Saturday, September 11, 2010

In Sri Lanka, the democratic process is regressing

By Jonathan Manthorpe | Vancouver Sun

A penchant for triumphalism is never an attractive or useful quality, but unfortunately it appears to be one with which Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa is overly well endowed.

He has capped his defeat in May last year of the quarter-century separatist insurgency by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas and resulting conclusive reelection victory in January by, in essence, dismantling Sri Lanka's liberal democracy.

On Wednesday, Rajapaksa used the overwhelming parliamentary majority of his United people's Freedom Alliance to push through some fundamentally nation-changing constitutional amendments.

These changes opened the way for Rajapaksa to remain president for as long as he wants and reduced to impotence both parliament and the other institutions intended to curb and contain the power of the executive presidency.

With two brothers as government ministers, a third as speaker of parliament and his son as an member of parliament, the administration of Sri Lanka now looks like a Rajapaksa family business.

Rajapaksa's supporters and advocates of Wednesday's amendment say the changes are necessary to provide Sri Lanka with basic stability as the country attempts to rebuild and progress after 26 years of civil war. And if the presidential powers are a bit muscular, say supporters, that's necessary to ensure the Tigers don't rise again and that Tamil separatism in the north of the island is not revived.

The 18th constitutional amendment , passed on Wednesday with more than enough votes to clear the two-thirds majority hurdle, does two things.

The first is that it removes the constitutional ban on a president serving more than two six-year terms.

Rajapaksa was first elected in 2005. His second term, after an early election, will start in November and with Wednesday's changes he will be able to run again in 2016 and again and again until the cows come home.

Supporters point out that Rajapaksa will still be required to face re-election every six years and the voters can throw him out any time they want.

That argument would be more convincing were it not for the second part of the 18th amendment.

The second part overturns the 17th amendment to the constitution of 2001, which was aimed at curbing the power of the executive presidency.

The 17th amendment created a 10-member Constitutional Council, which has a substantial degree of independence and which is responsible for making all senior institutional appointments.

So the council appoints members to the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Permanent Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption, and several other boards.

One of the most recent examples of the value of the independence of the Constitutional Council and the institutions under its purview was the Election Commission's highly critical assessment of the skulduggery that went into Rajapaksa's January election victory.

In the future, such carping need not concern Rajapaksa because the 18th amendment gives the president the power to make all those senior appointments to positions that might otherwise act as a brake on his authority, but which are now patronage sinecures.

In truth, the whole constitutional framework of Sri Lanka is fundamentally flawed. The only place where the miscegenation between parliamentary and executive presidential systems has worked is France, and then inconsistently.

To cap it, Rajapaksa is, as one might guess, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and he has given the generals fair warning that they should stay clear of politics.

The man who commanded the army when it overran the Tamil Tigers in May last year, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, attempted to turn that fame into a political career by running against Rajapaksa in January's election.

Not only was Fonseka trounced at the ballot box, he has since been arrested and charged with breaching military law, including treason.

There was, quite rightly relief and some applause when Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers last year.

The war had gone on too long and the Tigers had shown they could not be trusted to stick to a political solution.

But instead of using the opportunity to be magnanimous in victory and embark on a generous and genuine campaign of reconciliation and reconstruction, Rajapaksa has succumbed to meaner instincts.

He is now taking the country down a path all Sri Lankans will come to regret.

© The Vancouver Sun

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