Family fiefdom

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has acted in an exceedingly arbitrary, illegal and authoritarian manner in removing Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake despite a Supreme Court ruling declaring the impeachment process illegal.

In doing so, the Rajapaksa government has not only thumbed its nose at the country’s judiciary but signalled its lack of respect for the country’s laws, procedures, even its Constitution.  Once a vibrant democracy, Sri Lanka began sliding towards authoritarian rule in the 1970s when one government after another trashed constitutional provisions and amended it in a manner that vested enormous power in an executive President. It encouraged successive presidents to act arbitrarily. However, it was under Rajapaksa and especially after the defeat of the LTTE that the situation has turned exceedingly alarming.

Rajapaksa has used the majority his party enjoys in Parliament to bulldoze constitutional amendments cementing his grip over power. While Parliament is subservient to the president, the media has been silenced.  And now it is the turn of the judiciary. It was standing up to Rajapaksa somewhat. It has been rendered irrelevant now. The balance of power between the executive, the legislature and judiciary, which was always lopsided in Sri Lanka, has been destroyed now. Sri Lanka’s march to authoritarian rule has accelerated.

President Rajapaksa has made Sri Lanka a family fiefdom. One brother is the Speaker of Parliament, another is the defence secretary, while the third is the economic development minister. Besides there are sons, nephews, nieces and uncles heading ministries and departments. Contracts for key infrastructure projects are awarded to the Rajapaksas and their cronies. Political and economic power in Sri Lanka is concentrated in the hands of the Rajapaksa family. Anyone who dares question or criticise this situation is silenced.

Sri Lanka today is a classic example of the fact that elections alone do not make a democracy. The country goes to the polls regularly. President Rajapaksa did win a sweeping mandate and indeed his party has won all elections at the national, provincial and local levels over the past three years.  However, the elections notwithstanding Sri Lanka cannot claim to be a democracy. Its democratic institutions are completely pulverised, the rule of law does not exist and civil society organisations have been crushed. At best elections being used to claim legitimacy for what is increasingly authoritarian rule. 

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