Sri Lanka’s President Wins Bid to Regain Sweeping Powers
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Photographer: Tharaka Basnayaka/Bloomberg)

Sri Lanka’s President Wins Bid to Regain Sweeping Powers

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa succeeded in a bid to restore sweeping executive powers to his office after his government won a super majority vote to amend the constitution.

After two days of debate in parliament, Rajapaksa’s supporters on Thursday clinched 156 of 225 votes in the legislature in favor of changes that would concentrate authority in the hands of the president at the cost of the prime minister and the parliament, potentially putting at risk judicial independence and the law-making process.

“The 20th amendment can be considered a constitutional adjustment that undermines and lets down the sovereignty of the people,” said independent political analyst Victor Ivan. “Adopting the amendments, which can be considered dictatorial, is not a solution to the real crisis facing the country.”

The Asian Development Bank predicts Sri Lanka’s economy will shrink 5.5% this year, the biggest contraction since at least 1951. Outlook for growth is clouded by a resurgence in Covid-19 infections. Meanwhile, Moody’s Investors Service in September cut Sri Lanka’s credit score deeper into junk, citing risks from the coronavirus-induced shock to the economy.

Sri Lanka’s President Wins Bid to Regain Sweeping Powers

Sri Lanka’s 2021 dollar bond dropped 1.8 cents on the dollar to 79.7 cents as of 10:36 a.m. in Hong Kong, after gaining about 1 cent over the past two days, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The rupee was trading unchanged at 184.4 to a dollar at 9:15 a.m. in Colombo.

Rajapaksa -- who had run a minority government after winning a November presidential poll and appointed his brother and former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister -- secured a landslide victory at the Aug. 5 parliamentary election. The brothers ruling Sri Lanka also had the support of minority parties and others to get the super majority needed to pass the constitutional amendments in parliament.

The changes include replacing the Constitutional Council with a weakened Parliamentary Council made up of only legislators and no civil society members. The executive would also appoint members to the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commission and five other bodies.

Sri Lanka’s top court this week ruled that four clauses among the amendments, including those involving the immunity of the president and dissolution of parliament, were either inconsistent with the constitution or require referendum. The court ruling has to be incorporated in the final bill.

Sri Lanka’s newly-elected government has also appointed a committee of senior lawyers to draft a new constitution.

“When power is centralized in one individual, there are limited opportunities for checking it,” said Bhavani Fonseka, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives -- among some 40 petitioners against the amendments. “It impacts the legislature, it impacts the judiciary and institutions.”

“If this is a precursor, one worries what is in store in a new constitution.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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