Sri Lankan lawmakers vote to curtail presidential powers

Sri Lankan lawmakers on Friday overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment limiting the president’s powers, a key demand from protesters seeking political reforms and solutions to the country’s economic crisis.

Debate on the bill began on Thursday, and on Friday, 179 government coalition and opposition lawmakers voted in favor of the motion and only one voted against, giving the two-thirds majority in the 225-member House needed to pass the bill.

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The amendment transfers a number of presidential powers, including appointing officials, to a constitutional council made up of legislators and respected non-politicians. The council will recommend candidates for appointment to the president.

The council’s recommendation is required for presidential appointments of senior judges, attorneys general, central bank governors, police, election commissioners, and bribery and corruption investigators. The prime minister will recommend cabinet appointments and the president will not be allowed to hold any cabinet position except defense.

The government says the changes will contribute to the independence of the judiciary and public service.

Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented economic crisis and public protests demanding reforms to ensure transparency and accountability.

The Indian Ocean country faces severe shortages of essential imports such as fuel and medicines. The crisis sparked massive demonstrations that led to the resignation of the president, prime minister and key cabinet ministers several months ago.

Current President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded deposed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July, pledged to limit the presidency’s powers and strengthen parliament.

The amendment reinstates many democratic reforms introduced in 2015 that were reversed by Rajapaksa when he was elected in 2019 and concentrated power in the presidency.

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The protesters blame Rajapaksa and his powerful family for years of mismanagement and corruption. Many remain skeptical of Wickremesinghe, accusing him of trying to protect the former leader and his relatives. Wickremesinghe was elected by parliament to complete Rajapaksa’s term, which expires in 2024.

Sri Lanka has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt owed this year pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund on an economic bailout package. The country’s total external debt is more than $51 billion, of which $28 billion is due to be repaid by 2027.

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