By Col R Hariharan
Sri Lanka parliament voted to end the two-term limit imposed on the president by more than the required two thirds majority in the 225-member house on September 8. With the passing the 18th amendment of the constitution, the parliament has removed the constitutional bar and paved the way for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to get elected president a third term.
The ruling United Peoples Front Alliance (UPFA) with 144 seats was short of two thirds majority required to push through the constitutional amendment. Despite this, thanks to the President’s adroit advance political manoeuvres, the amendment had a smooth passage with 161 members voting in favour, and only 17 voting against.
The voting pattern showed deep divisions within opposition ranks in handling the relentless onslaught of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political juggernaut. The opposition members appear to feel helpless; a remark attributed to one of the members aptly described it: “what to do, he will be in power for the next 12 years”.
The main opposition party - the United National Party (UNP) – wracked by internal dissension boycotted the debate as well as the voting on the bill. Instead, it chose to demonstrate outside the parliament. It had to suffer the ignominy of seeing six of its members cross voting in favour of the bill. In the wake of the voting, the UNP-led opposition coalition is in tatters as four smaller constituent parties switched their loyalty to Rajapaksa. The after shock has left UNP left in disarray with 28 out of 43 MPs members raising the flag of dissent against Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party leadership.
Even before the bill came up in parliament, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) parted with the UNP alliance and announced its eight members would vote for the 18th amendment. Even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) rank was depleted when its lone Sinhala member C.H. Piyasena voted for the bill.
The executive president enjoys enormous powers under the 1978 constitution. He can dissolve the parliament and declare emergency. In a state of emergency, the president can even promulgate regulations to override laws enacted by the parliament. Sri Lanka has had long spells of emergency. The state of emergency continues to be in force even now though the war ended in May 2009. He also appoints judges, heads of armed forces and police, election commissioners and secretaries to the government etc.
Both the opposition parties and the civil society had been demanding the curbing president’s powers by amending the constitution for quite sometime now. President Rajapaksa appears to have used their desire to his advantage with the18th amendment. The opposition parties and civil society have expressed serious concern over not only its form and content of the amendment but the unseemly haste with which it was being pushed through without adequate public debate.
In particular, they are concerned with two aspects of the amendment - the lifting of the two-term restriction on the president and the discarding of the 17th amendment to the Constitution. This amendment was adopted in 2001 to ensure some form of control over President’s powers in making appointments to high office.
The lifting of restriction on the number of presidential terms will provide enough time for President Rajapaksa to consolidate his power. Not only that, it could usher in dynastic rule of Rajapaksas. This is nothing unusual in South Asia; dynasties have been in power not only in the past in Sri Lanka, but also in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But after years of internal conflict, Sri Lanka is passing through a delicate stage as the process of reconciliation and reconstruction of its democratic structure is not yet complete. At this stage the enormous powers Rajapaksa enjoys, coupled with 16 years in office (if he gets elected even once more), could neutralise the checks and balances so essential for democracy.
The removal of the 17th amendment has done away with the Constitutional Council (CC) created under of the constitution. It was mandatory for the president to act on CC’s recommendations on appointments to high office. Though partisan politics of Sri Lanka had ensured the 17th amendment was never followed both in letter and spirit, the president was obliged to follow it. As per the new amendment, the CC has been replaced by a five-member council consisting of the prime minister, speaker, leader of the opposition and a member of parliament each to be nominated by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. This makes it purely political in character unlike the CC which provided for participation of eminent persons outside the political spectrum.
However, the catch is the president is only required only to seek the observations of the members of this parliamentary council while appointing the chairmen and members of election commission, public service commission, national police commission, human rights commission, permanent commission to investigate allegations of corruption and bribery, finance commission and delimitation commission. The president similarly consults the Council while appointing the chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court, the president and judges of the court of appeal, and members of judicial service commission other than chairman.
Almost all opposition leaders have condemned the adoption of the18th amendment saying it will lead to tyranny and dictatorship. The leader of the opposition Sarath Fonseka’s comment that the government was inviting revolutions and coups against it by creating a constitutional dictatorship through the introduction of the 18th Amendment was curious. Did have the example of rise and fall of President Fujimori of Peru in his mind?
Alberto Fujimori served as President of Peru for three terms from 1990 to 2000. During his controversial rule he eliminated the left wing Shining Path guerrillas and restored the economic stability of the country. Despite allegations of his authoritarian methods and human rights violations, he was enormously popular. In April 1995, at the height of his popularity, Fujimori was re-elected with almost two-thirds of the vote.
Though the constitution allowed only two terms for a president, he successfully contested for a third term after his party voted a law in parliament to allow him to contest. However, when a huge corruption scandal erupted, he fled to Japan in 2000. He lived in exile for five years; when he visited Chile in 2005 he was extradited to face criminal charges in Peru. He was convicted in a number of cases of bribery and corruption and human rights violations during his rule. He was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in connection with human rights violations when death squads of the government had carried out killings and kidnappings on his orders. While the example of Fujimori looks far fetched in the context of Sri Lanka, it is a grim reminder of how public adulation can change when unfettered power is misused.
What does it mean to India?
Strictly speaking, the constitutional changes in Sri Lanka are an internal structural rearrangement. However, the growing power of President Rajapaksa and the likelihood of its further consolidation during a decade and a half makes are of special interest to India. President Rajapaksa is firmly in saddle and as the opposition is weak and divided than ever before, his assertive style of governance is unlikely to change in his coming term. He would also have sufficient time and freedom to plan his foreign policy on the long term to achieve his ends. This luxury is not available to the Indian Prime Minister; so India will have to evolve at least the firm contours of its Sri Lanka policy for the long term. This becomes important as China’s foot prints in South Asia and Indian Ocean region are growing. It also makes it imperative for India to structure its security relations with Sri Lanka on a firm footing and build India-Sri Lanka trade relations by removing India's non tariff obstructions stifling the growth of free trade with Sri Lanka.
With the President calling the shots, the political package for Tamils will come only as and when he decides. He seems to be in no hurry to do this. Apparently India is not happy with this as evident from the remark of Indian Foreign Secretary for External Affairs Ms Nirupama Rao during her visit to Sri Lanka in the first week of September.
She said: “He [Rajapaksa] has constantly said that he is focused on that [political solution] need. And that he plans to move on it. He has his sight set on that. And this point about the need to be more than just focused on the economic issues and the development issues and to look beyond. Everybody in the government got a sense of how we look at it. From that point of view, I think they know how India is approaching or looking at this issue.” This issue is likely to become crucial when the election fever sets in Tamil Nadu. Presumably, the issue will be discussed when SM Krishna, India’s external affairs minister visits Sri Lanka in October.
The United States has condemned the passing of the constitutional amendment saying it undermined democracy; reactions of other western powers are also likely to be the same. So Sri Lanka can expect a renewed spell of international confrontation on allegations over human rights violations and war crimes. Frustration on this count is manifest in the statements of Sri Lanka minister of external affairs as Sri Lanka does not want to change its stand against international accountability on allegations of human rights violations.
So Sri Lanka is likely to need India’s support in international forums more than ever before. With the continuing economic downturn in the West, Sri Lanka would also need more Indian economic assistance, investment and aid for economic growth apart from funds for reconstruction of infrastructure and rehabilitation. So New Delhi will have to work out a well rounded a strategy to handle the enormous clout of President Rajapaksa to its advantage.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: www.colhariharan.org)