Friday, September 10, 2010

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa looks to his new era

By Sudha Ramachandran | Asia Times

An important obstacle in the way of Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming Sri Lanka's president-in-perpetuity has been removed. On Wednesday, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the 18th amendment to the constitution, which does away with the two-term restriction imposed on a president.

This means that Rajapaksa, the first beneficiary of the amendment, need not go into retirement when his current second-term ends in 2016 - he can remain president for as long as he wishes, subject to re-election.

Given the manner in which incumbent presidents in Sri Lanka, including Rajapaksa, have used state machinery during polls to ensure re-election, it does seem that Rajapaksa will remain president for life. In fact, the 18th amendment also enables the president to appoint a person of his choice to head the Election Commission. "With the Election Commission now in his pocket, he can ensure re-election with margins of his choice forever," a Colombo University professor told Asia Times Online.

Sri Lanka's constitution, which came into effect in 1978, provides for an executive presidency. It vests enormous powers in the president. In fact, it is believed that Sri Lanka has the most powerful executive presidency in the world.

By its very definition, an executive presidency is anti-democratic. In Sri Lanka, it has been more so, as checks and balances have been steadily whittled away, enabling successive presidents to function in an authoritarian manner. This has prompted calls for abolition of the executive presidency.

Indeed, all presidential contenders in the past two decades have pledged to abolish the executive presidency, only to forget the promise once they were in the president's seat. The fact that successive governments did not enjoy the required two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the constitution provided a useful excuse for not abolishing the executive presidency.

This was not a problem that Rajapaksa had. Earlier this year, the ruling coalition scored a massive victory in general elections. While it was just a few seats short of the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendment, this did not pose a problem as it was able to easily ensure defections from the opposition. The 18th amendment bill sailed through parliament with support from several opposition members.

Instead of abolishing the executive presidency, the Rajapaksa government used its huge majority in parliament to do the exact opposite. It has brought in a constitutional amendment that further empowers an already powerful president.

The 17th amendment, which was passed in 2001, aimed at curtailing presidential powers. Under the amendment, residential appointments of superior judges, attorney general and auditor general, heads of independent commissions such as the election commission, the human-rights commission, and the bribery and corruption commission, required the approval of a Constitutional Council.

No such approval will be required henceforth. The 18th amendment replaces the Constitutional Council with a Parliamentary Council whose "observations" (not approval) will be sought by the president in making these key appointments.

This means that the president can henceforth appoint loyalists to these independent commissions. It will politicize every democratic institution in Sri Lanka and remove the last remaining checks and balances on the president. It has serious implications for the fairness of future elections.

Rajapaksa is hugely popular among the island's Sinhalese majority, especially since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the end of the civil war in May 2009. Accorded god-like status by his supporters, Rajapaksa won a second term as president earlier this year. His grip over power was further enhanced with the landslide victory of the ruling coalition in parliamentary polls in April.

In an article in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror, Rohan Samarajiva points to an interesting feature of Sri Lankan presidential elections since the introduction of the executive presidency - no incumbent president has ever been defeated. That is, a sitting president who has sought a second term has never been defeated. This is largely because presidents have brazenly misused state machinery to their benefit during elections. Put simply they have controlled the campaign, the vote and its outcome.

Limits on the number of terms a president can seek are found in most countries with a powerful presidential system, the logic behind this being that "absence of change in an office in which power is so concentrated is a recipe for abuse of power and possible dictatorship", analyst Jehan Perera writes.

A Colombo University professor told Asia Times Online that "removing restrictions on the number of terms is not terribly wrong by itself if it were not for the fact that it is hard, if not impossible, to get rid of an incumbent president in Sri Lanka". Speaking on condition of anonymity, the professor pointed out that with the 18th amendment removing the last checks on the president's powers, the country had now become "a constitutionally sanctioned autocracy".

Proponents of the constitutional amendment have justified it on the grounds that these changes are required to ensure political stability and economic development. But perpetuating Rajapaksa’s rule is more likely the motivation.

Besides being president and the commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces, Rajapaksa is minister of defense, finance and planning, ports and aviation, and highways. In all, he is directly responsible for 78 institutions.

The president is not the only Rajapaksa in a powerful position. His brothers hold important posts too. Gotabhaya is the defense secretary. He is in charge of the three wings of the military, as well as the coast guard, the police and intelligence. Immigration, a major revenue-earner in labor-exporting Sri Lanka, urban development and land reclamation too fall under his purview.

Another brother, Basil, who is an elected member of parliament, is the minister of economic development and a senior presidential adviser with oversight of wildlife conservation, and investment and tourism promotion boards. He is the head of task force for reconstruction of the war-ravaged northeast and the special envoy to India. Elder brother Chamal is the speaker of parliament. Chamal's son Shashindra is the chief minister of Uva province. Mahinda's son, Namal, is already a political powerhouse though this is his first term as a member of parliament.

The Sunday Leader noted some months ago that Sri Lanka "seems to have reached a point of one-family rule. Every aspect of our lives from the registry of our births, to the taxes we pay ... and the documents we must carry in order to move freely is under the control of Rajapaksas. Their domination is absolute."

The establishment of the Rajapaksa raj in Sri Lanka is, however, not the work of the Rajapaksas alone. A feeble opposition has enabled it. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the main opposition party, the United National Party has led it through a string of electoral defeats. Yet he remains at the helm, steering the party towards oblivion.

The only person who was able somewhat to challenge the president was his former army chief, Lieutenant General Sarat Fonseka. That challenge has been snuffed out. Fonseka, now a member of parliament, has been sentenced by court martial to a dishonorable discharge and is to be stripped of his rank and medals. He faces another court martial too. Defense Secretary Gotabhaya told BBC's Hard Talk that the government would hang him.

The president can be impeached by parliament. That requires a two-thirds vote in favor of impeachment, an unlikely prospect in the near future. What is more, in the unlikely event of an impeachment motion, the president can count on more than a little help from his brother Chamal, the speaker.

Sixty-four-year old Rajapaksa is in good health. With a subservient parliament, judiciary, Election Commission etc; no opposition to speak of and civil society and media silenced, he is firmly in the saddle. Thanks to the 18th amendment, he seems set to remain at the helm for life.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

© Asia Times

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