Sunday, September 05, 2010

Constitutional Dictatorship : Reaping the war dividend

By Kumar David | The Sunday Island

It may seem exaggerated to suggest that the repeal of presidential term-limits is tantamount to a big bold step towards cementing a dictatorship in this country. I have heard it said: "Though the change is undesirable, well, what does it matter? If the present incumbent is unpopular he will be defeated next time, if popular he will win and that’s not entirely unfair". This misses the point.

The result of the next and all future elections that the present incumbent contests after fixing the constitutional amendment is not in doubt. Voices crying out from experiences of unrestrained abuse of power and unchecked electoral malpractice portend the future. Removing presidential term-limits is the necessary and sufficient condition for this game plan. Stop thinking law, think politics!

The unfolding reality

Once the rules are changed to allow additional presidential terms the rest is simple. A regime with the unique election rigging skills and repressive know-how of the incumbents will have no difficulty fixing the outcome of future electoral exercises. Ensuring the removal of term-limits is the sine-qua-non; thereafter securing the desired outcome in perpetuity is well honed. Repression, crushing of dissent, silencing critics and intimidating the media will be an ancillary function in the years leading up to the next election. That is to say tomorrow will be like yesterday but on a fortissimo scale. The public and the opposition must grasp the deadly danger facing the country right now. I must repeat myself; this is not about relaxing term-limits it is about preparing to use the jackboot.

This constitutional amendment is the key to unlocking the whole chain. If it goes through there may never be a free presidential election again until after the day sometime in the future when direct intervention by the people reverses the setback. Here we come Manila 1986! Here we come Timisoara and Bucharest December 1989! Sans a democratic way people invite leaders to depart in the way Marcos and Ceausescu were asked to quit. The repeal of presidential term-limits in Lanka will have profound and long lasting implications and the way back will have to be the people’s power road. Relaxing term-limits look like just another constitutional exercise, actually it is a watershed. It is a decisive event after which the residues of democracy, such as they are, will be fatally crippled.

Unseemly haste

The newspapers at this time of writing say that the proposed changes will be rushed through the cabinet of ministers by the end of August, taken to the courts for an OK straight away, and brought to parliament on about September 8. When you read these lines the timeframe of this indecent haste will be clearer, but the question is why does an amendment to the constitution have to charge forward at the speed of an Olympic sprint? Constitutional changes need to be debated in public and there has to be an extended period of consultation with all stakeholders, which means the whole people. The APRC has been plodding along for years but its recommendations make no mention of extending term limits, in fact it envisages the end of the presidential system. So why is the government in a mad rush to prove that cynics like me, who said from day-one, that the APC/APRC exercise was a farce, that the regime set it up as a cosmetic exercise to quieten local and foreign critics, and that the report will end up in the dustbin, so apodictically correct? The answer is simple political cunning!

In hindsight people have woken to the reality that the APRC exercise was vapid drama, a confidence scam pulled by the regime. I do concede that notwithstanding these phony intentions (not of the APRC but the regime) the exertions of some committees did produce useful documents, especially the Expert Committee Majority Report, but that’s a separate matter. The indecent trashing of the APRC and plunging in a diametrically opposite direction personifies an emperor without his loin cloth.

The Rajapaksa regime is hell-bent on preempting matters before public opposition builds up and clearly it has doubts whether its deals with somersaulting SLMC turncoats and Tamil crossover knaves will hold up indefinitely. If these are not the real motives for haste, then there must be other behind the scenes deceptions that the public is not privy to. For example did big money cross under the table?

However, the overriding motive for haste I believe is to stall the consolidation of internal opposition within the SLFP itself, both at the leadership level and in the rank and file. Given the opportunity, the SLFP will turn against the amendments. Contrary to the opinion of some big mouths, people are not worried about the price of chilies only, they are concerned about political issues as well; otherwise why bother with Lessons Learnt etc Commission at all?

I am also curious about the Socialist Alliance (LSSP, CP, DLF and two middle of the road parties), a tail of the UPFA. Will the SA parliamentarians vote against the government and lose ministries and numerous other choice privileges? I don’t think so; these people know where their bread is buttered. The curious thing then is why go on a rampage, chests puffed, bellowing opposition to term-limit extension? Did they not know all along that they would stick their tails between their legs and beat a retreat when Mahinda read them the riot act? Nevertheless, I will give my comrades the benefit of the doubt for now; let us wait a few more days and see if the SA dares to say ‘No’ loud and clear – abstention is hogwash. I for one would owe them a big apology for writing this paragraph if they stand firm. It is an apology that I am yearning to have to make!

War dividends

Peace Dividend refers to the improvements in the economic situation that follows the end of a war and the benefits that post war quietude brings; more economic activity and confidence, tourist arrivals, enhanced investment and post-war reconstruction. The end of war also brings a War Dividend; exultation that glorifies the supreme leader, militarization of society – Join the forces and retire an ambassador! – repression and fear of the impunity with which state power is wielded against the citizen. I always maintained throughout the war that if the Tamils were crushed rather than reaching out to a negotiated settlement, Lanka will reap this war dividend in fulsome measure; and so it has come to pass.

The psychological pressures and political balances created by the overwhelming victory of the state over the LTTE is the backdrop without which this march to dictatorship would have been impossible. When military victory comes in an ethnic (race, language, religion) war, then public acquiescence of even the worst features of the victor regime ensues. This state of public apathy makes the subsequent fight against creeping dictatorship more difficult, but that’s no reason for diminished effort; rather it should motivate redoubled effort till wider sections of the populace wake up.

Is it too late?

Is it possible even now at this fifty-ninth minute to force the government to retreat from this diabolical venture? It is possible but it depends on fomenting an internal crisis within the SLFP and on the mobilisation of a unified and determined opposition campaign. Many high personages in the SLFP leadership are aghast at these moves and have left it to insipid newcomers like GL to play knock-kneed centre forward for Rajapaksa’s sales team. I have heard from Socialist Alliance (SA) leaders of SLFP highfliers who have approached them and begged to push hard against presidential term-extension, pleading that they (the SLFP lot) were too afraid to speak up. The less said about their vertebral columns the better but there is a fair possibility that if the SA takes a strong stand it will embolden internal forces of dissent within the SLFP and deter more crossovers from the ranks of the opposition. Strongly expressed dissent within the SLFP can upset Rajapaksa’s apple cart. Therefore this is an important moment when the metal of the SLFP and SA leadership is going to be tested.

While the regime is in indecent haste to push through the amendments, unfortunately the opposition is showing pretty little energy in mobilising against it. The UNP is flatfooted, embroiled in its own squabbles; therefore the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of the JVP. The JVP regrettably has limited experience, except in two election campaigns, in working collectively with other organisations and political parties. It is also inflexible in collective team work and across the board coordination. This time however the impending disaster is too serious for these games. The mood in all the left and democratic organisations is for urgent united action; the demand is that the JVP must participate and play a role commensurate with its size and influence. With the UNP flat on its belly the JVP must help coordinate a joint opposition response without losing a moment.

© The Sunday Island

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