Friday, September 03, 2010

A society in denial and a President on rampage

By Thisaranee Gunasekara | Sri Lanka Guardian

“What happened here was the gradual habituating of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret… And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier…and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it”.- Milton Meyer (They thought they were free: The Germans – 1933-45)

Unlike Gregor Samsa, the main protagonist in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Sri Lankans will not wake up one morning to discover that they have become transformed, overnight and in their slumber, from citizens into subjects. Our fall from citizenship is more gradual and perceptible (for those who are not wilfully blind), a lengthy process which is happening with our consent, witting or unwitting. The constitutional amendments to remove presidential term-limits and enhance the powers of the presidency mark the defining moment in this semi-consensual process of de-democratisation.

Of course we will profess outrageous surprise and deny responsibility when, someday in the future, we become sensible of our fall from freedom to subjugation. And characteristically, we will seek to blame someone, anyone other than ourselves, for our collective fall – a task which would be made easier by the obvious culpability of that most ineffective UNP cum Opposition Leader in the history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Unarguably Wickremesinghe, the UNP and the opposition would be at fault, if they fail to defeat the proposed constitutional changes; but they would not be the sole culprits. Part of the blame cannot but accrue to us, as individuals and as a society, if we fail to acknowledge the danger inherent in the proposals to remove presidential term-limits while enhancing the powers of presidency and opt not to combat these anti-democratic measures with all democratic means at our disposal.

JR Jayewardene was the first executive president; the party he headed, the UNP, also enjoyed a colossal five-sixth majority in parliament. That combination gave him enormous power, power to make and power to unmake; it also inculcated in him a vision of his power which far outstripped his actual power. (He famously boasted that the only thing he, as the Executive President, cannot do is to change a man into a woman and vice versa. He was to discover that the limits of his power in actuality were more numerous and varied. He could not fight the Eelam war to a finish; he could not prevent an Indian intervention; he could not defeat the JVP insurgency.) His intelligence clouded by hubris, Jayewardene went on to make mistake after unavoidable mistake, until their cumulative weight undermined his own party and nearly destroyed the system.

Jayewardene may have acted as if his power would never end, but even in his most hubristic moments, he knew that his stint at the top would be a finite one because of the term-limit clause. He entertained some thoughts about a third term and toyed with the idea of a constitutional amendment, but was persuaded by his hand-picked General Secretary, Ranjan Wijeratne, to retire at the end of his second term. Wijeratne argued that only a Premadasa presidency would be capable of defeating the raging JVP insurgency and Jayewardene, in the final analysis a rational man, concurred. The fact that Jayewardene wanted power just for himself and not for his family and his total lack of dynastic ambitions made Wijeratne’s task easier. Had Jayewardene a family to promote and a dynastic project to secure, he may not have been amenable to Wijeratne’s appeal to reason and enlightened self-interest.

Rajapakses, Forever

Mahinda Rajapakse wants power not just for himself, but also for his family. And he wants to be succeeded in some remote future by a kin, ideally a son or else a brother. He has both power hunger and dynastic ambitions. He has worked consciously and consistently, with remarkable ingeniousness, to concentrate more and more power in the hands of himself and his close and trusted relatives; he is also grooming his eldest son to succeed him. He does not want to go into uncelebrated, undistinguished, unremembered retirement, like JR Jayewardene and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Nor does he want to see an outsider stepping into his shoes, thereby pushing his family back into the political margins. With a combination of hard work and good luck, he has secured the political heights for himself and his family and he is not about to let a mere constitutional impediment take it all away. His retirement at the end of the allotted two terms would undo both Familial Rule and Dynastic Project. If the rule of the Rajapakse Family is to continue and if Rajapakse is to be succeeded by his son, he needs to stay as President beyond his allotted two terms. The constitutional amendment to remove presidential term-limits was thus predestined, given the nature of Rajapakse rule.

The cabinet has approved the constitutional amendment, predictably. The old left whimpered and succumbed (both DEW Gunasekara and Tissa Witarana would prefer to end their days as cabinet ministers; every other consideration will be subsumed to this overarching desire). The Supreme Court is unlikely to place any serious impediment against the triumphal march of the Rajapakses. Hopefully, the opposition will file several cases in the courts, challenging the constitutional amendments and demanding that their adoption be subjected to not just a two thirds majority in parliament but also a national referendum. Even if the cases are lost, they will give the beleaguered opposition some breathing space, a little extra time to get its act together and launch a national campaign against these most anti-democratic proposals.

If the opposition fails to launch a national protest campaign and the SLMC goes ahead with its shameless betrayal, Mahinda Rajapakse will be able to bulldoze his signature constitutional reform through parliament. Thus JR Jayewardene’s most important concession to democracy, the clause which limits a man from holding the powerful executive presidency to a maximum of 12 years, will be nullified. Once the term-limit clause is removed, Rajapakse will be in a far more unassailable position than any other leader in independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka. He will not only hold the powerful executive presidency and enjoy an absolute majority in parliament; he will also be able to contest again, and again, as many times as he wants. This confluence will act as a powerful deterrent to any potential dissenters. After all, anyone who is tempted to challenge the Rajapakses is likely to think twice, given the fate of Sarath Fonseka; the likelihood of dissent will plummet to even greater depths, if the constitution is changed to permit Rajapakse to run again and again. Therefore, the moment to resist is now, before the cloak of permanent omnipotence is appropriated by Rajapakse.

The argument that if the electorate so desires, it will be able to vote out Rajapakse would have been credible had the 17th Amendment been in place। Had the independence of the bureaucracy in general and the police force and the elections commissioner in particular been assured constitutionally, free and fair elections would have been possible. But the Rajapakses deliberately killed the 17th Amendment and are now seeking to replace it with an amendment which will give back to the President the power of hiring and firing key top officials. According to media reports, the Constitutional Council will be replaced by a five member Constitutional Advisory Committee which will be appointed by the President; the ‘Independent Commissions’ apart from the Police Commission will be retained but once again the power to appoint these commissions will be given to the President. All appointments and transfers in the police service will be made by the IGP who, of course, will be appointed by the President. The President will also appoint the Elections Commissioner and other top officials. In other words, the new reforms are aimed at giving the President untrammelled and absolute power and permitting him to wield that power indefinitely. Logically can anything democratic or independent survive in such a lopsided setup?

Turning a Blind-eye

It is not only individuals who seek and obtain solace through denial; societies do so as well. Lankan society’s collective descent into denial preceded the election of Mahinda Rajapakse; indeed, it commenced with the Ranil Wickremesinghe-Vellupillai Pirapaharan peace process. As the LTTE abused the ceasefire in plain sight, accumulating money, weapons and recruits, murdering opponents and setting up symbols of independent statehood, government and society went into denial. Peace was then the only manthra and anyone who pointed out the anomalous nature of the Tiger conduct (using the time-space created by the peace process to prepare for war) was decried as a war monger.

A similar process is in evidence today. Mahinda Rajapakse and the Rajapakse Family are occupying more and more of the political and economic heights, as the Lankan society looks on, indifferently. The Rajapakse power-grab has become the elephant in the room. Our collective refusal to acknowledge reality has enabled the Rajapakses to extend and accelerate their power-accumulation. Take, for instance, the term-limit removal saga. The relevant constitutional amendment was proposed soon after the election. When the reaction to it from the polity (including from within the UPFA) turned out to be no so encouraging, the Rajapakses gave the impression of abandoning the idea. Instead the President offered to talk to the UNP about a new constitution. As is evident now, the entire exercise was a diabolically clever political manoeuvre; Rajapakse engaged Ranil Wickremesinghe in talks on a new constitution, while the constitutional amendments which would enable him to seek a third term and enhance the powers of the presidency were being drafted in secret. The President had previously taken the Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draughtsman’s Department under his own wing, a move which obviously enabled him to keep the amendment drafting process under the wraps.

Sometimes, it is better to look at what a leader does than what he says. The present and the future become perfectly explicable when one remembers the way Rajapakse watched with complaisance, time and again, as besotted or opportunistic supporters hailed him in the most extravagant of term, in songs and speeches. Only a man with a megalomaniac mentality could have tolerated such obvious drivel with placid equanimity. Rajapakse did not see anything untoward in being hailed as a king and a god, because that is how he sees himself, as a ruler for life whose will should be obeyed unquestioningly because he is infallible. What such a leader requires are not citizens but subjects, obedient and quiescent, if not worshipful. Once Rajapakse entrenches himself for the long haul, he will enact other constitutional amendments which will inexorably diminish democratic spaces and equate opposition to the ruling party and family with disloyalty to the state and the country. This may seem farfetched now, but every transformation the Rajapakses have implemented up to now seemed impossible before they happened. In fact, the Rajapakse revolution has been enabled by a collective psychological response on the part of the Lankan society which begins with dismissal and ends with indifference.

Will we be able to take off these psychological blinkers before it is too late? Or will we permit the Rajapakses to forge ahead with their constitutional reforms, empowering the Ruling Family and de-empower democracy, with our silence?

© Sri Lanka Guardian

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