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In consolidating power, President Rajapaksa risks squandering one of his country's greatest adva...

Sep 16, 2010 12:49:37 PM- transcurrents.com

The Wall Street Journal Opinion, Sep 16, 2010: Sri Lanka's Peace-Torn Democracy

One of Sri Lanka's unique achievements was preserving democratic rule through its 26-year bloody battle against Tamil Tiger insurgents. So it's troubling to see democracy—and the prosperity that ought to come with it—under threat now that there's peace in the land.

Witness the passage earlier this month of an amendment to the constitution making some significant changes to the way the government functions. Most controversially, the provision ends the two-term limit for presidents. That would allow recently re-elected incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa to run for a third six-year term when his current stint expires in 2016. The new amendment also scraps a commission that was supposed to be responsible for hiring top bureaucrats and security officials.

Government apologists offer several justifications for these changes. The end of term limits, the thinking goes, will eliminate the lame-duck problem that plagued earlier presidencies in their waning days, while the people will get a vote every six years in any event. Meanwhile, the constitutional appointments commission never functioned as intended and hindered efficient administration.

But context matters, and provides plenty of cause for concern that Mr. Rajapaksa might abuse his new constitutional powers. In August, his government court-martialed Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the former military leader who challenged Mr. Rajapaksa in January's election, in what many perceived as a politically motivated trial. Some local journalists complain of increased pressure to avoid challenging the government too harshly. Last week's issue of the Economist was stopped at the border Friday and barred from distribution until Wednesday. The reason? Apparently a critical editorial about Mr. Rajapaksa's constitutional amendment, though Colombo tries to pass off the episode as a simple misunderstanding.

This might not appear to matter much right now. Mr. Rajapaksa remains popular thanks to his leadership during the end of the war, and won re-election with some 58% of the vote. His party has a healthy majority in parliament and the opposition United National Party is riven by intraparty feuding. But Sri Lanka needs a functioning multiparty democracy. The country still must address the legitimate concerns of the Tamil minority, such as a history of discrimination in education and government employment. A true democracy would be best suited to forging compromises. Competition from Gen. Fonseka during the campaign goaded Mr. Rajapaksa into more quickly resettling Tamil war refugees, for instance.

Then there's the economy, which has been mired in decades of war and bad policies punctuated by too-infrequent bouts of reform. When it gained independence in 1948, Sri Lanka was the second-richest country in Asia. Now per-capita income languishes at $2,000. Mr. Rajapaksa has promised to increase that to $4,000, and investors may be tempted to cheer his consolidation of power as a way to cut through red-tape. But his economic platform explicitly spurns the Western style "neo-liberal" liberalizations the economy needs to unleash itself.

There may well come a time when investors start wishing there was space for a more liberal-minded opposition party to rise to the top. There also may well come a time when Sri Lankans, newly accustomed to peace, conclude they want to consider new options for leadership. It would be a tragedy if the man who delivered security ends up depriving his country of the liberty to make those choices. - courtesy: The Wall Street Journal -