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Ill-fated 19A to be laid to rest

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by C.A.Chandraprema 

It has now been officially announced by the government that parts of the 19th Amendment are to be repealed even before a new Constitution is introduced. Our present Constitution has been amended on 18 occasions and not on 19 occasions as the numbering system may lead us to believe. The 12th Amendment is a dud entry and there is no such Amendment in the Constitution. Among the 18 actual amendments that we have had, some are useless like the 6th Amendment which was supposed to stamp out separatism, but has proved to be abysmally ineffective when compared to the piece of legislation it was supposed to modeled on – the 16th Amendment to the Indian Constitution. Some like the 15th Amendment which facilitated the fragmenting of political parties on ethnic and religious lines were counter-productive. Some like the 17th Amendment were ill conceived, confused and even comically tautological, being designed to take powers over high state appointments out of the hands of the politicians and give it to unelected individuals nominated by the political parties in Parliament. But by far the least well thought out Amendment of all was the 19th Amendment. 

Ironically, at this moment when its repeal has been placed on the agenda, the biggest problem in the 19th Amendment which had a serious impact on the day to day governance of the country during yahapalana rule, has become largely irrelevant under the Rajapaksas. The problem most often mentioned with regard to the 19th Amendment was the creation of dual centers of power with the Prime Minister also having a share of executive power. During the five years of yahapalana rule, the effect of these provisions of the 19th Amendment were amplified by the fact that  the President and Prime Minister were leading their own political parties and working to their own agendas. The way the 19th Amendment bifurcated executive power was by article 43 where the President was to have the power to determine at his discretion the number of Cabinet Ministers and the Ministries and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers, but in the appointment of individual MPs to those ministerial positions the President was mandatorily required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister.  

Thus the Prime Minister’s hold on power depended on his role as the effective appointing authority of Ministers. This was all that remained of the attempt made in the original 19th Amendment Bill which had sought to make the Prime Minister the head of the Cabinet of Ministers and to give the Prime Minister the power to determine the number of Cabinet Ministers and the assignment of subjects and functions to them. Such provisions were struck down by the SC on the grounds that they will require a referendum in addition to the two thirds majority in Parliament. All that remained standing was Article 43(2) which said that the President has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister in appointing MPs as Ministers. 

At this moment, because two Rajapaksa brothers hold the positions of President and Prime Minister, and there always has been a fairly well-defined division of labour between them, the country does not feel the effects of this provision. Nobody else other than the Rajapaksa family can run the country effectively while such a bifurcation exists. If the Rajapaksas are defeated at a future election and a different political party captures power, the new President and Prime Minister would be at loggerheads from day one. Ironically the fact that Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were leading two different political parties may have in fact have introduced an element of restraint into the conflict between them because the nomination of MPs as ministers would take place on the basis of formal negotiations between two well defined political parties. However, if the President and Prime Minister were from the same political party, such decisions would be made in a backdrop of intrigue, infighting, and factionalism. Conflict between the number one and number two in the party would not only impact on day to day governance, it could also have serious consequences for the unity of the party concerned as well. What the 19th Amendment did was to make the number one subordinate to the wishes of number two in appointing ministers.

 

A President without portfolio 

Another problem in the 19th Amendment which did not affect Maithripala Sirisena but has dogged President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from the very beginning is the apparent inability of the President to hold any portfolio under the 19th Amendment. We use the term apparent here because there is no express prohibition in the 19th Amendment on the President holding portfolios. The supposed prohibition is by implication. Before the 19th Amendment, there used to be Article 44(2) in the Constitution which stated that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister. That provision was dropped when the 19th Amendment repealed and replaced Chapter Eight of the Constitution. There was also a transitional provision in the form of Section 51 of the 19th Amendment Act which stated that notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Constitution, the person holding office as President on the date of commencement of this Act, so long as he holds the office of President may assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment.

The disappearance of the old Article 44(2)  and Section 51 of the 19th amendment Act together are taken to imply that the President now cannot hold any portfolio. If someone poses the question, was the intention of the framers of the 19th Amendment the prevention of Presidents after Maithripala Sirisena from holding cabinet portfolios, the answer will be yes. Then the question that arises is, why was that point not specifically spelt out in the 19th Amendment? One would think that if some party wanted to amend the powers of the President they would do it boldly and up front and not try to do it circuitously and by implication. The reason why a prohibition on the President holding portfolios was not expressly included in the 19th Amendment is probably because the Supreme Court would have struck it down just as they struck down so many other explicit provisions which were meant to reduce the powers of the President.

The SC stated in their Determination on the 19th Amendment that “the transfer, relinquishment.or removal of a power attributed to one organ of government to another organ or body would be inconsistent with Article 3 read with Article 4 of the Constitution. Though Article 4 provides the form and manner of exercise of the sovereignty of the people, the ultimate act or decision of his executive functions must be retained by the President. So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain supreme or sovereign in the executive field and others to whom to such power is given must derive the authority from the President or exercise the Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President.”

Thus this provision to the effect that the President cannot hold a portfolio has been brought in through the back door by implication by arranging for certain provisions to be silently dropped and inserting transitional clauses which suggest that the President succeeding Maithripala Sirisena cannot hold any portfolio, not even the defence portfolio. Nobody knows how this supposed restriction on the President’s ability to hold protfolios would have fared if challenged in the Supreme Court. There is no dispute about the fact that the framers of the 19th Amendment wanted to ensure that no President after Sirisena should hold any portfolio, but is that intention consistent with the Constitution even as it stands after the 19th Amendment?

Even after the 19 A, the Constitution says in article 30(1) that the President is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and head of the Government and Article 42(3) states that the President shall be a member of the Cabinet of Ministers and shall be the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers. Furthermore, Article 4(b) states that the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President. This leaves many questions hanging in the air. If the President is the head of the Cabinet and a member of the Cabinet, what is his portfolio? The Constitution does not expressly forbid him from holding a portfolio nor does it specify that he has to be a minister without portfolio. If the President is supposed to exercise power over the defence of Sri Lanka, as Article 4 states, can he do it without holding the defence portfolio?

Under the 1946 Constitution it was specifically stated that the head of the government (the PM) would hold the defence portfolio. Since then every head of government up to 2019 has in fact held the defence portfolio. Some speculate that if this issue of the defence portfolio and the Presidency is raised in the Supreme Court, the likelihood is that the SC would hold in favour of the President being empowered to hold the defence portfolio firstly because there is no express provision against the president holding a portfolio and secondly because Article 4 specifically states that the president is to exercise the power of the defence of Sri Lanka.

 

Undissolvable Parliament

 

The most dangerous aspect of the 19th Amendment is the total prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament until the lapse of four and a half years unless a resolution to that effect is passed by Parliament with a two thirds majority – which unlike the issue of whether the President is entitled to hold portfolios, has been explicitly stated in the 19th Amendment. Before the introduction of the 19th Amendment, Article 70 of the Constitution stated that the President could dissolve Parliament at his discretion. The only restriction on this power was if the last parliamentary election had been held as a consequence of the President having dissolved Parliament at his discretion, he could not dissolve the next Parliament until the lapse of one year from the date of that Parliamentary election. This was obviously a safeguard against the repeated dissolution of Parliament by a President. Under the old Article 70, Parliament could dissolve itself by a resolution passed by a simple majority. If the budget is defated the President may dissolve Parliament but it was not mandatory. However if the Budget was defeated for the second time, the president was mandatorily required to dissolve parliament. 

All that has been changed by the new Article 70 which was introduced by the 19th Amendment. Now, under the new Article 70 the President cannot dissolve Parliament until the expiration of a period of not less than four years and six months from the date appointed for its first meeting, unless Parliament requests the President to do so by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members (including those not present). This is undoubtedly the most dangerous provision in the 19th Amendment. What will happen to this country if the President is unable to dissolve parliament or to maintain a majority in Parliament? In 2001, President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament when she knew she was losing her parliamentary majority due to defections. A Parliamentary election was held and a UNP government came into power thus ensuring that the country was not left rudderless. After President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was elected in November 2019, he had to wait only three and a half months before he was able to dissolve Parliament. If he had been forced to wait longer, we would have had a situation where the President of the country did not have a majority in Parliament to govern the country in accordance with the mandate he received.  

Unless the present Article 70 is changed, there will be the looming threat of anarchy hanging over this country like the proverbial sword of Damocles. If some say that the President should not have the discretionary power to dissolve Parliament at any time he wishes as was the case under the 1978 Constitution, then at the very least Parliament should have the ability to dissolve itself with a simple majority the same way it passes most laws in the country. Most importantly, there has to be room for Parliament to be dissolved in the event a no confidence motion is lost by a government in power or a government in power loses the budget thus displaying its inability to govern. To have an explicit provision in the Constitution which makes it impossible for Parliament to be dissolved even in such circumstances, is to court disaster. Even if the President is vested with the discretionary power to dissolve Parliament, no President will take such a decision lightly. 

During the entire duration of the 1978 Constitution, the President’s power to dissolve parliament was misused in an obvious way only when President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament in 2004. That single instance of abuse was the reason why this prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament was brought in. Firstly, you cannot formulate constitutions on the basis of knee-jerk-reactions. Secondly, even if the President’s powers over the dissolution of Parliament are restricted, the constitution has to be flexible enough to allow the dissolution of Parliament on the basis of events taking place within Parliament such as when governments lose no-confidence motions or are unable to get budgets or statements of government policy passed.

 

Questionable Constitutional Council 

The Constitutional Council is a centerpiece of the 19th Amendment. In fact the Constitutional Council and the so called independent commissions that went with it was the main feature of the 17th Amendment that was passed in 2001. For two decades, the foreign funded NGOs in Sri Lanka have been obsessed with the idea of taking power away from the elected representatives of the people and appropriating it for themselves. The prevailing view being that the elected representatives on both sides of the political divide could not be expected to do the right thing when it came to making important state appointments. When the 19th Amendment was passed, stiff resistance by the UPFA managed to keep the number of non-Parliamentarians on the ten member Constitutional Council at three instead of the originally intended five. Even though the number of outsiders was kept at three, due to the manner in which the yahapalana government and yahapalana opposition colluded with one another in stuffing the CC full of yahapalanites, all the independent commissions and other positions with some rare exceptions were filled with pro-yahapalana appointees and a considerable number of them were from the foreign funded NGO community. 

The whole thing was a disaster from the beginning with some of the officials appointed by the Constitutional Council such as the former IGP proving completely unsuited to hold that position. Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole who was appointed to the Elections Commission would certainly have been suited for some other high office but not that of a member of the Elections Commission. The biggest failure of the Constitutional Councils appointed under yahapalana rule in 2015 and 2018 was that they failed to convince the public that they were politically impartial. The whole purpose of the Constitutional Council should be revisited. Above all else the three non-parliamentarians on the CC should be got rid of. A body made up of MPs from both sides of the divide in Parliament headed by the Speaker so as to bring some collegiality into the process of making high appointments, would be a less objectionable arrangement.   

The purpose of having so called independent commissions for some purposes should be reconsidered. The Police Commission for example, was set up so that the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of police officers other than the Inspector-General of Police, would be vested in the Commission. However, the Commission was mandatorily required to exercise its powers of promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal in consultation with the Inspector-General of Police. Was this just a case of making more complicated a function that was best left to the head of the institution – the IGP – in a straightforward manner? The police have a function to perform as a collective entity and can they afford to be hamstrung by an external bureaucracy imposed upon the institution?  

There is a constitutional requirement that one member of the Elections Commission has to be a retired senior member of the Elections Department. There is a dire need to ensure that the other two members of the Elections Commission are selected only from among senior members of the public service with over 25 years of experience of serving under various governments. Such individuals would be much less inclined to politicize the Elections Commission the way Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole did, at enormous cost to the credibility of the commission he served on. Some sections of the 19A are to be dropped while others are to be retained according to the announcements made by members of the government. Actually, there’s more that needs to be dropped than retained!

 

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Politics

Pompeo’s visit

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The Island of 26/10 carried a news item, on the visit of Pompeo’s to Sri Lanka while also covering India and the Maldives. With just eight days for Presidential Elections in the US, there must be great urgency for the visit with respect to the Maldives. One possibility is to try and get Maldives to recognise Israel, a foreign policy triump for a beleaguered Trump. This will add  to, UAE, Bahrain and Sudan which are already in the quiver. The US has no borders in the Indian Ocean. The visits to India and Sri Lanka could only be side-shows.

The US says it is concerned about “a strong, independent and democratic Sri Lanka”. So is Sri Lanka about a democratic US, the first democratic country in the modern world. The US could justify its commitment to democracy by accepting a peaceful transfer of power to the elected one, after the elections. Seeing the emerging chaos in the US election, the US may like to get technical assistance from our Election Commission on how to run elections.

The Foreign Minister could take this opportunity, to canvass the US for her approval of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This would make Sri Lanka, The Mouse that Roared. 

Jolly Somasundram

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Silent death of constitutional holy cows

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by C.A. Chandraprema

That the 20th Amendment was passed does not come as a surprise. That some opposition MPs voted with the government also does not come as a surprise and neither does the fact that the unity of the governing coalition held during the voting despite the sparring between constituent sections of the government that had been going on for weeks over some provisions of the Amendment. What was surprising however was the manner in which some constitutional shibboleths of the past went into oblivion silently and almost unnoticed. The carcasses of several constitutional holy cows of the past can literally be seen lying dead on the streets.

When the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was first Gazetted as a Bill, this writer stated that some of the changes envisaged in that Amendment were urgent and could not wait until a new Constitution was drafted. Foremost among these was the abolition of the Constitutional Council which had the final say in making important appointments to high state positions like the Attorney General, the IGP and the Judges of the higher judiciary as well as the bodies like the Elections Commission, the Public Services Commission, and the Police Commission. Even after a presidential election and a parliamentary election, and the complete rout of the yahapalana political parties, five of the eight remaining members of the Constitutional Council (after the resignation of one member and the defeat of yet another member at the parliamentary elections) were yahapalanites who would have the final say in making all important state appointments until October 2021.

 

Misconceived institution

Getting rid of this Constitutional Council was what imbued the 20th Amendment with urgency. Yet this was one of the most cherished holy cows of the yahapalana camp. The 20th Amendment gave rise to a great deal of controversy and discussion, but one of the matters that was almost never mentioned was the abolition of the Constitutional Council. Back in 2001, when the 17th Amendment was introduced, it was all about the Constitutional Council and the need to take the power to make important state appointments out of the hands of the President and to give it not to Parliament and not to any elected representative of the people, but to unelected persons nominated by the political parties in Parliament. The first Constitutional Council created by the 17th Amendment had only three Parliamentarians but had seven outsiders.

The tautological absurdity of taking the power to make appointments to important state positions away from the President and away from Parliament and giving it to outsiders who however were appointed by the political parties in Parliament was lost on the proponents of the 17th Amendment – so firmly held was the view that elected politicians should not have a say in making important appointments to state positions. The prejudice seemed to be against elected representatives of the people. So long as you were not an elected representative it did not matter even if the members of the Constitutional Council were hangers on and nominees of political parties! When the 19th Amendment reintroduced the Constitutional Council in 2015, the proportion of parliamentarians to outsiders was reversed and it had seven Parliamentarians and only three outsiders, thanks to the furious resistance of the UPFA and its allies. If the yahapalanites had had their way, the Constitutional Council established by the 19th amendment would also have had only three Parliamentarians as against seven unelected outsiders.

When the 20th Amendment finally did away with the Constitutional Council that was introduced by the 19th Amendment, this yahapalana holy cow went into oblivion silently, and unnoticed. Even the remaining yahapalanites in Parliament did not agitate for its retention or even mention it by name during the weeks of public debate over the 20th Amendment. If they did mention the Constitutional Council, the media did not pick it up. What sealed the fate of the whole concept of the Constitutional Council was the manner in which the yahapalana political parties divided up the positions in the government and the opposition among themselves and stuffed the Constitutional Council full of yahapalanites without a single member to represent the real opposition in the country. The entire concept of the Constitutional Council was perverted and destroyed so completely, that not a single yahapalanite stood up to defend the Constitutional Council and to agitate for its continuation.

Even Karu Jayasuriya who Chaired the yahapalana Constitutional Council in his capacity as the Speaker and who obviously reveled in that role, did seem not come to the defence of the Constitutional Council in a major way, choosing instead according to some news reports, to oppose the 20th Amendment on the slogan of preventing dual citizens from becoming elected representatives of the people. Thus died a misconceived institution. On the one hand we talk of democracy and free and a fair elections, but try to argue that somehow, those who are democratically elected to positions of power should not be trusted with making appointments to important state positions and the power to make such appointments should as far as possible be given to unelected persons. Hopefully this is the last we hear of harebrained mechanisms like the Constitutional Council.

 

The defence portfolio issue

The other urgent matter that needed to be cleared up by the 20th Amendment was whether the President could hold the defence portfolio or not. The 19th Amendment had sought to bar the President from holding any portfolio by the repeal of the old Article 44(2) which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister. President Sirisena was allowed to hold the defence portfolio and the environmental portfolio by means of a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment. The repeal of old Article 44(2) and this transitional provision was supposed to imply that the President could not hold any portfolio, not even the defence portfolio even though the President was a member and the head of the Cabinet and Article 4 of the Constitution said that the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President.

This was a matter that needed to be cleared up urgently one way or another without waiting for the new Constitution which could take up to another year or more. The 20th Amendment sought to clear this up by reinstating the old Article 44(2). The restoration of the President’s power to hold portfolios was passed without any controversy or anybody seeming even to notice it. In the past, reducing the powers of the Presidency was the pivot around which the entire constitutional reform exercise revolved. The attempt to block the President from holding ministerial portfolios was a measure taken to reduce the power of the presidency introduced by the 19th Amendment. The absurdity of designating the President as the head of State, head of the government, head of the Executive, head of the Cabinet and then trying to prohibit the holder of that office from holding a ministerial portfolio was lost on the drafters of the 19th Amendment. Now this inconsistency too has been put right by the 20th Amendment. Thus the two most urgent provisions in the 20th Amendment have been passed with little or no controversy or even discussion. The former yahapalana hegemons who are now in the opposition in fact did not really defend the specific provisions of the 19th Amendment. They only expressed opposition to the 20th Amendment as a whole.

 

The vital elements in Article 70(1)

 

Another important issue that needed to be corrected even though it was not perhaps as urgent as the previously mentioned issues was the prohibition brought by the 19th Amendment on the dissolution of Parliament before the lapse of four and half years from the date of its first meeting, unless Parliament passes a resolution requesting dissolution with a two thirds majority. The rectification of this issue was not considered to be as urgent as the two issues mentioned earlier only because the present government has an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Had a government with only a slim majority in Parliament been in power, this issue would have been right at the top of the priority list. When the 19th Amendment repealed and replaced old article 70(1), the provisions that existed from the inception of the 1978 Constitution providing for the dissolution of Parliament in the event of the defeat of the government at a vote on the budget, or the statement of government policy or a no-confidence motion, were also dropped.

Thus, the Article 70(1) introduced by the 19th Amendment constituted a total prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament until the lapse of four and a half years quite irrespective of whether the government in power had enough support in Parliament to get the budget or a statement of government policy passed and to survive a no-confidence motion. What the 20th Amendment sought to do was to repeal the 19th Amendment’s Article 70(1) and to replace it with the pre-19th Amendment Article 70(1). In making this switch, only one aspect of the pre-19th Amendment Article 70(1) came to the attention of the Supreme Court. That was the period of one year during which the President could not dissolve Parliament if the previous Parliament had been dissolved by the President at his discretion.

The Supreme Court quoting a previous SC determination stated that if this period during which the President is barred from dissolving Parliament is too long, it may be contended that the President’s power of dissolution which operates as a check to sustain the balance of power is denuded of its efficacy. But, if we strike middle ground, the balance of power itself being the overall objective, and decide on a period of two years and six months, that sufficiently addresses concerns with regard to this provision and it could be passed with only a two thirds majority in Parliament and will not require a referendum. Now after the 20th Amendment, the President can dissolve Parliament after two and a half years instead of the one year period in the old article 70(1) which existed before the 19th Amendment. This however was not the issue with regard to the post 19th Amendment Article 70(1). It would not have mattered even if the period during which the President could not dissolve Parliament was retained at four and a half years if the President’s power to dissolve Parliament in the event the parliamentary government loses a budget, a vote of no confidence, or a statement of government policy was restored. The 20th Amendment has restored the President’s ability to dissolve parliament if the Parliamentary government is showing signs of collapse by being unable to get a budget passed or to survive a no confidence motion etc. and that’s what really matters.

 

SC on the provisions that raised controversy

The provisions relating to Urgent Bills which were to be reintroduced into the Constitution by the 20th Amendment raised some controversy. When the Cabinet is of the view that a particular Bill is urgent in the national interest and makes an endorsement to that effect, the President shall require the special determination of the Supreme Court on the

consistency or inconsistency of any provisions of the Bill by a reference addressed to the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court should make its determination in twenty-four hours or such longer period not exceeding three days as the President may specify. Petitioners against the 20th Amendment contended that this provision impacts on the People’s judicial power as well as legislative power and that the restrictive time period set out not only hinders but also unfairly curtails the exercise of judicial power. Furthermore they claimed that giving the Executive discretion in deciding the time period within which the determination should be made encroaches into the judicial power of the Courts.

The Supreme Court’s reaction to such contentions was to observe that the 20th Amendment Bill amends Article 123 of the Constitution by the insertion of a new paragraph which states that if the Supreme Court entertains a doubt whether the Bill or any provision thereof is inconsistent with the Constitution, it shall be deemed to have been determined that the Bill or such provision of the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution. The required nature of the determination is thereby limited to the expression of “entertaining a doubt” rather than a specific determination on the Constitutionality of the Bill or any of its provisions. As for the President fixing the timeframe within which the SC has to respond, the SC observed that Article 129(1) of the Constitution also empowers the President to refer a question to the Supreme Court to obtain its opinion within a time specified by the President.

Therefore, empowering the Executive to set a time period within which a Court should provide its determination per se does not infringe on the Sovereignty of the People. The SC further observed that the relevant provision does not exclude or prohibit an interested party intervening in proceedings relating to a hearing on such Bill. Furthermore the provision concerned makes it mandatory that such Bill be submitted to judicial review through the prescribed process. Therefore the provisions relating to urgent Bills in the 20th Amendment does not require a referendum and can be passed with a two thirds majority in Parliament.

When it came to Dual Citizenship, Petitioners against the 20th Amendment contended that the removal of this disqualification infringes Articles 1 and 3 of the Constitution. They contended that persons who hold a dual citizenship have split loyalties. When they pledge allegiance to two sovereign nations, their capacity to take decisions with the sole idea of protecting and preserving the Sovereignty of one country would be compromised; specially, in situations of conflict of interests between the two countries. Such situations can always arise in many areas of concern including, commerce, trade, defence and in addition on bi-lateral and multi-lateral relations when both countries become relevant parties.

The Attorney-General’s contention was that even a dual citizen has the right to be treated equally and enjoys all the rights of a person who is a citizen of Sri Lanka, only. He further stated that Article 26(2) and (3) of the Constitution prohibit making any distinction on the manner on which citizenship was acquired, Citizens by descent and citizens by registration will have same rights. It was further contended that under the provisions of the Citizenship Act it is only a person who had had been a citizen of Sri Lanka who could gain the dual citizenship. The AG argued that the Petitioners’ claim of “split loyalties” and “conflicts of interests” are mere surmise and conjecture. The SC was of the view that a decision on the inconsistency or consistency with a Constitutional provision cannot be based on surmise and conjecture and further that in the exercise of jurisdiction in relation to an amendment to the Constitution, does not extend to consideration of the desirability of a provision or to delve into policy matters. The SC’s sole consideration would be the constitutionality of the provision.

Only one really important provision of the 20th Amendment was shot down by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it would require a referendum in addition to a two thirds majority in Parliament. This was the restoration of the immunity of the President from suit as it existed before the 19th Amendment. The Supreme Court held that the removal of the existing right guaranteed through the Constitution to the People to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 126 in relation to acts of the President is inconsistent with Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution and therefore would require a referendum in addition to a two thirds majority in Parliament.

 

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Drafting of new constitution begins

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by C.A.Chandraprema

The drafting of the new constitution to replace the 1978 constitution has begun even before the 20th Amendment has been through the committee stage in Parliament. The Special Experts Committee to Draft a New Constitution headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva has been allocated offices in the BMICH, and three senior officers of the Ministry of Justice have been appointed to the Secretariat of the Committee. Sittings of the committee have already commenced with meetings being held every Friday. Two formal weekly meetings have already been held.

The other members of the committee are President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, President’s Counsel Sanjeewa Jayawardena, President’s Counsel Naveen Marapana, Prof. Nazeema Kamardeen, Dr. A. Sarveswaran, President’s Counsel Samantha Ratwatte, Prof.Wasantha Senevirathne and Prof.G.H.Peiris. The fact that this Committee has commenced work would have been headline news in normal circumstances but it has been completely overshadowed by the latest Covid-19 outbreak.

 For that matter, Covid-19 has drowned out the noise generated over the 20th Amendment as well. The government can be seen to be taking a very cautious approach to this Covid-19 cluster with whole villages and individual establishments being shut down at the slightest suspicion that an infected person may have visited the place concerned. Quite a number of false alarms have been reported but the government is proceeding on the basis that it’s better to be safe than sorry. There seems to be little doubt that the government agencies concerned will be able to get over this latest Covid crisis as well.

 Even though yahapalana theorists have raised a mighty caterwaul of protest claiming that the 20th Amendment will give rise to authoritarian rule, the 20A only restores the constitutional provisions that existed before the 19th Amendment, which essentially means that after the 20th Amendment, the President will have the approximately the same power that past Presidents J.R.Jayewardene, R.Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and even Maithripala Sirisena had. Even though the 19th Amendment removed some of the powers of the President, the yahapalana President Sirisena continued to enjoy those powers through other means and it’s only the incumbent President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who has had to bear the full brunt of the 19th Amendment.

 

Yahapalana sleight of hand

 One significant way in which the 19th Amendment sought to truncate the President’s powers was by establishing the Constitutional Council which would have the final say in making appointments to important state positions. After the establishment of the Constitutional Council, the President cannot appoint members and Chairmen of Commissions set up by the 19th Amendment such as the Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, the Election Commission, and several other such commissions without the individuals to be appointed being recommended by the Constitutional Council. Likewise when it came to the appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General and Inspector-General of Police and other such high state positions, any person appointed by the President to such positions had to be approved by the Constitutional Council. Thus either way, it’s the Constitutional Council that has the final say in making such appointments and not the President.

 Even though these provisions in the 19th Amendment were supposed to limit the powers of the President, they did not limit President Sirisena’s or the yahapalana government’s powers because the yahapalana political parties working in concert divided up the parliamentary government and the parliamentary opposition among themselves and established a complete hegemony over the Constitutional Council. It goes without saying that if the political backers and promoters of the President have complete and total control over the Constitutional Council, it’s the same as the President exercising those powers and that was the situation during the Sirisena Presidency. President Sirisena’s political setup enjoyed the same powers over high appointments that the political setups of his predecessors did.

 Another way in which the 19th Amendment sought to limit the powers of the President was by not allowing the President to hold any ministerial portfolios. Hence the pre-19th Amendment Article 44(2) of the Constitution which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister was repealed. Even though the 19th Amendment never expressly said that the President could not hold a portfolio, the repeal of Article 44(2) was supposed to mean that despite the fact that even under the 19th Amendment, the President continued to be the Head of the Government and the Head of the Cabinet he could not hold a ministerial portfolio. President Sirisena was not affected by this limitation because a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment allowed him not only to assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment so long as he holds the Office of President but also to determine the Ministries to be in his charge for that purpose. So all that President Sirisena had to do was to decide upfront which ministries he wanted. All Presidents do in fact decide upfront which ministries he would hold, so President Sirisena despite the 19th Amendment was able to do what all his predecessors did in this regard.

 

The genuine changes

To be fair, there were in fact a few genuine ways in which President Sirisena’s powers differed from those of his predecessors. The first and foremost of these was that the tenure of the presidency was shortened from six years to five years by changes made to Article 30(2). This was a genuine change and the 20th Amendment seeks to retain this without alteration. Another genuine change was the effective removal of presidential immunity by the 19th Amendment by means of changes made to Article 35(1) of the Constitution. Article 35(1) as amended by the 19th Amendment states that no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the President in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, either in his official or private capacity, provided that this shall not be construed as restricting the right of any person to make a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court under Article 126 against the Attorney-General, in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, in his official capacity.

 Making the President subject to fundamental rights litigation basically makes it possible to challenge any action that the President takes. In fact the 19th Amendment specifically stated that the Supreme Court shall have no jurisdiction to pronounce upon the exercise of the powers of the President only when it comes to declaring war and peace – which establishes that the Supreme Court can pronounce judgments on virtually everything else other than that one exception. President Sirisena was subject to this provision during his tenure and this was a genuine change made by the 19th Amendment. But it’s an unusual, and arguably counter-productive change. Even under the 1972 Constitution, the ceremonial President was designated the head of the Executive who was required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 23 of the 1972 Constitution stated that while any person holds office as president, no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him in his official or private capacity.

 If one takes the Ceylon Constitution Order in Council of 1946, the Executive power was exercised on behalf of the British crown by the Governor-General who was required by convention as mentioned in Article 4(2) of that Constitution to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Even though the Governor General was the representative of a titular head of state, even he was protected from litigation with the proviso that no act or omission on the part of the Governor-General shall be called in question in any court of law. We see the same protection accorded to the President of India. Article

53(1) of the Indian constitution says that the  executive  power  of  the  Indian Union  shall  be vested  in  the  President. Article 77(1) states that  all  executive  action  of  the  Government  of India  shall  be  expressed  to  be  taken  in  the  name  of  the President. Article 74(1)  requires the Indian President to act on the advice of the Prime  Minister and the  Council  of  Ministers  and the question whether any, and if so what, advice was  tendered  by  Ministers  to  the  President  cannot  be inquired  into  in  any  court. Under Article 77(2) of the Indian constitution, orders and other instruments made and executed in the name of the President shall not be called in question on the ground that it is not an order or instrument made or executed by the President.

 Thus we see that in the 1946 Ceylon Constitution Order in Council, the first Republican Constitution of 1972 and the second Republican Constitution of 1978, and even in the Indian Constitution, the actions of the head of the executive had always been given immunity from litigation. If the actions of the executive can be subject to litigation, then it can be argued that the final arbiter if not the wielder of executive power will be the judiciary and not the executive. The immunity of the President from suit was removed on the argument of limiting the President’s executive power. That gives the impression that before the 19th Amendment was passed there were no limits on the President’s executive power.

 

President never had unlimited power

 Two Supreme Court cases presided over by former Chief Justice Sarath N.Silva indicate otherwise. The 2006 landmark judgment in Nallaratnam Singarasa vs the Attorney General stated as follows:

“The President exercises the executive power of the People and is empowered to act for the Republic under Customary International Law and enter into treaties and accede to international covenants However,… such acts cannot be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law. This limitation is imposed since the President is not the repository of the legislative power of the People…. such a treaty or a covenant has to be implemented by the exercise of legislative power by Parliament and where found to be necessary by the People at a Referendum to have internal effect…where the President enters into a treaty or accedes to a Covenant which is “inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law”… such act of the President would not bind the Republic qua state….”

Then there was the famous Waters Edge judgment of 2008 (Sugathapala Mendis and Another vs Chandrika Kumaratunga and Others) where it was stated as follows:

 “The principle that those charged with upholding the Constitution – be it a police officer of the lowest rank or the President – are to do so in a way that does not “violate the Doctrine of Public Trust” by state action/inaction is a basic tenet of the Constitution which upholds the legitimacy of Government and the Sovereignty of the People. The “Public Trust Doctrine” is based on the concept that the powers held by organs of government are, in fact, powers that originate with the People, and are entrusted to the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary only as a means of exercising governance and with the sole objective that such powers will be exercised in good faith for the benefit of the People of Sri Lanka. Public power is not for personal gain or favour, but always to be used to optimize the benefit of the People. To do otherwise would be to betray the trust reposed by the People within whom, in terms of the Constitution, the Sovereignty reposes. Power exercised contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine would be an abuse of such power and in contravention of the Rule of Law.”

 The Water’s Edge judgment also quoted a previous 1998 judgment by Justice Mark Fernando, Karunathilaka v Dissanayake which stated as follows: “The immunity conferred by Article 35 is neither absolute not perpetual….Article 35 only prohibits the institution (or continuation) of legal proceedings against the President while in office; it imposes no bar whatsoever on proceedings against him when he is no longer in office…To hold otherwise would suggest that the President is, in essence, above the law and beyond the reach of its restrictions. Such a monarchical/dictatorial position is at variance with (1) the Democratic Socialist Republic that the preamble of the Constitution defines Sri Lanka to be, and (ii) the spirit implicit in the Constitution that sovereignty reposes in the People and not in any single person.”

 

Keeping yahapalana overkill in check

 All these cases were heard long before the 19th Amendment. Thus the proviso to article 35(1) introduced by the 19th amendment enabling fundamental rights cases to be filed against the AG over actions taken by the President was clearly a case of yahapalana overkill. The removal of this proviso and the restoration of the pre-19th Amendment Article 35 does not turn the President into an autocrat. It just provides the executive branch of the government the leeway to exercise the powers vested in the executive. While it’s true that former presidents in Sri Lanka have been accused of being authoritarian, the same accusation has been levelled at former Prime Ministers like Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. Much the same thing was said about Mrs. Indira Gandhi as well.

 The person holding the title and functions of head of the government can be as authoritarian or as liberal as he or she is inclined to be. In fact it may be argued by some that Prime Ministers have even greater potential and incentive to be authoritarian because no Prime Minister in the world seems to have term limits whereas almost all presidential systems do have term limits. Even the 20th Amendment will retain the two term limit for the President. Lee Kuan Yew was a Prime Minister but he too was accused of being authoritarian. It just so happens that Presidents tend to attract more charges of authoritarianism than Prime Ministers even though everyone knows at the back of their minds that Prime Ministers who are heads of government can be as every bit as authoritarian as any President holding the position of head of government.

 It’s interesting to speculate on why this is so. Is it because the President sits and does his work in grand isolation whereas the Prime Minister sits in Parliament with everyone else and is available to be heckled and booed at? Is it because the President once elected, is very difficult to remove whereas the Prime Minister (at least theoretically) can be thrown out at any moment through a Parliamentary revolt? It has to be noted that under the presidential system introduced by the 1978 Constitution, the President cannot rule without the support of Parliament. In 2001, at a time when President Chandrika Kumaratunga possessed all the powers of J.R. Jayewardene’s presidency, her party lost a parliamentary election and lost her majority in Parliament. She gave all powers to the newly elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasnghe and took a back seat for a while. Despite all the hype about authoritarian Presidents, the fact is that both Presidential heads of government and Prime Ministerial heads of government that this country has had in the past, have been completely dependent on Parliamentary majorities to govern. No President can override Parliament even under the pre-19th Amendment 1978 Constitution.

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