Lanka PM Mahinda Rajapaksa proposes to curb presidential powers of younger brother

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Mahinda Rajapaksa | AP

Colombo: Sri Lanka's embattled Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday proposed to restore the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to curb the powers of his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa and empower Parliament, as protests intensified against the government over its handling of the country's debt-ridden economy.

Sri Lanka is grappling with unprecedented economic turmoil since 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.

Addressing Parliament on the first day after the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, 76, 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,” he said.

“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 Mahinda Rajapaksa's younger 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.

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.

Sri Lankan police on Tuesday opened fire at anti-government protestors in southwestern region of Rambukkana, killing at least one person and injuring 12 others - the first death during the ongoing protests over the worst-ever economic crisis in the country's history.

The residents of Rambukkana - some 90 kilometers northeast of Colombo, were protesting at the latest fuel price hike when they clashed with the police.

The Opposition reiterated the call for the government to resign as that was the demand of the protesters.

On Monday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, admitted that mistakes like banning chemical fertilisers in 2020 and not seeking an IMF bailout led to the current economic crisis.

He also said his government should have gone an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout much earlier. “It was a mistake not to go,” he said.

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 in mid-2020 banned the use of fertiliser imports in order to turn to a green agricultural policy with organic fertiliser.

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.

On Monday, President Rajapaksa appointed a new 17-member Cabinet that excluded his close relatives except Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. That meant no place for the oldest member of the family Chamal Rajapaksa, Mahinda's son Namal Rajapaksa, both of whom were Cabinet ministers and the nephew Shasheendra who was a state minister.

The powerful Rajapaksa family tightened their grip on power after their massive victory in the general elections in August 2020 that allowed them to amend the Constitution to restore presidential powers and install close family members at key positions.

The stock exchange has also been suspended for a week with effect from Monday amidst the economic turmoil.

Meanwhile, Moody's Investors Service on Tuesday downgraded Sri Lanka's sovereign rating to Ca from Caa2 with a stable outlook, following a decision by the island to suspend debt payments.

Moody's said the suspension would lead to “will lead to a series of defaults with the first coupon payments for the government's international bonds coming due today, 18 April 2022.”

“..Moody's assesses that private sector creditor losses stemming from the eventual debt restructuring is likely to be material and exceed the limited levels of loss consistent with the previous Caa2 rating.”

Last week, the Sri Lankan government said it would temporarily default on USD 35.5 billion in foreign debt as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine made it impossible to make payments to overseas creditors. PTI

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