Eighteenth time unlucky
from THE ECONOMIST
NATIONAL constitutions come in two main types. Some are prescriptive, enshrining freedoms, curtailing the powers of the state and generally hampering would-be dictators. Others, however, tend to the descriptive, and are often revised to catch up with changes that have already happened. Into this class can be put Sri Lanka’s 1978 constitution, this week amended for the 18th time, with unseemly haste.
The Sri Lanka described in the revised charter is not a pretty place. It is one where the forms of parliamentary democracy are preserved but the substance has become subordinated to almost untrammelled presidential power. With the opposition divided, his rival in the presidential election in January in detention and his popularity still high, President Mahinda Rajapaksa already seems monarch of all he surveys.
The amendment changes the constitution in two main ways. The first is to remove the bar on the president’s serving more than two six-year terms. First elected president in 2005, and then re-elected with a thumping majority in January, Mr Rajapaksa has in fact not even started his second term. But he seems to be settling in for the long haul.
As government spokesmen have pointed out, however, Sri Lanka’s voters will at least have the chance to turf him out in six years’ time. That is why it is the second change that is more pernicious. It is (such is the way of descriptive constitutions) to overturn the 17th amendment. This was an admittedly muddled attempt to curb the powers of the “executive presidency”, partly through a “constitutional council”. After the latest change, the constitution will both grant the president immunity and also give him final authority over all appointments to the civil service, the judiciary and the police. He is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Almost the only formal constraint on him—electoral considerations aside—is an obligation to show up in parliament once a quarter.
Sri Lanka, goes the argument of Mr Rajapaksa’s cheerleaders, needs a strong executive to seize the chances of peaceful development offered by last year’s victory in the 26-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers. But confusingly they also point to that victory—grasped with a ruthlessness that shocked many of Sri Lanka’s foreign friends—as evidence of the virtues of a powerful presidency. Indeed, whatever problems Sri Lanka’s political system suffers from, the weakness of the presidency, which is already directly responsible for over 90 institutions, is not one of them. Quite the contrary: Mr Rajapaksa himself, before he tasted its benefits first-hand, used to campaign for the abolition of the executive presidency.
His new vision of further strengthening the president’s powers has been greeted with an outcry from Sri Lanka’s liberals, but few mass protests. The public must feel bewildered by it all. The change was pushed through as an “urgent” parliamentary bill in under two weeks from the draft’s first appearance, thanks to Mr Rajapaksa’s recent acquisition of the requisite two-thirds majority. Such important changes should have been put to a referendum. Mr Rajapaksa might well have won one. But a campaign would at least have thrown the issues open to public debate and scrutiny.
Because he can
The only urgent compulsions facing Mr Rajapaksa and his brothers (two have senior jobs in his government and a third is the parliament’s speaker) are those of parliamentary arithmetic and personal popularity. Still basking in the glow of military and electoral triumphs, the president has done in haste what he knows he can get away with. That he has preferred to put the consolidation of his family’s power ahead of a sorely needed national reconciliation with an aggrieved Tamil minority is a decision Sri Lanka will repent at leisure. - courtesy: The Economist -