Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa makes a move

By Nira Wickremasingha | The Wall Street Journal

Less than a year and a half ago, Sri Lanka's government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a ruthless victory in that country's three-decade-long civil war against a bloody insurgency by the rebel Tamil Tigers. The stage was set for the wartime president to assume a new persona: that of the father of the peacetime nation. Yet now he risks upsetting the country's democratic balance following passage of a constitutional amendment clearing the way for him to stay in power "as long as the people desire it." As with the hobbit in Tolkien's novel, there is nothing left now between President Rajapaksa and the ring of power.

For a country proud to have maintained civilian democratic rule through the depths of the war, Mr. Rajapaksa's moves are disheartening to say the least. In passing the 18th amendment to the constitution earlier this month, the parliament dominated by his Sri Lanka Freedom Party removed the constitutional two-term limit that had capped presidents at a maximum of 12 years in office. They also abolished the 17th amendment enacted in 2001, which had created a Constitutional Council and independent commissions that the president had to consult when appointing people to high-level government posts. That amendment had been a key check on Sri Lanka's otherwise very powerful executive.

Mr. Rajapaksa did not singlehandedly create Sri Lanka's overly strong executive presidency. The constitution introduced in 1978 by President J.R. Jayawardene concentrated significant power in the hands of a single individual. Mr. Rajapaksa's SLFP has claimed at least since it took power in 1994 that it wanted to abolish the executive presidency and replace it with a form of government where power was less centralized. But now Mr. Rajapaksa is embracing a much stronger executive.

With the constitutional term limit abolished, Mr. Rajapaksa has a fair chance of staying in power. Just as in other presidential regimes such as France or the United States, incumbent presidents in Sri Lanka are very likely to win second-term elections. Limits on terms of office are set precisely for this reason.

Many Sri Lankans seem to think, for now anyway, that would not be such a terrible thing. Having ended a debilitating decades-long civil war, President Rajapaksa was re-elected earlier this year with a convincing majority of 58% over his main opponent Sarath Fonseka, a former army commander and erstwhile close ally. If given sufficient time and sufficient powers he promised to rebuild the country, supported by a depoliticized business community.

Meanwhile, the opposition has fallen into disarray. Since 2007 Mr. Rajapaksa has deftly maneuvered to weaken his two legitimate political challengers. The right-wing United National Party led by Ranil Wickremasinghe is in tatters, having lost many of its parliamentarians to the government, and was pushed by popular political pressures to support the ruling party in the "war to eliminate terrorism." The left-wing People's Liberation Front party has split into two factions, one supporting the government and the other in opposition. Its last electoral performance was dismal. Mr. Rajapaksa has hastened this collapse of the opposition with interventions of his own—most notably, the court-martial of Mr. Fonseka for "involvement in politics" while still an officer and dabbling in weapons contracts, charges that conveniently surfaced around the time of the election.

Over the years Mr. Rajapaksa has been busy weakening the institutions that would allow a better-organized opposition to one day become a political force. While the mainstream media are supportive of state policies, dissenting opinions are few and confined to the English-speaking or radical press. The media are on the whole practicing self-censorship.

The fact that academics, lawyers, students and pressure groups took to the streets to protest against the 18th amendment indicates that there is still room for the opposition to maneuver in the interstices of power. The question remains whether, as defenders of the 18th amendment argue, voters will be given a true choice in 2016. This ultimately depends less on Mr. Rajapaksa than on the will of opposition political parties to forge an alternative democratic vision and give leadership to those who believe in it.

It is revealing in this regard that passage of the amendment was achieved with hardly any public debate or scrutiny of such a significant change. It was pushed through parliament as an "urgent parliamentary bill" and it was discussed for only one day. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court had earlier ruled that a referendum would not be required. In the end Mr. Rajapaksa secured the requisite two-thirds majority thanks to support from his own party and a smattering of parliamentary votes from some defecting members of the UNP and other, much smaller groups including the main party representing the Muslims.

It is doubtful that this episode will awaken Sri Lankans who were inclined to view Mr. Rajapaksa as the savior of the nation to a more worrying side of his regime. For now there seems to be a wide popular consensus around the shape of the new Sri Lanka: patrimonial, nepotistic, nationalistic and militarized. With a strong electoral mandate and a large parliamentary majority supporting him, Mr. Rajapaksa had a free hand to reform a country bruised by 30 years of violence into a social democratic state. As he instead focuses on consolidating his power, this hope fades away, leaving people in the years to come with a difficult choice: total compliance or desperate revolt.

Ms. Wickramasinghe is professor of modern South Asian studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

© The Wall Street Journal

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