Rajapaksa’s power grab challenged in top court

COLOMBO • Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court is considering petitions from as many as 40 individuals and organisations challenging President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s plan to restore sweeping executive powers to his office.

The island nation’s top court began hearing submissions on Tuesday from the petitioners who are concerned about the concentration of authority in the hands of the president, at the cost of the prime minister and the Parliament, and the undermining of judicial independence and the law-making process.

“The president is going to be given unfettered authority, which is not what he was given when he was elected,” said parliamentarian Harsha de Silva, who is a member of the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya that has filed multiple petitions. “If the power is going to be concentrated, the people have to be asked.”

Rajapaksa’s government earlier this month gazetted and tabled in Parliament the amendments that would restore the president’s powers to dissolve the legislature one year after its election, a duration which had been increased to four and a half years under a previous change.

The latest changes also include replacing the Constitutional Council with a weakened Parliamentary Council made up of only legislators and no civil society members. The executive would also appoint members to the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commsion and five other bodies.

“Greater scrutiny and discussion are necessary before enacting these proposals that will have serious implications for Sri Lanka’s constitutional democracy, erode the rule of law and the sovereignty of citizens,” the Centre for Policy Alternatives, also one of the petitioners, said in a statement.

Rajapaksa — who had run a minority government after winning a November presidential poll and appointed his brother and former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister (PM) — won a landslide victory at the Aug 5 parliamentary election.

The brothers ruling Sri Lanka also have the support of minority parties and others to get the supermajority needed to pass the constitutional amendments in Parliament. Sri Lanka’s newly-elected government has also appointed a committee of senior lawyers to draft a new constitution.. — Bloomberg