COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's embattled Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday proposed to restore the 19th amendment to the Constitution to curb presidential powers and empower Parliament as protests intensified in the island nation against his government over its handling of the economy.
Addressing parliament on the first day after the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Prime Minister Rajapaksa said it is important that a solution to the multiple crises is found on a solid economic, political and social foundation.
"I believe a constitutional change must take place. As a start, I believe implementing the 19th Amendment with necessary and timely changes is the best short term solution for the current situation in the country," said Premier Rajapaksa.
"It is my belief that 19A has to be revived with certain amendments as a short term solution," he told the House. The 19A adopted in 2015 pruned presidential powers by empowering Parliament above the executive president.
However, the 19A was scrapped after his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the November 2019 presidential election. "With the blessings of the president, we must walk towards broader constitutional reform in the future," said the prime minister.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana told the House that a special meeting was held yesterday to arrive at short and long term solutions from within parliament to address the current political crisis.
"A number of party leaders called for the drafting of a new Constitution as a long term measure and the strengthening of Parliament by bringing in the twenty-first amendment to the Constitution as a short term mechanism," Abeywardana said.
Supporting the prime minister, ex-premier and United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose government carried out the 19th amendment, said: "I am happy to take the 19th amendment back to the nation as the former Prime Minister who proposed it."
"The only request I have is, respectfully, abolish the 20th Amendment as soon as possible to bring in the 19th amendment," said Wickremesinghe.
The Rajapaksa government in recent weeks has been facing public protests over fuel and gas queues alongside shortages of other essentials.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in the country's history due to a crippling forex shortage. Protests demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka Podujana (Peramuna)-led government have intensified as shortages continued and prices soared.
When the House met on Tuesday, nearly 41 members of the ruling coalition took opposition seats. They had declared independence from the ruling coalition.
The Opposition reiterated the call for the government to resign as that was the demand of the protesters. Now the parliament is to set in motion a constitutional reform process, parliament was told on Monday.
A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office on Monday said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa intends to propose a new Constitutional Amendment to the Cabinet to fulfil the people's aspirations.
"The Prime Minister is expected to propose to the Cabinet a Constitutional Amendment that would include the Executive, Judiciary and the Legislature.
Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said he pays special attention to the requests from various quarters to create a government that is accountable to the people, the Colombo Page news portal reported.
Based on those requests, he hopes to present to the Cabinet a new proposal for a constitutional amendment incorporating the positive aspects of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, it said. "It is my hope that the amended Constitution will be able to achieve the aspirations of the people," the premier said in a statement.
Sri Lanka is grappling with unprecedented economic turmoil since its independence from Britain in 1948. The crisis is caused in part by a lack of foreign currency, which has meant that the country cannot afford to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to acute shortages and very high prices.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday admitted that mistakes like banning chemical fertilisers in 2020 and not seeking an IMF bailout led to the current economic crisis.
President Rajapaksa also said his government should have opted to go for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout much earlier. "It was a mistake not to go."
Speaking to his newly inducted Cabinet Ministers, the president termed his decision to ban chemical fertilisers in farming "a mistake" and that corrective steps were being taken now.
President Rajapaksa on Monday appointed a new 17-member Cabinet that excluded his close relatives except for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, as he called for a "system change" amidst growing demand for his resignation over the worst economic crisis faced by the island nation.
President Rajapaksa in mid-2020 banned the use of fertiliser imports in order to turn to a green agricultural policy with organic fertiliser.
Agriculturists had protested the move, saying there would be a food shortage due to crop loss/loss in field output. Notwithstanding, the government had gone ahead with the move and followed it up with a crackdown on shopkeepers and traders following reports of hoarding of staple food items.
Commenting on the ongoing public protests, President Rajapaksa said, "I can understand the anger of the people, they have to put up with the high cost of living while suffering in the queues to buy essentials." The government resisted calls from economists to resort to a bailout from the IMF in view of dwindling foreign reserves.
A government delegation is currently in Washington negotiating with the IMF after it announced last week, the island's first-ever international debt default. Largely attended public protests including the one opposite his secretariat here and a cross-country call for President Rajapaksa's resignation have jolted the government.
The stock exchange has also been suspended for a week with effect from Monday. The state power entity said there will be four and a half-hour power cuts on Monday.
Sri Lanka's state oil entity has raised its retail price from Monday midnight, the second in a month. It came a day after the Indian Oil Company's local operation raised its prices, adding to the woes of the people who are impacted by the island nation's worst economic crisis.