Sri Lanka to quash constitutional amendment that pruned presidential powers

Colombo, Aug 20 (efe-epa).- Fresh from a landslide victory his party won in parliamentary elections, Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday vowed to roll back a constitutional amendment that pruned the presidential powers in the island nation.

Rajapaksa was speaking at the inaugural session of the new parliament weeks after the polls in which the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna secured 145 seats in the 225-member house.

“As the people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment, our first task will be to remove the 19th amendment to the constitution. After that, all of us will get together to formulate a new constitution suitable for the country,” Rajapaksa said.

He said the current constitution was full of “ambiguities and uncertainties” that had caused “confusion.”

The sweeping reforms under the 19th amendment that transferred some of the president’s powers to the prime minister, empowered parliament, and depoliticized key institutions were adopted by the previous government in 2015.

Its revocation was a major election plank for the SLPP that together with its allies won a two-thirds majority needed to effect constitutional changes.

Political analyst Kusal Perera said the people in Sri Lanka did not accept the amendment introduced by the government led by former president Maithripala Sirisena.

“No constitution is valid unless the society accepts and validates it,” Perera said, adding that the SLPP of the Rajapaksa brothers would make sure to tighten their grip on power.

In his speech, Rajapaksa also pledged to strengthen the Buddhist identity of the island nation whose more than 70 percent of 21.5 million people are Buddhists.

The president said he has set up an advisory council that includes “Buddhist monks to seek advice on governance.”

However, some Muslim leaders hope that the country would move on from communal rhetoric targeting members of their faith, particularly after the 2019 Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people, mostly Catholics.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told EFE that they hope that the anti-Muslim “hate rhetoric” will die-down now that the government secured an overwhelming majority.

“The SLPP voters included a large group of Muslims too,” he said.

Another major challenge of the government is the revival of the economy that has been hit hard by the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown, which has shut down tourism – the mainstay of the country’s GDP.

The sector is the third-largest source of foreign exchange in Sri Lanka, earning $4.38 billion in 2018, although revenues fell to $3.61 billion in 2019 as a result of the Easter attacks.

Fitch this year downgraded Sri Lanka’s international sovereign rating to ‘B-negative’ from ‘B’ used to rate dollar debt. The country by 2024 is expected to pay an external debt of $30 billion.

“This is unmanageable. The government will have to borrow from abroad to meet its expenditure,” senior economist WA Wijewardena said.

The country’s main two options are to seek assistance either from China or India.

The Rajapaksas are known to be pro-China even as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to reach out to the victorious SLPP following the Aug.5 election.

Meanwhile, activists fear that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka may worsen.

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