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Tinkering for trouble

"The system, once manipulated, is now even more easily manipulated with the expected concentration of power in the executive branch, resulting from the subtle manipulations to rid the executive presidency of whatever existing checks and balances."

by Rajpal Abeynayake

(June 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The country is in low intensity ferment over the style of governance of the Rajapaksa regime. The administration’s mantra that the president knows best, has got the goat of many people who feel there is a gradual throttling of democracy of the J. R. Jayewardene archetype.

People may also feel in spite of the Dixit dominated excesses of those times, that there was a positive Indian influence which held sway over Jayewardene’s cavalier manipulations of democracy in the decade of the eighties.

The feeling today is that there is no such international oversight concerning any domestic excesses of a regime that appears only to be getting started.

When it’s time to free up the democratic space after years of suppression under quasi-military rule during an armed conflict, the civil society, media and the frontline political elite are flummoxed at this turn of events.

A government that did not quite get a two thirds majority but is certain of acquiring one in parliament, is now tweaking the system to a point to which there will be less democratic space for people than during over two decades of armed conflict.


Claiming that there is a mandate — indeed a ‘democratic popular demand’ for all of this constitutional tinkering, makes things so much more disturbing to people who see this democratic mandate as a highly polarising one.

What the jackboot of a ‘mandate’ can do has been seen before in this country, most notably during J. R. Jayewardene’s days of UNP junta democracy.

Both the recently announced expected manipulations of the constitution, one concerning the lifting of the two term limit - and the other the installation of an unelected senate — should be enough to place the democracy threat level on red alert.
If both measures succeed as they are likely to, it could be tantamount to effectively locking up democratic process and practise for the next 12 years and throwing away the key.

Civil society protests over these developments seem to be muted at this time, but that is due probably to the shock factor involved in all of this i.e.: free thinkers cannot still believe the audacity of all of this constitutional engineering that would heap still more heft onto a presidency that is already top-heavy with grossly excessive powers.

There is no mistaking it —- the direction in which we are going is definitely one of a constitutional dictatorship.

Make no mistake also that it would be argued very soon that three term limits are fine, as long as the sitting president gets re-elected, which would be interpreted after all as a reflection of the peoples will.

Saying this would be as if to say that what comes out of the BP induced oil-sludge in the Gulf of Mexico is guaranteed to be a sparkling white lotus, and not an oil drenched and blackened bird —- with tar heavy feathers and in the last gasp of life...

With the constitutional council now guaranteed to be an extended arm of the executive office, it’s as if democracy has gone for a walk, leaving us the people to our own meagre devices.

Easily manipulated

The system, once manipulated, is now even more easily manipulated with the expected concentration of power in the executive branch, resulting from the subtle manipulations to rid the executive presidency of whatever existing checks and balances.

Some of these contemplated far-reaching changes call for a referendum; even Hugo Chavez had one when he sought to extend term limits. A democracy deficit in Venezuela anyway is understandable, but not so in Sri Lanka where there has been a longer and greater tradition of democracy.

J. R. Jayewardene radically altered this democratic tradition and now the Rajapaksas want to sound the death knell to it.

It’s time we called for a dead ringer. The phrase has its origins in Dark Age England during the plague; people died like flies and sometimes it was difficult to determine with the medical technology available at that time if a person was in fact dead or not. The solution was to insert a rope in each coffin attached to a bell; anyone buried alive by mistake could sound it for a last minute resurrection, courtesy the grave diggers who were at hand.

It may be too late for a dead-ringer for Sri Lankan democracy if it is poised to go under.

In the next several days, with that last nail in democracy’s coffin now well in place, the low intensity ferment that’s seen now in terms of protest is a disgracefully muted reaction to this democracy-onslaught.

But it can be expected, with the Sri Lankan democratic tradition being suppressed over time since the era of J R’s surgical assault on a long running tradition of democratic institutions and devices.

Under threat

In the event anyone deems an explanation necessary, democracy is definitely under threat as three executive terms —- anything over two —- would remove any fetter towards one man dictatorship, which is why almost all presidential systems of government in the world today come in-built with two term limits.

An unelected upper chamber, a so called senate, would be a rubber stamp for the president, plus his reliable convenient veto on any positive pro-democracy law that still has a chance of emerging from this very one sided legislature, the 2010 parliament.

With the senate and with the removal of term limits coming into place, it is as if all the stops have been removed in our progress towards totalitarianism.

All these moves are to appear as if they are minor adjustments or clinical tweakings of the current constitutional document —- but in fact they are anything but.

The removal of any vestige of democracy —- the deft surgical removal of the last props as it were —- appears to be a carefully planned exercise.

The installation of a rubber stamp senate goes that extra mile to ensure that nothing the president will dislike will come out of this legislature which is already his fiefdom —- with his own handpicked Speaker picked to stave off an angry anti-Premadasa type rebellion that could lead to an acceptance of an impeachment motion, which could in turn trigger off a train of events that could, at the best of times, make the presidency seem accountable.

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