Sri Lankan bishops oppose amendment that would strengthen presidency

shutterstock 1559887055 The Presidential Secretariat of Sri Lanka in Colombo. | designersl/Shutterstock.

Sri Lanka's bishops said Tuesday that the country's democracy would decay if parliament passes a constitutional amendment that would strengthen the president's power.

The bishops said the Twentieth Amendment, which would allow President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take control of parliament, would be dangerous for the country. They instead encouraged government officials to focus on drafting a new constitution that safeguards democracy, law, and equality.

"We need to emphasize that concentration of power in an individual without checks and balances does not augur well for a Democratic, Socialist Republic," they said in an Oct. 13 letter.

The letter was signed by the president and the secretary general of the Sri Lankan bishops' conference, Bishop Winston Fernando of Badulla and Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Jayakody of Colombo.

Under the current constitution, adopted in 1978, presidential decisions are reviewed in court and the prime minister has the power to assign cabinet ministers who form central government. It also permits an independent commission to select officials to public institutions like the police force or the human rights commission.

If the amendment passes, the Associated Press reported, Rajapaksa would have the power to appoint judges, dissolve laws, and install or remove government ministers. The president would also be able to oversee any number of ministries giving him the power to appoint officials to public institutions.

Before parliament votes on the amendment, the Supreme Court must make a decision on whether specific aspects of the amendment will need a referendum to be approved. It is expected that members of parliament will approve the amendment, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass, the AP reported.

″A two-thirds majority of the members in the Parliament based on political parties does not necessarily manifest the true conscience of the people," the bishops said.

"Therefore, let the entire membership of the parliament appoint an Independent Constitutional Council comprising a majority of men and women of proven integrity from the society who will take care of drafting a new constitution which ensures transparent democracy, the rule of law and the equality of all citizens."

The Sri Lankan constitution established a unicameral parliament along with a powerful presidency. The Nineteenth Amendment, adopted in 2015, diluted the president's powers; the proposed Twentieth Amendment would reverse the reforms of the Nineteenth.

"The Executive Presidency has been the bone of contention since it was created in 1978," the Sri Lankan bishops reflected. "All elected presidents since 1994 vowed to abolish the Executive Presidency with powers vested in it by the 1978 Constitution and transfer power to the democratically elected Parliament, but none had the political will to do so for reasons not unknown to the people."

The bishops said rules cannot be changed based on the inconsistencies and whims of individual political figures. They encouraged the installation of civilly responsible officials and challenged parliament to focus on rebuilding a constitution that protects and improves Sri Lanka.

"It is our view … to identify and elect or appoint suitable persons who will abide by the rules to safeguard true, justice, and the well-being of the country. It is the bounden-duty of the democratically elected Parliament to create wholesome governing structures capable of moving this country forward," they said.

"Greater clarity is needed if the constitution is to serve the citizenry. Thus the 20th Amendment should not be proceeded with, in its entirety, and instead a new constitution needs to be the national priority at this moment."

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