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Power of incumbency will make it impossible to unseat a sitting President

Sep 3, 2010 11:37:02 PM- transcurrents.com

by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

The Opposition has failed to give a simple answer to the above question, seeking instead to play word games (Executive Prime Minister versus Executive President). Government spokespersons have given a simple enough, though false, answer term limits constrain the power of the people to elect whoever they want. Given the dominance of feudal mindsets this seems to have decided the matter.

It may be too late. At least for the record, let me provide the answer.

It is wrong to remove the restriction against a third term, because the power of incumbency that is magnified by the flagrant abuse of state machinery during elections makes it impossible to unseat a sitting President. This amendment removes a critical pressure-release mechanism, the hope that power can shift, even once in 12 years. Once it goes through, those who wish to change power holders will have no alternative but to plot coups and people-power rebellions. That is bad for everyone, including the immediate beneficiaries of the Amendment.

The evidence is there for those who want to see. The 1989 Presidential Election was keenly contested. President Premadasa won by a very thin margin. That was because he was not the incumbent President, though representing the ruling party. In 1994, the opposition candidate won. That was because the incumbent President was not running. In 2005, President Rajapaksa won by an even thinner margin than in 1989. That year too, the incumbent President did not run.

In contrast, the opposition had no chance at the 1982, 1999 and 2010 elections, when an incumbent President was contesting. In 2010, the entire state machinery including the President’s official residences, the Central Bank, the Telecom Regulatory Commission, government buses, and media were mobilized to pound the opposition into submission. It was no different from the 1982 presidential election in which the opposition candidate went to the polling station, only to find his vote already cast.

In Bangladesh, the existing government steps down well before the election; an interim government takes over for the duration of the campaign and the election. This is because they have recognized the difficulties of conducting a fair election when the entire government machinery is controlled by one of the candidates.

Sri Lanka differs in two respects. The first is that the problem is much worse here because our presidential system concentrates even more power in the incumbent candidate than in Bangladesh, a Parliamentary system.

The second is that we have collectively deluded ourselves into thinking that we have fair elections.

Fair elections require an all-powerful elections authority, like that in India. In India, for example, the Elections Commission ensures that political parties pay for the use of government aircraft and vehicles used by the sitting Prime Minister. In Sri Lanka, the Elections Commissioner cannot even exercise his powers over state broadcast channels that used for one-sided propaganda.

Fair elections require a Police Commission that will ensure that ground-level police forces prevent violence against opposition campaigners. Police partiality toward the incumbent is the norm in Sri Lanka.

These were some of the reasons why all parties agreed to the 17th Amendment. But it was killed by Presidents Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa under the watchful eye of the subservient judiciary and the servile legal profession.

One safeguard that remained was the term limit. That too is being removed.

Why does no one talk of the fight faced by Hugo Chavez when he sought to remove term limits and perpetuate his rule. He needed a referendum for that. He failed the first time and won with difficulty the second time. Is Venezuela our role model?

In Africa, seven presidents rammed through Constitutional amendments that allowed them to stand for a third term in office. All seven won subsequent re-elections. These were presidents Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Lansana Conte of Guinea, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

Are these the models for Sri Lanka?

We need more checks and balances on the raw political power given to the President by the 1978 Constitution. Instead, they are removing even the existing flimsy safeguards.

Perhaps this is what we deserve. The Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero was reported as saying that what this country needs is a benevolent dictator. This is not a minority view. But we have to accept the full package, not just the parts we like.

There no guarantees that all dictators are benevolent; even dictators who start out benevolent can change their stripes. And one cannot get rid of dictators at elections, by definition. Coups and people-power rebellions are integral elements of the benevolent-dictator package.

Those who sit on their hands while this anti-democratic Constitutional amendment goes through should at least know what they are signing up for.