Asia’s Oldest Democracy in Peril

On 9 August 2020, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. His party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), now commands 145 out of 225 seats, giving it an easy two-thirds majority in the Sri Lankan parliament. This presents a worrying sign of a growing dynastic imprint on the island nation’s political sphere. Only nine months prior, the Prime minister’s brother – Gotabaya Rajapaksa – took oath as President of Sri Lanka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has spent five out of the first nine months of his presidency ruling without parliamentary oversight, in violation of the Constitution’s explicit limit of three months. Even closer scrutiny of the Rajapaksa administration reveals an unsettling pattern of flagrant disregard for constitutional norms.

Since Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the ballot box, the brothers’ preference for centralised rule has become ever more apparent. In classic autocrat style, they are attempting to do away entirely with any constitutional limits on presidential power. The Rajapaksa-led SLPP commands a clear two-thirds majority, essentially allowing the party to steamroll any constitutional amendments through Parliament. In its first major attack on existing democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution, the SLPP has managed to nullify the 19th Amendment. Introduced in 2015 by the previous government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the 19th Amendment received sweeping support across pro-democratic and reformist groups. Passed with almost unanimous backing (with only one vote against), the 19th Amendment sought to curtail the President’s near-absolute powers while endowing the office of the Prime Minister with a more robust decision-making role within the political executive. Among other provisions, 19A revived the two-term limit on the Presidency and reduced the terms of the President and Parliament from six to five years. Moreover, the Prime Minister could no longer be dismissed upon Presidential whims. In other words, under 19A, the Prime Minister’s dismissal was predicated solely upon Parliament’s confidence. Similarly, 19A revoked the President’s powers to dismiss ministers without consulting with the Prime Minister. Perhaps most crucially, the 19th Amendment opened the President up to significant judicial review for any official acts taken during office that violated fundamental rights. Furthermore, by reestablishing the Constitutional Council and bolstering a number of independent oversight commissions – on police, the judiciary, elections, human rights, bribery and corruption etc. – it sought to decentralise (and depoliticise) appointments to the state’s key offices and services. In clipping presidential powers, 19A also ensured that the President could no longer dissolve Parliament at any time except during the last six months of its five-year term. The only exception to this rule rested on Parliament voting to dissolve itself with a two-thirds majority.

Gazetted on 2 September 2020, the 20th Amendment Bill essentially called for a complete overhaul of the 19th Amendment by bestowing the President’s office with significantly expanded powers. In what has been widely perceived as an ominous return to the hyper-presidential mode of governance that characterised the decade between 2005-2015, political scientists worry that 20A could spell the end of Sri Lankan democracy. Unsurprisingly, 20A passed through Parliament unobstructed and was officially enacted into law on 22 October 2020 after only two days of deliberation. 20A repeals or amends all but three provisions of the 19th Amendment. By allowing the President to appoint and dismiss the Prime minister at will, 20A relegates the office of the Prime Minister to a merely ceremonial one. Moreover, under the new amendment, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa holds the power to appoint and dismiss ministers at his discretion, without needing to consult the Prime Minister. The passage of 20A also allows the President to dissolve Parliament on his volition at any time after the first year of its five-year term. In essence, 20A weakens parliamentary oversight on presidential actions and emboldens the President to act with impunity. Furthermore, 20A nullifies the Constitutional Council in favour of a Parliamentary one which will inevitably lead to a politicisation of appointments to key state offices and accountability institutions. In a bid to further entrench their familial political clout, the Rajapaksa-dominated SLPP’s 20A also confers full legal immunity to the President and protection from prosecution for any official actions. 20A also overturns the 19th Amendment provision that blocked dual citizens from holding political office, paving the way for the Rajapaksas’ family-centered coterie (many of whom hold dual US citizenship) to acquire major portfolios in government.

The Rajapaksas’ authoritarian proclivities are by no means new to Sri Lankan politics. The current Prime Minister – Mahinda Rajapaksa – served as President for two terms between 2005 and 2015. During this period, Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed his brother, Gotabaya (the current President) to the position of Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense. It was during the first term of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – one of the most sophisticated and deadly separatist groups in modern history – were successfully annihilated by the Sri Lankan military, earning the brothers a massive personality-cult following. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in particular, earned the tag of ‘Terminator’ for overseeing the war effort as Defense Secretary. The brothers’ previous stint in power, however, was not without its controversies. Under the Rajapaksas, the Sri Lankan state abandoned all hope of a negotiated settlement in favour of pursuing the total destruction of the LTTE. In doing so, the state apparatus often blurred the lines between civilians and armed separatists through indiscriminate aerial bombardment of LTTE-dominated areas, killing as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians during the last stages of the unimaginably brutal Fourth Eelam War, according to a report by the UNHRC. In 2010, the Rajapaksa government passed the 18th Amendment, overturning the two-term limit for Presidents. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency was marked by inordinate levels of corruption and cronyism. Antithetical to all democratic principles, Mahinda served as his own cabinet minister for several departments. Appointments to key positions were given to family members, meaning that nearly 70% of the Government’s budget was controlled by family loyalists. In fact, in 2013, Rajapaksa made use of his unbridled presidential powers to engineer the impeachment of Sri Lanka’s first female Supreme Court Justice for countermanding one of the family’s patronage programmes. At present, Sri Lanka’s 26-member Cabinet includes four members of the Rajapaksa family. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa controls the Defense Ministry while PM Mahinda Rajapaksa heads the strategically important ministries of Finance, Urban Development and Buddhist Affairs. The Prime Minister’s son – Namal Rajapaksa – holds the post of Youth and Sports Minister while the eldest Rajapaksa brother – Chamal Rajapaksa – handles the Irrigation Ministry. In fact, the President has appointed his own long-term lawyer as the country’s Justice Minister.

The Rajapaksas’ return to power has created tremendous unease among the island nation’s Tamil and Muslim minorities. The country’s minorities fear that another term of the Rajapaksas may witness the reemergence of an autocratic mode of governance with unmistakably majoritarian persuasions. The brothers were able to soar to power in their respective elections because they campaigned on a platform of enhanced national security following last year’s ISIS-inspired Easter-Sunday bombings that claimed almost 300 lives. It was the deadliest violence Sri Lanka had experienced since the end of the 26-year long civil war. It exposed the deep fissures in Sri Lankan society that the Rajapaksas cleverly exploited. Facing a fractured opposition, they accused the previous administration of serious lapses in intelligence-sharing. Moreover, the Rajapaksas know they owe their victories to the country’s Sinhala-Buddhist majority and continue to find ways to signal their gratitude. For example, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose, as his oath-taking venue, a pagoda constructed by a Sinhala king of legendary status who is believed to have defeated a Tamil rival. Likewise, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s swearing-in ceremony was held at the holiest Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka – the Temple of the Tooth. Moreover, a deep fear prevails among the country’s minorities that the next item on this triumphalist government’s agenda may be to bury the 13th Amendment for good. This legislation was born out of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord and aimed to provide a degree of autonomy to the nation’s Tamils. It was perceived as the first step in addressing the genuine Tamil grievances that led to the civil war in the first place. If the Rajapaksas are allowed to continue unchecked, it may spell disaster for the island nation’s polyethnic future.

Amidst the uncertainty, at least one thing is objectively clear – to counter this relentless onslaught on its pluralistic credentials, Sri Lanka’s embattled institutions will need to muster up extraordinary amounts of institutional resilience or risk seeing its democracy degraded in lasting ways. Sooner or later, Sri Lanka will have to decide whether a governance model based on presidential authoritarianism is a price worth paying for national security.

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