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Constitutional Changes Poised to Consolidate Presidential Power in Sri Lanka

September 8, 2010

The dust has settled from two general elections in Sri Lanka this year. In the presidential election on January 26, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) defeated former army commander Sarath Fonseka, who was the common candidate put forward by opposition parties including the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka’s oldest political party.

Poster for President Mahinda Rajapaksa

On September 8, Sri Lanka's Parliament voted to remove presidential term limits from the constitution, allowing President Mahinda Rajapaksa to run for a third term. Photo by Karl Grobl.

It was the first time in a national election that a candidate bearing the UNP’s proud elephant symbol was not on the ballot.

In the parliamentary election on April 8, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, led by the SLFP, won by a landslide. The UPFA received 4.85 million votes, the UNP just 2.36 million. That’s 1.15 million fewer votes than the UNP received in the last parliamentary election in 2004, while the UPFA pulled in 600,000 more votes than in 2004. It was a devastating swing, resulting in the UPFA winning 144 seats to 60 for the UNP. For the first time since the country replaced its first-past-the-post electoral system with a mixed proportional representation system in 1978, a single party almost won the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution. Sri Lanka’s competitive two-party system, which has existed since the SLFP emerged in 1951 to challenge the UNP’s dominance, is a shadow of its old self.

President Rajapaksa’s first order of constitutional business has been to give himself an opportunity to extend his time as the country’s chief executive through future elections. Under the 1978 constitution, two six-year terms is the limit. However, under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that was presented to Parliament on September 8, those limits have been removed. A politically inclusive Constitutional Council established by the 17th Amendment to appoint members to commissions that govern key state institutions such as the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission and the National Police Commission will be abolished. Under the 18th Amendment, the president will appoint the members while seeking the “observations” of a new, five-member Parliamentary Council comprised of the prime minister, the speaker, the leader of the opposition, and members of Parliament nominated by the prime minister and leader of the opposition.

In the five months since the election, the president has secured the additional votes he needs to change the constitution, including from the ranks of the UNP, with more likely to follow.

President Rajapaksa is at the height of his popularity. Whether he’s so popular that a majority of citizens would support the removal of term limits we’ll never know because the Supreme Court has ruled that the changes are not subject to a national referendum. Whatever unease exists is not broad or deep enough to trouble the president.  He has calculated that whatever disquiet there is will be forgotten if he makes good on his pledge to double the country’s per capita income in the next four years and bring prosperity to the country.

While the president came close to getting the two-thirds super-majority he needed to pass the constitution, he still required defections from the opposition camp to get the necessary votes. A strong opposition leader may have kept party members and the loose anti-government coalition in line, but in the wake of the UNP’s disastrous showing in the April election, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has had his hands full warding off the most serious challenge to his leadership since he became party leader in 1994. Currently the leader appoints all members to the UNP Working Committee, the party’s governing body, which elects the party leader. In effect, the leader can stay for as long as he likes. Dissidents have tried to change the party constitution to require members of the Working Committee to be elected, but these efforts at reform have been turned back by Mr. Wickremesinghe. His success in seeing off the leadership challenge, at least for now, has rendered the UNP impotent and unable to parry the president; his criticism of the 18th Amendment as entrenching autocracy rings hollow.

The old guard of the UNP has not abandoned Mr. Wickremesinghe. His supporters in the international community have not encouraged him to step down, and his friends in civil society are reluctant to criticize him, despite some undemocratic practices. The reason is they want a solution to the ethnic conflict based on power-sharing with Tamils in the North and East, and they share Mr. Wickremesinghe’s cosmopolitan sensibilities about inter-ethnic relations. As the architect of the peace process with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) while he was prime minister from 2001 to 2004, Mr. Wickremesinghe is thought to have a more progressive stance on the ethnic issue than anyone who might replace him (including the presumptive choice of the UNP rank and file, Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa). Mr. Wickremesinghe, they believe, is more likely to work with Tamil political parties and achieve the sought-after political reconciliation than any other emerging leader in the UNP.

In between elections, citizens turn over the business of governing in Sri Lanka to political elites who, on the basis of their underlying social strength, rule, legislate, and make policy through a process of political bargains. Under the circumstances, the only chance to challenge the president and recalibrate the balance of power writ large was for the UNP to emerge from the election reorganized and stronger. Contesting the president’s constitutional amendment now, while passing on the opportunity over the past few months to nudge the UNP’s constitution in a democratic direction, looks a dollar short and a day late.

Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Sri Lanka. He can be reached at nfernando@asiafound.org.

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