The rapid spread of the coronavirus has become the focus of national attention. The extension of the three day lockdown and 24 hour curfew that was imposed on Colombo and the entire Western Province over the weekend has now been extended by a week with the implication that the threat of uncontrolled spread is very serious. The external manifestation of the crisis came with the discovery of the Brandix factory cluster in early October. There appears to have been many failures in regard to its control. Religious clerics have appeared on media to say that this is the nature of things. Following the latest lockdown President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made an appeal to the general population to be more responsible in their attitudes. However, the laxity appears to have been contributed to by the state authorities and their agents responsible for the implementation of the Covid control system.
The passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution has taken place at a time of unprecedented crisis in the country. For the past months since it surfaced as a draft, the government leadership had been giving it priority attention to garnering support for the legislation in the face of mounting challenges. Despite securing an enormous majority of seats in parliament, and only 5 short of an outright 2/3 majority required for constitutional change there were times when the challenge seemed too big to accomplish. The peculiar feature of the 20th Amendment was that it called on the parliamentarians to voluntarily give up their existing powers as a collective and entrust it to the presidency.
The ongoing investigation into the Easter bombing in 2019 which created hundreds of victims and brought the country’s economy to its knees, reveals more and more the lack of responsibility and failure on the part of the government authorities at that time. Everyone being questioned in regard to the security failure seems to be seeking to pass the responsibility onto someone else or to say that all are responsible and so no one is. The 19th Amendment which reduced the powers of the president and distributed it to the prime minister, parliament and other state institutions has been made the scapegoat for those human failures and unwillingness to take responsibility. The political problem with the 19th Amendment is that it has enabled those who wish to shirk their responsibility many ways to point their fingers at the others.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s statement that his verbal orders should be considered as circulars to be implemented has generated considerable interest as it goes against the norms of state administration. There has been much commentary on it, not all of it positive. The president issued this directive at a meeting organised for him in one of the country’s most underdeveloped areas. His desire to cut through layers of bureaucracy on the spot could be based on his previous experience as a serving military officer and later as Defense Secretary. The large number of requests made by the residents of the village of Vilanwita in the Badulla District could have been the reason the president made this announcement to ensure that the decisions he was making would be implemented.
The government has announced that the draft 20th Amendment bill will be presented to parliament on Tuesday. It will be the same version that caught the country by surprise when it first made its appearance to the public on September 3. The extreme nature of the proposed amendment, which has been the cause of much disquiet, is epitomized by the power it seeks to give the president to sack the prime minister and ministers at his discretion and to dissolve parliament after a year of its election. Undoubtedly it was concerns within the ranks of those elected to parliament from within the government side itself that prompted Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to appoint a committee consisting of parliamentarians of stature to give their opinion on the proposed 20th Amendment and to suggest further amendments to it.
The formulation of the draft 20th Amendment and its unanimous acceptance by the cabinet is indicative of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s dominant role in the government. The unanimous cabinet decision to approve amendment uncritically has paved the way for the political embarrassment the government currently faces with no one prepared to accept responsibility for it. It therefore took more than a week for the government to reach agreement to appoint a committee to review the 20th Amendment after strong opposition criticisms highlighted several problems in the draft law. The president’s role stems from both his track record and popularity with the majority who voted for him and what he stands for. The president is seen not only as a leader who is committed to strengthening the country, but also as a leader who will get things done with firm resolve.
The draft 20th Amendment to the constitution is a tribute to the faith placed in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by the members of the government and the general population. This proposed change in the supreme law of the country will provide him with virtually unfettered powers and dominance over parliament and all other institutions of state. The transfer of power away from parliament and to the president is reflective of the trust and confidence placed in the President Rajapaksa by the framers of the proposed law and by the cabinet of ministers that approved it unanimously.
During the election campaign the ruling party and its allies legitimized their call for a 2/3 majority in parliament on the basis that a change of constitution was needed to empower the future government. But there was limited information about what needed to be changed. The focus was on the 19th Amendment that shared power more equitably between the president and parliament, protected state institutions from political interference and banned dual citizens from contesting elections. There were also references to the need to do away with the 13th Amendment that devolved power to the provinces, or at least abolish the devolved powers over police and land.
Much is hoped for from the new government which triumphed with an unprecedented 2/3 majority. The fate of the country at this critical juncture depends on the government’s sagacity when the Covid virus continues its rampage throughout the world and the world economy is in decline. There was an expectation of new faces in the cabinet equal to this task and equipped with the professional orientation that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has brought to the fore. However, the exigencies of competitive politics, the need to reward loyalty and those who can bring in the votes appear to have prevailed over the demands of professional competence.
The early indications from the newly elected government elected by an astounding majority is that they are serious about making a difference and in making a constructive break with the past. The hope of all Sri Lankans will be that it will also be a lasting difference and not be limited to good intentions that quickly go awry as has been the case too many times in the past giving rise to great cynicism. A sustainable democracy needs not only elections but also a solid foundation of economic and political rights and social freedoms. The hopes will be that the government ensures that the rule of law prevails, that there will be no impunity for wrongs done by those who are powerful, that personal freedoms are guaranteed, that there will be economic development that benefits all sections of the population and that ethnic and religious suspicions and hatreds diminish to give rise to a truly Sri Lankan family.