Rajapaksa looks to his new era
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - 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
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
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
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