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The 18th amendment is undemocratic: The myth of centralization of power economic development

Sep 4, 2010 1:39:24 PM- transcurrents.com

by Eran Wickramaratne

President Jayawardene introduced the 2nd Republican Constitution in 1978, and one of its underlying beliefs was that power centralized in the office of the President will lead to rapid economic development.

With increasing frequency we hear voices extolling the virtues of Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir Mohamed and Fidel Castro in support of a more authoritarian government as a prerequisite to economic development in a post military conflict phase of our history. With the exception of a handful of economic success stories, the list of countries with concentrated power and economic failure is unending from South America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia . The myth that Asia needs authoritarian rule for economic development is a cultural bogey being carefully propagated by a few. The examples of Asian economies such as Burma , Pakistan , and Indonesia show us that authoritarianism overtly or covertly backed by military power has given poor results, not to mention despotic rule in other parts of the world.

The history of the last two decades provides us an interesting comparison of China and India following different socio-political models. Both countries fundamentally follow capitalist economic development principles under pinned by different political systems. India today is a US$ 1.2 trillion economy, the size of China in 2000. India started its economic recovery process in 1991 more than a decade behind Deng Xiao-ping’s capitalist economic reforms. India has since trailed China by a decade. China ’s East Asian manufacture export model is in contrast to India ’s service oriented model where investment in industry is for domestic demand. Today India ’s savings rate exceeds 35% of GDP. The Indian model is more akin to the USA in 1900. India will get ahead in domestic consumption, while it will lag on infrastructure development due to the political sensitivities on environment, displacement of people and the exercise of individual rights through the judicial system.

However, India’s bottom up system holds more promise in the long run and if it continues to grow for a decade at a nominal GDP of 13.5% (which it had done on average over the past six years ), then by the year 2020 India will be a US$ 4.5 trillion economy most likely to surpass Japan. This would be a remarkable economic success gained while protecting individual liberties - the freedom of thought, expression & assembly - the hall mark of a cultured society. The empirical evidence that countries which promote political freedoms experienced rapid economic development is undisputed, and Sri Lanka must not veer from protecting and strengthening its citizens’ freedoms.

The Balance of Power to Protect the Citizen

Government is at its best and the sovereignty of the people at its highest when the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary’s powers are a check and balance on each other. Countries vary in its balance of these institutions of government. In Sri Lanka with the introduction of the 2nd Republican Constitution in 1978 (more commonly known as the JR Jayawardene Constitution) the power of the Executive was established with little recourse to either the legislature or the judiciary. President Rajapakse further eroded an already flawed system when he diluted the legislature by giving most MPs’ some stake in Executive power by appointing more than one hundred Ministers & Deputy Ministers.

A major erosion of the sovereignty of the people will take place with the adoption of the 18th Amendment (Now to be known as the Rajapakse Amendment). We are told that more Amendments to the Constitution will follow over the next few months. A process of piecemeal tinkering of a country’s basic law is most undesirable as the consistency of principles underlying the Constitution will be jeopardized. The process that is now undertaken is to hastily move amendments (without permitting a substantive debate in the country) to provide for the continuation of President Rajapakse beyond his next term which ends in November 2016. Why are such amendments being rushed without recourse to public debate, parliamentary scrutiny and adequate time for the issue to be canvassed before the courts?

The obvious reason is that as the President’s popularity wanes it will be impossible to obtain a 2/3 majority in Parliament or an endorsement through a referendum. The argument has been made that the President will assume additional terms beyond his second term only through an election. Therefore this would be a democratic exercise.

While this argument appears to have some credence on its first reading, it ignores the fact that it will be an election sans the safeguards of the 17th amendment. The Presidency with unlimited powers, not subject to the legislature and judiciary could never be defended if it did not even have a term limit. President Kumaranatunge and President Rajapakse, who both experienced the heavy hand of the Executive when in opposition, had previously many times over committed themselves to abolish the draconian powers of the Presidency only to go back on their promises foregoing statesmanship for mere politics.

Bi-partisan constitution making destroyed

Since the introduction of the first Republican Constitution in 1972 the public services of this country have begun to be rapidly politicized. Citizens were deprived of a good service and also were at the receiving end of arbitrary decisions that were not a result of a fair and transparent process. In a historic show of solidarity the entire 224 members of Parliament with the exception of the Speaker adopted legislation (now known as the 17th Amendment) creating The Constitutional Council comprising the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, one person appointed by the President , five persons appointed by the President on the nomination of both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and one member from within the minority political parties represented in Parliament nominated by the majority of members of Parliament.

This historic piece of bi-partisan legislation provided for the Independent Election Commission, the Public Services Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, the Finance Commission and the Delimitation Commission.

President Kumaranatunge undermined the operation of such Commissions, while President Rajapakse has crippled the function of the Commissions by the non appointment of the Constitutional Council in violation of the Constitution. Instead of rectifying the error, the President now seeks to abolish the Independent Constitutional Council and Commissions. He proposes to appoint members to the Commissions by only seeking observations from a new Parliamentary Council he seeks to establish. Thereby centralising the power to make appointments in the Presidency.

An all powerful Presidency without a term limit coupled with non-independent Public service, Police service, a Human Rights Commission, a Delimitation Commission and Election Commission, who are appointed by the Executive President is an unprecedented concentration of executive power with few exceptions in recent times. Elections without the checks and balances of power would be meaningless exercises in legitimising the continuation of the incumbent President.

The Need for Statesmanship

President Jayawardene is remembered by most as the President who provided us economic opportunity and a Constitution that was politically flawed. President Rajapakse will be remembered as the President who gave us freedom from terrorism, and limited our individual and civic freedoms through the manipulation of the Constitution.

Both Presidents began well, basked in the glory of an overwhelming peoples’ mandate only to be judged more rationally with the passage of time. The moment has now come to appeal firstly to the President to reconsider the proposed amendments in the light of the long term implications of perpetuating an already flawed Presidential System. President Rajapakse has the distinction of banishing militarised conflict, but needs to heed the cry for reconciliation of ethnic, economic and political creeds through the pursuit of democratic ideals.

The 18th Amendment is undemocratic. The time has also come to remind ourselves that freedoms are never given, they have to be defended irrespective of whoever holds the reigns of government.

(Eran Wickramaratne is a UNP Member of Parliament)