Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa faces challenge in top court

Mr Rajapaksa won a landslide victory at the Aug 5 parliamentary election. PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (BLOOMBERG) - 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 (Sept 29) 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."

Mr 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-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 Commission and five other bodies.

"Greater scrutiny and discussion is 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.

Mr 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 - 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 super majority 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.

"The democratic mandate received by the government in August 2020 must be recognized. However, that mandate must not be misconceived as a blank cheque for the government to do as it pleases," the CPA said in its statement.

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