Sri Lanka Parliament Trims Presidential Powers Before Elections

Sri Lanka’s parliament voted to reduce presidential powers, fulfilling part of an overhaul promised by President Maithripala Sirisena and paving the way for snap general elections.

The so-called 19th constitutional amendment, approved by lawmakers late on Tuesday, will revert to a two-term limit and dilute the president’s influence over the judiciary, military and bureaucracy. Sirisena had pledged reforms within 100 days of taking power on Jan. 9.

“This is a historic moment because for the first time, an incumbent president has worked toward pruning his own powers,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said at the conclusion of the two-day debate on the amendments. “We need to build a strong democratic society.”

The move reverses steps by Sirisena’s predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was unseated after a decade marked by allegations of corruption and nepotism. The delay however raises questions on how far Sirisena can fulfill his mandate to transfer power to parliament and empower new lawmakers to spur growth from a two-year low.

Reform Prospects

“Prospects for political reform have dimmed, damaging Sirisena’s popularity,” Eurasia Group analyst Sasha Riser-Kositsky wrote in an April 22 report. “Weakened by infighting and leadership incoherence, the SLFP is set to lose as much as half its current parliamentary seats.”

Sirisena was Rajapaksa’s ally in their Sri Lankan Freedom Party until late 2014. Then, working with the support of its traditional rival United National Party, he went on to win presidential elections on a campaign that pledged to transfer power to parliament.

The legislature has been split between camps loyal to Sirisena and Rajapaksa. Lawmakers this month voted down a proposal to allow more short-term borrowings to help fund a public sector wage increase promised by Sirisena, and on April 22 blocked a debate on the 19th amendment bill protesting a corruption investigation against Rajapaksa.

The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, which represents the largest grouping of local companies, said on April 20 that Sri Lanka’s parliamentarians should “set aside narrow political considerations” and support reforms that will improve business climate in the country and boost investment.

Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product grew 6.4 percent in October-December, the slowest pace since 2013 as Sirisena’s administration reviews projects started by Rajapaksa.

- With assistance from Asantha Sirimanne in Colombo

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