Sri Lanka presents plan in Parliament to cut president's powers

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks at a Parliament session in Colombo on Aug 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (BLOOMBERG) - Sri Lanka's government has tabled a proposal to curb the powers of the president's office, the first step to reform a political system widely seen as responsible for tipping the country into economic chaos and bankruptcy.

The passing of the proposed constitutional amendment would be a win for President Ranil Wickremesinghe and buy him time to institute tough economic reforms to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, as the country struggles to find funds for food and fuel supplies.

Mr Wickremesinghe promised to follow through with the changes in the presidency - a key demand from protesters and lawmakers who say the sweeping powers of the executive led to missteps by the former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa's administration.

Under Mr Rajapaksa, the Constitution was amended to give him wide-ranging powers to appoint and dismiss ministers. The new proposals aim to give more oversight to Parliament, restore independence to commissions in decision making and prohibit Sri Lankans with dual citizenship from holding office.

Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa tabled the Bill, known as the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, in Parliament on Wednesday (Aug 10).

The latest amendment, approved by the Cabinet last week, will need the votes of two-thirds of the members of Parliament to become law. It can be challenged in the country's top court within a week of being placed in Parliament.

Mr Rajapaksa fled to Singapore last month following months-long protests in Sri Lanka that saw demonstrators enter his home and offices. He stepped down as president soon after but is widely expected to return to Sri Lanka.

In his inaugural speech to Parliament last week, Mr Wickremesinghe, who was elected President with the support of lawmakers from Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa's party, called for support for his administration's measures to help pull the nation out of its economic tailspin.

However, Mr Wickremesinghe has also used the powers of the presidency to impose emergency rule, and police have arrested several protesters for their involvement in demonstrations that forced out Mr Rajapaksa.

Many in the protest movement have called for Mr Wickremesinghe's ouster as well, saying he would not hold the former president accountable for economic mismanagement in a country where foreign exchange reserves remain low and inflation has stayed above 60 per cent.

A day before the proposals were tabled in Parliament, a planned protest appeared to have lost steam, as the government cracked down and cleared out several protest sites, including an iconic ocean-front area that was at the heart of the anti-Rajapaksa anger.

People are also focused on securing supplies of fuel and cooking gas that have started to trickle into the country. That was a marked change from the anger in the months before, when people had to queue for hours to secure these essential items.

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