Some thoughts on 20th amendment


Speaking recently, at an internal meeting President Maithripala Sirisena asked those present to brace themselves for the Local Government and Provincial Council elections, it is learnt.

However the President has told the meeting that though the government had come up with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to postpone the provincial council elections due this year, it all comes down to the determination by the Supreme Court. Large number of cases has been filed against the undemocratic suggestions included in the amendment. Still he said the party should be ready and waiting for elections to both the local authorities and the provincial councils to be called at any time.

In the mean time PM assured that every thing will be resolved democratically. The government will hold elections to the nine provincial councils before the end of 2018 by re-wording the 20th Amendment which was rejected by several provincial councils, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said. That means government is prepared to revise the 20th amendment proposal. “We are ready to introduce a fresh clause to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution compelling the government to hold the provincial council elections before the end of next year,” the Prime Minister has said. He has added “The 20A was prepared to ensure that elections to the nine PCs will be held under the mixed electoral system on a single day prior to the end of 2018."

When the proposal for 20th amendment to the constitution was revealed, Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran said after studying that there was no possibility of them supporting the draft 20th Amendment to the Constitution in that form. The Chief Minister expressed these views at a meeting held at the Provincial Council Complex in Kaithady, Jaffna. He said even at that stage that the government was attempting to take over the powers of the Provincial Councils and hand it over to Parliament by the Constitutional Amendments. Therefore it is necessary to consult the people f the Tamil homeland. Therefore he demanded that the people and the legislators of the province should be consulted when drafting the document. He was supported by the Chairman of the Council C. V. K. Sivagnanam, latter made arranged to summon the Councilors as soon as possible to discuss and to make a decision regarding the draft.

Western Provincial Council (WPC) also protesters about the ill effect of 20 amendment and postponed the debate and the vote on the draft bill on the 20th Amendment several times under protest.

The Governor had pleaded the Council to convey its decision on the draft Bill before September 12. However, Chief Minister Insure Desapriya said more amendments are to be included in the Bill and therefore, the debate should be postponed till the amendments were finalized. The postponement was approved by 77 councilors while five members objected to it. Two members did not vote.

Above mentioned conflicts in both north and south PCs show that new solidarity has come among all PC members to defend the devolution and the powers given to them. Almost all are for autonomy and the chauvinist rivalry has gone out of the window. It is pleasant to see Vigneswaran and Isuru fighting together, for more autonomy.

Lankan Provincial councils are legislative bodies of the nine Provinces established by the 13th amendment to the constitution. In accordance with that, the provincial councils have legislative power over a variety of matters including agriculture, education, health, housing, local government, planning, road transport and social services. The constitution also gives it powers over police and land but successive central governments have refused to devolve these powers to the provinces. Even though on 14 November 1987 the Lankan Parliament passed the 13th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution and on 3 February 1988 nine provincial councils were created by order, the elections were not held on the same day. The first elections for provincial councils took place on 28 April 1988 in North Central, North Western, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva provinces. On 2 June 1988 elections were held for provincial councils for Central, Southern and Western provinces. However present Yahapalana government has decided to hold all provincial council elections on the same day due to basically economic and financial reasons. Hence an amendment to the constitution has been proposed.

The proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution seeks to amend the law relating to elections to the provincial councils to ensure that these are held on a single day and not on ‘an ad hoc basis’. If the proposal is only for this time, as a tentative requirement then it may not create a problem of altering the autonomy of the provincial councils, but it is not. The government has explained that this would lead to a reduction in the costs of elections and give more stability to governance. The economic argument can only be tentative, other wise no democracy could function as all democratic activities are very costly. The stability argument is also inherently dictatorial as it is against very devolution. While the government is entitle to express these views as short term suggestions these are against fundamentals of devolution. Many organizations in addition to TNA have opposed this proposal and pointed to the disturbing elements within these proposals. Democratic movements have been demanding that the police and land powers should be given to the provincial councils. Though Ranil agreed to this demand, Maithree has not committed still, and discussion is going on within the SLFP.

In that scenario this amendment has created a substantial disturbance within the Yahapalanaya. The proposed law if enacted will create a problem to those provincial councils whose terms of office lapse early. Three provincial councils have their terms ending by October of this year. Some other provincial council, on the other hand, will have their terms continue until 2019. The proposed law if enforced, vests the power to administer provincial councils whose terms have ended, with the central authorities until such time as elections are held. Latter is unacceptable as it is again departure from the fundamentals of devolution and autonomy. The design of the provincial councils was a result of the quest for a political solution to the Tamil national problem and was meant to ensure political autonomy and self rule on a limited basis to the provinces. The provincial council system was originally established in 1987 to deal with the escalating war against the Tamil liberation struggle led by the LTTE. The anti terrorist Tamil national parties have sought to utilize it to as a building block to progress to a greater sharing of power while functioning within the existing unitary constitutional framework.

In this context, tampering with the provincial councils, by postponing the elections to them, and by further reducing their devolved powers even temporarily, should be opposed and pressed with mass actions. On the other hand the provision in the 20th Amendment to vest governance of a provincial council whose term has ended in the central authorities if implemented becomes a violation of the basic principle of devolution of power. However the government will hold elections to the nine provincial councils before the end of 2018 by re-wording the 20th Amendment which was rejected by several provincial councils, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said recently. So we have to wait and see.

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