Sri Lanka moves towards autocracy

Sri Lanka moves towards autocracy

With the Sri Lankan parliament passing the 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution, the powers of its Executive Presidency have been expanded substantially. Its passage wasn’t in doubt; only recently the Supreme Court ruled that the amendment needed only a two-thirds majority for it to be enacted, which the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), with its allies, had.

The 20th Amendment rolls back the 19th Amendment, which was passed in 2015 under the previous government. The 19th Amendment had clipped presidential powers by requiring the president to consult the prime minister and making him liable to prosecution for official actions that violate fundamental rights. With the passage of 20A, powers are concentrated in the office of the president, the prime minister’s role has been diminished to a ceremonial one, and parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp. Sri Lanka has taken a decisive step towards becoming a constitutional autocracy.

This is a distressing state of affairs, especially since the country is Asia’s oldest democracy. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had made a case for empowering the presidency in order to improve governance. Will he use his substantial powers to improve the wellbeing of the Sri Lankan people or to entrench the rule of the Rajapaksa family? The concentration of power in the hands of one authority has never been good for any people.

Opposition parties and civil society activists did put up a fight. Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging 20A. However, the apex court ruled that 20A was constitutional and only four of its provisions would have to be put to a referendum. As expected, 20A sailed through parliament, with 156 MPs voting in its favour; six opposition MPs voted with the government.

An already powerful and triumphalist government will now move to the next item on the agenda – the 13th Amendment, which provides for devolution of power to the provinces. This legislation gave a measure of autonomy to the Tamils. The government proposes to take that away. A section of Buddhist monks opposed 20A. But even they can be expected to rally behind the government on the revocation of 13A. The 13A was the result of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord and India has been its strong proponent.

If fully and meaningfully implemented, 13A has the potential to address Tamil political grievances. But successive governments have refrained from implementing 13A fully. Now, the Rajapaksa government is set to do away with it. India will be watching but is unlikely to do much as it is more concerned about the Rajapaksa government’s pro-China tilt than the well-being of Tamils.