Term unlimited

Sri Lanka’s once vibrant democracy has been dealt a stunning blow with a constitutional amendment that removes the two-term restrictions on the Presidency. This means that president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the first beneficiary of the 18th amendment, can be president for life, subject to re-election.

The amendment also gives the president the authority to appoint top judges and other public officials, including heads of independent bodies such as the human rights commission, the election commission and the public service commission, unrestricted by a legal veto. Even before this amendment, the powers of the Sri Lankan president were immense as they could dissolve parliament, hold as many portfolios as they wished and claimed complete immunity from the rule of law.

The 18th amendment gives a substantial boost to these powers. As worrying as the implications of the amendment for Sri Lanka’s democracy is the manner in which it was passed by parliament. Listed as an ‘urgent bill’, the amendment was tabled and passed in 10 days only. Clearly the government, which has a clear majority in parliament anyway, wanted no legal challenges to stop or slow its attempt to push Sri Lanka down the road to authoritarian rule.

That Rajapaksa is popular among the Sinhalese majority, especially since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, is undoubted. However, the manner in which he has been systematically building a cult around himself, one that gives him god-like status, is distasteful. He and his family control the levers of power in Sri Lanka today, holding powerful positions as ministers and as heads of corporations.

Any threat to Rajapaksa’s rule has been snuffed out; the fate of former army chief, Lt Gen Sarat Fonseka is a telling example of what happens to those who challenge the president. Critics in the media have been severely dealt with. It is in the context of this dramatic expansion of Rajapaksa’s grip over power that the 18th amendment must be seen. It paves the way for perpetuation of the rule of an all-powerful president.

The possibility of Rajapaksa doing away with the fig leaf of periodic elections now looms over Sri Lanka which is on its way to becoming a full-fledged authoritarian dictatorship. The developments in the island are of concern not only to the people of Sri Lanka but for India and for democrats across the world.

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