Sri Lanka, if not for an ‘independent’ judiciary

COLOMBO (EconomyNext) – Sri Lanka would have returned to a parliamentary system of government from April 22 if not for the Supreme Court striking down the 19th amendment which was drafted in line with President Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto.

The Supreme Court effectively shot down all proposed provisions to reduce the powers of the president and left only a few minor reforms such as the reduction of the presidential and parliamentary terms to five years from the previous six.

20151131065036734_20However, those reforms will apply from the next elections and there is no move to trim President Maithripala Sirisena’s term which ends in 2021.

Sirisena could exercise all the powers he himself claimed were excessive without having to deliver on his election promise spelt out clearly in the manifesto which the Supreme Court in its wisdom, or lack thereof, decided to ignore.

Sirisena’s manifesto promised to transfer power to parliament through a prime minister who would be head of government, but the Supreme Court did not allow it while arguing that the president was already answerable to parliament.

“The new constitutional structure would be essentially an executive allied with the parliament through the Cabinet instead of the present autocratic executive presidential system,” the manifesto promised. “Under it the president would be equal with all other citizens before the law.”

The Supreme Court would have none of that.

The three men who would go down in history as having shot down the people’s will as expressed in the January 8 presidential election result are Chief Justice K. Sripavan and Justices Chandra Ekanayake and Priyasath Dep.

The court was also opposed to granting sweeping powers to the elections commissioner to ensure free and fair elections similar to the powers available in India which conducts the world’s largest democratic elections.

The Supreme Court held that transferring some of the executive powers from the president to a prime minister in line with a Westminster-style of parliament was a violation of the mandate given to the president.

It is shocking how the highest court in the land could ignore that for the past two decades politicians of all hues and voters at election after election had voted for scrapping the executive presidency although none of the promises were ever kept.

This time, Sirisena has received legal cover for not delivering on the most fundamental promise to do away with the unhealthy powers of the executive.

With the UNP agreeing to go ahead with the watered down bill, this is what the people will get if the 19th amendment is passed on April 20 with a two thirds majority: re-introduction of the Constitutional Council to make key appointments and run key institutions such as the police, the public service, the judiciary and the elections commission.

This is effectively bringing back the 17th amendment which was made ineffective by the 18th amendment introduced by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.

What voters will not get: The promised abolition of the executive presidency and returning the country to a Westminster-style of parliamentary democracy.

If the 19th amendment is not approved by parliament on April 20, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is expected to call for an immediate dissolution of the assembly and set the stage for an election by mid-June or July.

As President Sirisena himself announced in Polonnaruwa last week, a snap parliamentary election promised in the manifesto may help restore political stability and end the period of uncertainty that plagued the country after his election.