By Namini Wijedasa
"So, miss, will we have to vote under a different system now that this constitutional amendment is passed?” the cab driver asked, waiting for the green light. “Like, is the preferential system a thing of the past now?”
The driver — an amiable, politically savvy young man from Balapitiya who had worked in Manusha Nanayakkara’s campaign during the last parliamentary poll — said several customers told him the 18th Amendment would bring about changes to the system of voting.
In the face of such justifiable ignorance, it is no surprise the government has managed to sell the argument that the 18th Amendment was a prerequisite to ensuring development. If the government’s purpose in rushing the bill to parliament was to blind the public to its true nature, the strategy worked.
Not that it matters. The public were never a consideration to being with. Explicit effort was made to freeze them out and to ensure that there was no time to educate people about the changes envisaged.
Still do not know
Voters still don’t know a fraction of what is contained in the 18th Amendment and how it will impact on their lives years from now. Many of those that helped pass the bill in parliament did not care about its contents but were guided by party interest, personal interest and incentives, or a thirst for revenge. The process from the outset smacked of bad faith. Not an ideal start to “development”, is it?
Now, take the bill on its own merits. What in this piece of legislation will facilitate “development”? Proponents point to the promise of continuity. Stock markets (in particular) love the idea of stability. A strong and enduring executive means there would be no political turmoil and there is less chance of interruption in policy implementation. Plans can be made with the future in mind.
Besides, look at what is already taking place. Roads, bridges, causeways, harbours and power plants are being built at admirable speed. Village centres are transforming into town centres. Billions of rupees worth of infrastructure will come into operation by next year, bringing returns of the kind the country has never before seen. Tourism will pick up, industry will pick up, everything will pick up and people will be happy. Who cares if the same president rules forever?
But it must be pointed out at the outset that many supporters of the 18th Amendment are continuing to promote the bill on the impossible but deliberate hypothesis that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the individual that will rule till the end of time, and not anybody else. In other words, the government’s relentless propaganda on the 18th Amendment (post its passing) has been designed to endorse, not only the legislation, but President Rajapaksa.
This is telling in itself. It underscores the reality that the 18th Amendment was designed to keep President Rajapaksa in power. The bill warps the public service system in a manner that would facilitate this. But when you change the constitution of a country, it will serve in practical terms to benefit whoever assumes the position of executive president in future. And there is no telling the kind of politician that will take on that mantle.
The 18th Amendment is a classic example of a government tampering with the supreme law of the land to grant short-term benefit with the effect of damning the country in the long-term. In addition to removing the limit on the number of times an incumbent president can contest, the bill has introduced provisions to bring every arm of public service — including the police, judiciary, elections, auditor general, bribery investigation and human rights protection machinery — directly under the president or cabinet.
How does it help development to have a politicised police force or judiciary?
How does it serve development to have a head of the bribery commission appointed by the president when it is usually serving governments that are responsible for the most corruption?
How does it favour development to have a human rights commission staffed with appointees of the president when most rights violations are committed by serving governments?
How does it help development to have a weak elections commission filled with appointees of the president when this same commission will be the people’s only hope of getting rid of unwanted political leaders?
Proponents of the 18th Amendment act like nothing will ever go wrong; that the incumbent president will continue his development drive and continue as a ‘benevolent dictator’, taking Sri Lanka to unimaginable heights. But what if something does go wrong?
Who will the people turn to then?
After the passing of the 18th Amendment, there isn’t a single independent oversight institution left in Sri Lanka that is not in direct control of the president. And we are fed the drivel that to have an independent elections commission, judiciary or public service will undermine development!
As one observer pointed out, those among the public that back the constitutional amendment do it on trust. “It’s like we have agreed to change the rules in a sports game because we get along with the referee, who incidentally doesn’t like the other team, and the other team is too weak,” he remarked. “But what happens if we fall out?”
The government says you need a strong executive to develop the country. What was wrong with the executive we had before the 18th Amendment? If it was weak, it couldn’t have defeated the LTTE. The government says you need strong laws to develop the country. Implement the existing ones!
So what does the 18th Amendment entail in practical terms? It could lead to a situation whereby the supporters of the ruling party are favoured over others in all arms of public service. It could lead to a situation where the electoral system is so compromised by political appointments that incumbent rulers will be even more difficult to unseat than before.
The judiciary ought to be totally independent but now fall under the politico-executive. One function of the judiciary is to resolve disputes between the state and its citizens so it is doubly important that they are distanced from both parties. But with the appointing authority, promoting authority and disciplining authority all resting with the chief executive, how could a reasonable person be expected to work in an independent manner?
There is more risk of judges thinking of their next promotion — or their future as a judicial officer — when deciding a case. What is the relationship between bringing judges under the command of the politico executive and promoting development?
As for the police, politicisation is a curse Sri Lanka has been fighting for many decades. And the questions remain. Is there any rational link between expediting development and getting police officers to act under the directive of the politico executive? Police officers derive their powers from the Police Ordinance, the Criminal Procedure Code, Emergency Regulations and certain other statues. Implementing those duties have nothing to do with accelerating development. Since 1978, have we not witnesses sufficient instances of total bungling up by police due to them having listened to political directives?
Too many questions unanswered, too many doubts. Reactions to the 18th amendment as observed now could be classified thus: Support; opposition; utter confusion. And then there is the category that says, “Who cares? I haven’t even read it.”
Oh, you will care. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow... but you will care, eventually.
“What if the majority is right?”
I left a Facebook status update last week that read: What if the majority is right? What if civil liberties are secondary to development? Below are some of the replies received, none of them in favour of the 18th Amendment:
Then we should all just shoot ourselves in the head. Messing with the constitution of a country should not be done so fast. 99% of Sri Lankans don’t know what this even means.
First educate, discuss, take a vote, then change. Not change and then tell everyone later.
Why should civil liberties get in the way of development?By that logic, shouldn’t the dictatorships of Africa be the most developed nations in the world and the liberal democracies the rotting carcasses?
My only surprise is that all this is done for ‘’development’ and not for some patriotic calling.
Most Sri Lankans want a king, not a president.
Singapore is a success because the whole society, including the rulers, respects a system of law and order. Civil liberties are curtailed only up to an extent where it is not allowed to misuse your liberties and rights to infringe on those of others.
My worry is that once the power is given that there will be no development. After all, if you don’t need to please the people anymore, why do it? Sri Lanka hasn’t had many presidents that cared about the average Joe on the street. In the end, it’s all about them and their rich buddies. I know some of these “rich buddies” and all they do is get richer and don’t see the poverty around them.
Singapore is a story of more equitable growth where a fully functioning multiparty system is lacking. State played an important role in managing growth.
The 1980s old argument which has now been dismantled is that growth will trickle down and bring equity. My fear is that many politicians (especially UNP) are still stuck in this mode despite evidence having shown this doesn’t work. 1990s onwards it’s been found that focusing on economic growth alone isn’t enough as it leads to wide inequality and has led to increasing poverty among large sections. So development needs to be thought of carefully with equity in mind and governance and democracy are part of that. Also need to consider cases of growth and lack of democracy (e.g. Singapore, China, and Vietnam). China has economic growth but vast inequities and Singapore is more equitable because state has been involved more. - courtesy: Lakbima News -