If you want to see the shape of the new constitution, look at the last two elections. To quote George Orwell’s 1984, “if you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
In the last General Election the government requested a two thirds majority in parliament. They got it. Or more precisely, Ranil gave it. Ranil has emerged as good as a fourth brother to Mahinda, holding the opposition down while Mahinda stomped the life out of it. Now the UNP has hemorrhaged enough green blood to give the President the power to write them out legally, making the whole process look pretty.
The new constitutional changes create an Executive Presidency Plus. There is no more pesky Constitutional Council keeping Mahinda from appointing whoever he wants and there are no more term limits to keep the population from re-anointing the President every six years. It’s a seamless system. Mahinda appoints the custodians of state TV, the keepers of state funds and the police. Then he runs in an election with the shameless backing of state resources, with the power to throw the opposition candidate in jail. This is exactly what Mahinda did against Sarath Fonseka and now he’s trying to codify the policy into law.
And law this will most certainly become. Ranil as the fourth brother has been trusted not with business, military or even Parliament. He is just the Parliamentary eunuch — completely ineffective — Fredo to Mahinda’s Godfather, he simply keeps an eye on the opposition MPs until Mahinda decides he wants to take a few.
Ranil is a sucker for negotiations. The LTTE suckered him once and Mahinda has suckered him again. While he was talking to Prabhakaran, Chandrika took his ministries and the LTTE took his votes. While he was talking to Mahinda, Mahinda took his MPs. If Mahinda is the father of the Constitution, Ranil is most definitely the mother, but the deformed child belongs to us all.
Mahinda’s 18th Amendment is effectively a red sash around the Constitution. It eliminates the (imaginary) checks on presidential power written in the 17th Amendment and gives the President unbridled power over government institutions, Parliament and the police. Mahinda has already shown no compunction about abusing those powers to win elections, so this he will presumably do until he gets tired (another 12 or 24 years?) or until his son Namal is ready for the throne. This is Mahinda’s vision for Sri Lanka. To the opposition its a boot, to Mahinda it’s just his smiling face, glittering in various transmutations for eternity.
It is vanity and foolishness. This is not a Constitution, it’s taking Sri Lankans a step back from the Magna Carta. In this case Sri Lankan nobles (i.e. politicians) are giving back power to the king. All that is left of democracy is elections, with an elections commissioner appointed by the king.
Mahinda’s vision does not extend beyond his own body and blood. He has no thought of the next 200 years, of what these powers might do in other hands, of what sort of template he is laying for a future nation. There is no vision beyond his own family and no humility of placing nation before self. Perhaps he and Namal are the best leaders for the country, but why not trust the country to decide? Why not implement a template to prevent any future tyranny instead of entrenching a benevolent dictatorship in law? Mahinda may be a functional leader now, but all things are impermanent. Situations change, people change, even sons rise and fall in their fathers eyes. Even Sinha Bahu gave birth to a child so incorrigible that he had to be expelled from India. That bad blood can flow in any dynasty.
Yet, under this new Constitution, Mahinda places the country at the same grave risk. Perhaps Mahinda only abuses state power for noble ends, perhaps the end justifies the means. But what about the leader after Mahinda? Should he be trusted with the same powers? And the one after that, and the one after that?
Mahinda obviously hasn’t thought that far. He seems to like himself and he seems to like Namal and that is presumably enough for the nation. But it’s not.
Sri Lanka has been crippled by spoilt dynastic fruit throughout its history, which Mahinda has presumably read. Even Vijaya, the founder of our nation, was such a Malaka Silva type despoiler of people and property that he was ejected from his native land. In more recent times, the Bandaranaikes used all their inherited power to waste this country’s precious time. Sri Lanka’s historical dynasties have also been wracked by murder, military takeovers and violent overthrow. Because that was the only way to effect change. The point of a working constitution is to enable stable change, not preserve power. Without a working constitution pressure builds up and eventually explodes in violence.
Mahinda has already ignored the checks and balances in the Constitution as is, that could have gone on forever. What he could not violate was the simple math of term limits, so he’s simply writing that out of existence. With that goes the last check on the absolute power of the Presidency. Now the only check is death, revolution or palace intrigue, hardly a stable template for a democratic nation. In Mahinda’s shortsightedness, he has lost track of his duty as a leader. A Constitution is not supposed to think 10 years ahead or 50 years ahead, it’s supposed to think for hundreds. It’s not supposed to imagine best case scenarios, it’s supposed to plan for the worst. Most importantly, it is not about one man but about the people. That is who power belongs to, and that is who this new Constitution takes power away from.
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