|Mahinda Rajapaksa||Venezuela’s authoritarian populist late Hugo Chavez||Former Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade||Burkina Faso’s ousted strongman Blaise Compaore|
The Supreme Court determination that the incumbent President could run for a third term, the consensus opinion of the court, which was delivered to the President last week, came as no surprise.
It was not so much because that the President has tamed the Superior Courts, since his regime sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake through a dubious impeachment motion or that he appointed in her place, his erstwhile legal adviser to the Cabinet Mohan Peiris; it is mainly because, in 2010, a full bench of the Supreme court chaired by Mrs Bandaranayake– ruled in favour of the regressive 18th Amendment and let it become law without being subjected to a referendum.
Whatever may be the perceived judicial reasons, if not sheer sycophancy that made the Supreme Court take that decision, Sri Lanka is probably the only Constitutional democracy in the world that let the incumbent to remove term limits, without going for a referendum.
Even in Venezuela, authoritarian populist late Hugo Chavez lost the first referendum when he sought to remove the term limits of the presidency. Years later, he succeeded to win a second, having toned down the proposed Constitutional amendment.
Some other despots were ignominiously kicked out of power.
Two weeks ago in one wretched place of West Africa named Burkina Foso, the aging autocrat was forced to flee the country, after mounting street protests against his attempt to remove the mandatory two- term limit.
Earlier in Senegal, another African autocrat was forced to step down after he tried to remove the term limits of the Presidency.
The Supreme Court decision in 2010 deprived the people of this country of their right to decide whether they agreed with the perpetuation of rule of the incumbent, and the dismantling of the 17th amendment, the only progressive Constitutional amendment incorporated in the overwhelmingly regressive 1978 Constitution.
The dismantling of the 17th Amendment, under which the five independent commissions of Public Service, Judiciary, Police, Human Rights and Bribery were set-up turned the so called Independent Commissions into a rubber stamp of the Executive Presidency.
Though some commissioners of those commissions may be decent people (many others are stooges), their hands are tied and they operate under the mercy of the executive.
Chief justice Bandaranayake was then in the good books of the government. Her husband was the Chairman of the National Savings Bank- appointed by the government even after his earlier dubious conduct at the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation.
The honeymoon lasted until Pradeep Kariyawasam was forced to resign from the post after his role in the controversial purchase of 390 million rupees of shares of The Finance Company at an inflated price.
Later the judicial activism of the Supreme Court took a new high and the then Chief Justice delivered several rulings which were termed as unfavourable to the government, including one on the Gama Neguma Bill championed by the powerful presidential brother Basil Rajapaksa.
When she was sacked later, of course through a controversial impeachment motion and a shame trial by a Parliamentary Select Committee, she became a heroine, overnight. She was in fact a victim of the system which she helped propping up.
Sri Lankans have a habit of not seeing the woods for the trees.
The both ends of the Sri Lankan political spectrum - the government camp, which now suffers from cult- worship bordering demagoguery and the opposition, which is increasingly feeling bitter at its predicament- are beset by this ailment.
The country suffers, among many other things, from a grave deficit of the integrity of the holders and aspirants of high offices. This deficit has made it possible for any charlatan to con a gullible population.
Now seeing some individuals who have made their reappearance to carry the torch of anti-incumbency campaign of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who himself an autocrat, I am convinced that the Sri Lankan opposition politics is about to go through a yet another treacherous and self- defeating cycle.
During the last Presidential Poll, the combined opposition fielded former army chief General Sarath Fonseka, who despite his military acumen and his role in the military victory did represent little of the values of liberal democracy and fundamental freedoms. (In retrospect, I feel his defeat in the election have saved whatever the remnants of democracy in the country)
Among the latest torch bearers of the anti-incumbency campaign are former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga - who overlooked respected and much senior Supreme Court Judge Marc Fernando to appoint Sarath N. Silva as the Chief Justice- and the usual culprits of political Buddhism and the JVP.
The latter also has a problem with accepting the obvious, that the UNP is the main opposition party, the only party which can swing power.
And to further compound the situation is the UNP’s failure to lead the opposition campaign. So the tail wags the dog.
The problem in Sri Lanka is primarily three fold: one is, obviously, the absence of independent institutions; second is the deficit of the integrity of the electable candidates; the latter reinforces the importance of the former for without institutions, the country would be at the mercy of the whims and fancies of the men and women of lesser calibre, with whom the exercise of the powers of the State is vested with.
Third is the detachment of the average folks from the very ideas of freedom and civil liberties that empower them and check the powers of their elected and unelected leaders.
That is partly due to the skewed social and political empowerment of the independent Sri Lanka. The latter, an unenlightened grassroots population reinforces the former; conmen in the political office and the absence of independent institutions. I am no fan of this government and would love to see it out in the first right political and economic opportunity. However, how many Sri Lankans do want the same is open to question.
Their indifference could be partly due to their slavishness, residual of feudalism in Sri Lankan society or simply they are happy with an authoritarian regime, which has however been successful in delivering economic growth and collective goods to the villages.
Sri Lanka’s political challenges cannot be confined to abolishing the Executive Presidency- which is to be replaced by an Executive Prime Minister. (Sirima Bandaranaike was no less authoritarian during 1970-77 than J.R Jayewardene, the first Executive President)
Sri Lanka needs far deeper political (As well as economic) reforms. It has to depoliticise a whole spectrum of society and State institutions and apparatus, from universities to Foreign Service, all of which are now being headed by cronies.
There again, de-politicization does not mean the deprivation of external talent to those institutions since many regulars in such institutions have fallen well short of their counterparts in the world.
Also, Sri Lanka, if it wished to reemerge as a respected member of international community, needs to address allegations of war crimes and other human rights violations.
Members of the free world respect less a regime which does not respect the fundamental rights of its own people.
Also, for the sake of long term political stability, the country has to strike a consensus deal with its Tamils and other minorities over their political rights and representation.
None of those concerns counts in the campaign to abolish the Executive Presidency.
That is partly because, the main opposition UNP, rather than formulating its own plan, has let the monks and Marxists to make the policy of the Opposition.
Such strategies concocted by third parties are unlikely to win. We saw that with Sarath Fonseka’s candidacy.
We also witnessed with Chandrika Kumaratunga how the great expectations of people can be shattered. She came to power promising to abolish the Executive Presidency and left the office after completing her two terms.
In contrast to Rajapaksa, she has nothing tangible to show in terms of infrastructure development.
Therefore, replacing Rajapaksa with another of the same ilk or someone much worse would not serve the purpose.
The integrity of the aspirants matters since, in the absence of institutions and checks and balances mechanisms, we would be at their mercy once they got elected (if ever).
Also, most important, any potential candidate or a political alliance should have a practical economic vision and commitment to liberal market policies for more than politics, its economy that would heel much of Sri Lanka’s ailments in the future.
That is exactly why single point agenda would not help either the country or the candidate in the forthcoming general election.
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