The much touted 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was passed in Parliament on Friday with 174 votes for and none against. Only one vote was cast against it during the second reading of the debate on the Amendment, but the same dissenting MP, Sarath Weerasekara had abstained during the committee stage voting. Will this amendment make a change in the political system or the political culture in the country?
The essence of the Amendment of which the serial number has now become the 21 is not new to the country. It provides for the curtailment of powers of the executive President by way of appointment of a Constitutional Council and several “independent” Commissions. This mechanism will prevent the President from arbitrarily appointing or sacking almost all high ranking public and judicial officials. He would have to appoint these officials subject to the approval of the Constitutional Council. The transfers, promotions and disciplinary actions in respect of those officials would be handled by the commissions of relevant profession. The mechanism was first introduced by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution during the so-called ‘Parivasa Government” under President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2001, at the instance of the JVP.
Vividly putting on display the unprincipled nature of our politicians, the mechanism was done away with in 2010 through the 18th Amendment and re-introduced by the 19th Amendment in 2015, but only to be got rid of again by the 20th Amendment in 2020. Now the 21st Amendment has given the kiss of life to it again for the third time. One should not be astounded to recollect that there have been people’s representatives in our august legislature, including Professors, legal luminaries and great patriots who had voted for all five amendments which alternately negated each other, justifying their positions each time, with incredible arguments.
However, this important factor was overshadowed by a few issues that are more relevant to individuals and certain political parties, rather than to the interests of the country and the people. Though a certain degree of country’s interests is involved in the matter of permitting the dual citizens to contest elections in the country, it was identified with an individual, the former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, by both sides of the aisle as well as the media acted upon. It was so personalized that certain politicians, when the 20th Amendment was passed in 2020, claimed that they would temporarily allow dual citizens to contest elections, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had made an emotional plea to that effect.
Another issue on which the Parliamentarians took their decisions on the basis of their personal interests was the duration in which President would be permitted to dissolve the Parliament. The original second Republican Constitution of 1978 allowed the President to dissolve the Parliament one year after its first meeting and this was extended to four and-a-half years by the 19th Amendment of 2015, as it was meant to strengthen the writ of the Parliament. Again the duration was shortened to two and-a-half years by the 20th Amendment of 2020, in order to strengthen the discretion of the President, over the legislature.
Ironically, it was those who voted for the 20th Amendment exactly two years ago, wanted to extend it again to four and-a-half years when the discourse over the 22nd Amendment was started. Yet, they finally voted for the Amendment on Friday. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake accused in the Parliament that they feared losing their pension first and later had the mind change subsequent to the assurance given by the President that he would not dissolve the Parliament once the current Parliament completes two and-a-half years, in March next year. On the other hand, the President who extended this duration to four and-a-half years in 2015 when he was the Prime Minister did not want to do so this time when he is the President.
However, will the country attain the professed fruits of the 21st Amendment is the main issue that should concern the people who love democracy, freedom and human rights. We have seen the independence of the independent commissions being compromised in the past by some of those commissions and commissioners themselves. We have also seen the Constitution becoming a football between the contending political parties, negating any assurance that this last Amendment would not be rolled back in the near future.
Yet, one cannot, but be content over the passage of the 21st Amendment, since it is one step towards democracy from the autocracy, despite the threat of it being reversed in the future.
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