “How can anyone say we have no mandate? If they take a look at the 100-Day Programme of Work, it is explained very clearly. This is why we are seeking dissolution on April 23.” He said the Government was not shielding anyone but is only allowing the law to take its course. Many instances of corruption and malpractices are being probed and the culprits would be brought to book.


Earlier, the UNP dominated Government had agreed to introduce in Parliament both the constitutional amendments as well as the electoral reforms. This was after a delegation led by Premier Wickremesinghe met President Sirisena to discuss issues. Sirisena told the delegation which included UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, General Secretary Kabir Hashim and Working Committee member Karu Jayasuriya that the constitutional and electoral reforms could be brought together. This was on the basis that both the Commissioner of Elections and the Surveyor General had advised that the electoral reforms could be effected within weeks. Sirisena is due to meet these two senior officials on March 18 to discuss reports they will present to him.


The tussle over constitutional reforms, the subject of discussion by the Cabinet of Ministers today, is a clear indication that the process would be time consuming. Firstly, the ministers will have to agree to a draft which meets the requirements of the coalition partners. Thereafter, it would have to be placed for a public debate. This in itself is time consuming and is therefore unlikely to be completed before April 23. The intervening national holidays too would have to be taken into consideration. Thus, realistically, the UNP has set for itself a target which is impracticable in the circumstances. There is little doubt that the SLFP moves have placed the UNP leadership in a bind.


Highlights of UNP’s proposed constitutional amendments
Here are highlights of the discussion paper on constitutional reforms presented by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at Thursday’s ministerial meeting.
PRESIDENT: The President will be the Head of State, the Head of the Executive and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The President shall always, except in the case of the appointment of the Prime Minister or as otherwise required by the Constitution, act on the advice of the Prime Minister or such other Minister as has been authorised by the Prime Minister. The President may require the Prime Minister or such Minister to reconsider advice given to him and may require Parliament to reconsider a Bill presented to him for assent. He shall act on the advice given after reconsideration and shall give assent to a Bill passed after reconsideration. 

In addition to the powers and duties presently exercised under Article 33, the President shall promote national reconciliation and integration, ensure and facilitate the preservation of religious and ethnic harmony and ensure and facilitate the proper functioning of the Constitutional Council and the independent Commissions.
Presidential immunity does not extend to acts or omissions of the President in his official capacity. Such acts and omissions may be challenged under the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The Chair of the Council of the State shall act for the President.


The term of office of the President shall be five years. Mode of election of the President will not be changed. This will be a matter for the next Parliament. The President may be removed by passing a no-confidence motion with a 2/3 majority. Present impeachment provisions will be deleted.


Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers: The Prime Minister will be the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers which is charged with the direction and control of the Government. The President shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament, who, in his opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament. The President may also appoint a Deputy Prime Minister on the advice of the Prime Minister.


The number of Ministers shall not exceed 30. The total number of Ministers of State and Deputy Ministers shall not exceed 40. Where the parties with the highest and second highest number of seats agree to take part in a Government of National Unity, Parliament may by resolution increase the above mentioned numbers to not more than 45 and 55 respectively for the duration of the Government of National Unity. This will be applicable to the next Parliament only.


Special provisions relating to the present President: During the term of office of the present President, the subjects of Defence, Mahaweli development and environment shall be assigned to him. (Provisions similar to present
Article 44 (2) ). In arriving at any decision or policy pertaining to the subjects and functions assigned to himself, or to discuss any matter of national importance, the President may summon meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers and preside at such


Parliament: The term of Parliament shall be five years. Parliament may be dissolved during the first four years and six months only upon a resolution to that effect being passed by a two thirds majority.


Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions: Provisions relating to the Constitutional Council (CC) and independent institutions, repealed by the 18th Amendment, will be reinstated subject to certain changes. The composition of the CC is unchanged except that the 05 persons to be nominated jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition after consulting leaders of political parties and independent groups shall reflect the pluralist character of Sri Lanka, including professional and social diversity, and that the professional expertise of the nominees will be taken into consideration. Changes will be made to overcome difficulties experienced in the past — members deemed to be appointed if President does not appoint following nominations, quorum, CC may function despite vacancies etc.


The Audit Service Commission and the National Procurement Commission are added to the list of independent institutions. The CC shall obtain the views of the Chief Justice, the Minister of Justice, the Attorney General and the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka when considering appointments to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.


National Police Commission: The IGP shall be entitled to be present and participate in meetings except at any meeting where any matter pertaining to him is discussed. Where the Commission has delegated its powers to any Police Officer, the IGP may appeal to the Commission against any order made by such Police officer in the exercise of such delegated powers.

Parliamentary Elections: The new electoral system will be a mix of the first-past-the-post system (FPP), which ensures that every electorate has its own Member of Parliament, and proportional representation (PR). Preferential voting will be abolished.


A dual citizen will be disqualified from being elected as President or a Member of Parliament.
An MP who crosses over from his party or independent group will lose his seat in Parliament.
Bills: Bills shall be published in the Gazette 14 days before the first reading. Upon enactment, Bills will be certified by the President. There will be no urgent Bills.
Auditor General and Audit Service Commission: The Audit Service Commission shall consist of the Auditor General, two senior retired audit officers who have served in the post of Auditor General or Deputy Auditor General or above and two retired officers who have distinguished themselves in the fields of auditing, accountancy, law, economics or public administration and who have had over fifteen years experience in a senior executive post in the public service, appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council.

The functions of the Commission shall be to:

  • Approve rules pertaining to schemes of recruitment, or of the appointment, remuneration payable, transfer, dismissal or disciplinary control of the members belonging to the Sri Lanka Audit Service.
  • Prepare annual estimates of the National Audit Office and submit to the Speaker to be reviewed by Parliament, and
  • Discharge such other duties and functions as may be provided for by law.

The Auditor General shall audit the President’s Secretariat, all Ministries and Government Departments; Offices, institutions and Commissions receiving appropriations made by Parliament; Provincial Councils, Local Authorities and Public Corporations; business or other undertakings vested in the Government by or under any written law; any body or authority established by or under any written law with public resources provided wholly or partly and whether directly or indirectly, by the Government; companies in which any such body or authority is holding not less than 40 per centum of the shares or share capital; and companies in which any such body or authority is holding not less than 40 per centum of the share capital. “Audit” include technical audits, environmental and value for money audits.

National Procurement Commission: The Commission shall consist of five members appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, of whom at least three members shall be persons who have had proven experience in the procurement, accountancy, law or public administration.

It shall be the function of the Commission to formulate fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost effective procedures and guidelines for the procurement of goods and services by all government institutions. The Commission shall also

(a) report on whether all procurement of goods and services to government institutions are based on procurement plans prepared in accordance with previous approved action plans;

(b) report on whether all qualified bidders for the provision of goods and services to Government institutions are afforded an equal opportunity to participate in the bidding process for the provision of those goods and services;

(c) ensure that the procedures for the selection of contractors, and the awarding of contracts, for the provision of goods and services to the Government institutions are fair and transparent;
(d) report on whether members of procurement Committees and Technical Evaluation Committees relating to high value procurements by Government institutions are suitably qualified; and,

(e) investigate reports of procurements made by Government institutions outside established procedures, and to report the officers responsible for such procurements to the relevant authorities for necessary action.

Right to Information: The right to information will be included as a fundamental right. This right will be subject to such restrictions prescribed by law as are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, privacy, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.


Date/s of operation: Provisions relating to the President and Cabinet of Ministers will come into force on April 22, 2015. All other provisions come into force on the date on which the 19th Amendment becomes law. Transitional provisions: The members of the Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, Human Rights Commission, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption and Finance Commission, shall cease to hold office on the date on which the 19th Amendment becomes law.


Special provisions relating to the period 22 April 2015 to the conclusion of the next General Election: The President shall preside over meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers. The President may, with the concurrence of the Prime Minister, assign to himself any subject or function and may, with like concurrence, determine the Ministries to be in his or her charge. The President shall, on the advice of the Election Commission, ensure the creation of proper conditions for the conduct of a free and fair General Election of Members of Parliament.


Passing the Amendment: The proposed amendment would need to be passed by a 2/3 majority in Parliament only. It will not require approval of the People at a Referendum.

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