• Sun. Nov 27th, 2022

Crisis-hit Sri Lanka votes to curb presidential powers

Sri Lanka’s parliament voted Friday (Oct 21) to curtail the powers of the president, a partial concession to the protest movement that forced the island nation’s former head of state into exile.

An unprecedented economic downturn this year fuelled intense public anger, with the government accused of mismanagement and of precipitating drastic food and petrol shortages.

Months of protests culminated in July with a huge crowd storming the official residence of then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country under military escort and issued his resignation from Singapore.

His successor Ranil Wickremesinghe took charge pledging to curb the sweeping powers of his office, which had been expanded by Rajapaksa’s administration.

Parliament voted overwhelmingly to endorse a constitutional amendment that limited presidential control of the police, the judiciary and appointments to the civil service.

“From the people’s point of view, this is a good Bill and that is why we support it,” said former president Maithripala Sirisena, who is currently an opposition legislator.

Opposition parties supported the measure but complained that it did not go far enough, after backing the protest movement’s calls for reducing the presidency to a ceremonial role.

“What you are trying to do is pull the wool over the eyes of the people,” lawmaker MA Sumanthiran said during the debate on the Bill.

The amendment also restored a ban on dual citizens from contesting national elections after it was repealed by Rajapaksa two years ago.

Rajapaksa’s younger brother Basil, a former finance minister, is a United States citizen and is widely believed to still have presidential aspirations despite public anger over his role in the economic crisis.

Rajapaksa centralised power after taking office in 2019 by removing independent oversight from the police, judiciary and election authorities.

But his administration stumbled when a critical foreign currency shortage left Sri Lanka unable to import vital goods, leading to the country’s worst downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.

The country eventually defaulted on its US$51 billion foreign debt in April and is now finalising an International Monetary Fund bailout.

Rajapaksa has since returned to Sri Lanka and is living under armed protection, despite calls for his arrest and prosecution on a raft of corruption charges.