By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne –
XVI The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted on the sixth day of the waxing moon in the month of Adhi Nikini in the year Two Thousand Five Hundred and Twenty one of the Buddhist Era ( being Thursday the Twenty first day of the month of July in the year One Thousand Nine Hundred and Seventy seven), entrusted to and empowered their Representatives elected on that day to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution in order to achieve the goals of a DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST REPUBLIC, and having solemnly resolved by the grant of such Mandate and confidence reposed in their said Representatives who were elected by an overwhelming majority , to constitute SRI LANKA into a DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST REPUBLIC whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS.
“No one man should have all that power.” – Kanye West
If you were to liken the 19th Amendment to poop, you’d end up with an incredibly crude but hilariously accurate description. It was a long poop. Protracted. Painful. It even made me want to quote Kanye West. But it was necessary, oh, so necessary. Because Kanye, despite being a pop culture icon completely unrelated to Sri Lankan politics, is right: no one man should have ever had all that power.
Not so long ago, we had a school debate on the Constitution. At the 13th hour, I got myself a copy and started reading. It quickly became clear that the office of the President of Sri Lanka was nothing short of a legal dictatorship. Indeed, it became a running joke among us that the President had more power in his pinky finger than the Queen of England ever did – something we used to good effect in the debate that followed.
How? Because in 1977, Sri Lanka passed an amendment to the Constitution that created an Executive Presidency. The Prime Minister at the time, JR Jayewardene, was promoted into the post, becoming the first Executive President of Sri Lanka.
In the coming years, the government of Sri Lanka passed a series of changes that made this Executive Presidency a virtual nexus of power. The Third Amendment, of 1982, enabled the President to seek re-election after 4 years in office. In 1988, the sweeping changes brought by the Fourteenth Amendment not only changed the political balance of the country forever; they also made the President virtually immune to being called up for anything they cared to do.
By the time Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped into the field to win the war, the Presidency was the perfect tool to pull a demoralized, flagging country together. One man could dictate war strategy, order the police about, pardon anyone and anything in the name of national security and so on, and so forth. He was a king hampered only by how long he could (legally) rule.
In 2010, the 18th Amendment took out the limit of the number of times a President could be re-elected, essentially giving the country a legal dictator that could
a) Dissolve Parliament at will
b) Control the armed forces and the judiciary (the second via appointment rather than directly)
c) Take on any Ministry and sack any Minister
d) Convene elections at will
d) Rule forever. Too much of a good thing?
Too much of a good thing? No. Too much of something that never should have been in the first place.
The 19th Amendment Was An Attempt To Undo The Damage
Or, as Indi Samarajiva succinctly puts it, it’s “a big Ctrl+Z on the Constitution”. The 19th Amendment sought to redistribute that power, to take it away from the one man and give it back to the Parliament. The logic is that in a democracy, the elected representatives of the people are a fairer representation of what the people want than one man with a satakaya.
There may be problems with this model, especially when it comes to the goons in Parliament, but dilution of power is necessary. The 19th Amendment passed. Parliament gave it 212 out of 225. One person voted against. Seven people choose not to vote at all.
The person who voted against was Sarath Weerasekara, former Rear Admiral, former Director General of the Civil Defense Force, former Deputy Minister of Labour and Labour Relations, current MP of Digamadulla and pro-Sinhala, pro-Rajapaksa man.
Note: I don’t know much about Sarath Weerasekara. I know he once directed and wrote a film called “Gamini”. I know he idolized Mahinda – “His name will be written in gold in the Mahawamsa,” he is reported to have said. He hold degrees in Buddhist philosophy and is a decorated war hero. He apparently doesn’t believe people should have true freedom of speech – he’s called war film directors “treasonous “and apparently believes the National Anthem should only be sung in Sinhala. He looks like a complex man who seems to have been born forty years too late; one gets the impression that he would have fit very well into the post-S.W.R.D era.
Back to the story. I find a surprisingly huge number of people asking “What does 19A give us?”. It’s astonishing that we, the general public of Sri Lanka, do not know this stuff. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.
So here’s what we got.
A limit on the number of terms a President can serve (2). This is important because it negates the 2010 changes. Dynasty-building is still possible, but no one man can hold all that power for more than two terms.
A minimum term of service after which a President can dissolve parliament (4.5). Again important, because it gives the Parliament staying power and, by extension, allows the 225 to oppose the President if need be without having to worry about getting them collectively booted out of the house.
It does not drastically limit the Executive Presidency in favor of a Prime Minister. That’s because 19A has been diluted by the many, many arguments that took place at Decision-Making HQ yesterday. The current setup looks like a neat catch to keep Mahinda in his place. MR cannot return as the President; now if he becomes PM, he still doesn’t get the Iron Throne.
A rather neat way to end a dictatorship, isn’t it? It is not as much as we hoped for, but it is something. The Parliament is still full of fleas. But Maithripala Sirisena’s government is too weak to steamroll everyone, so everyone has to get together and compromise and work things out – which is more or less how a government should work. Checks and balances, mate.
I do not say MR is evil; he did more for this country than any President ever did. But power corrupts, and the absolute power of the Executive Presidency apparently corrupts absolutely.
It’s sad, really: you either die a hero, or your rule long enough to become the villain. Never has that been more appropriate than in Sri Lanka.
Let me, therefore, end this with the most fitting tribute to Mahinda Rajapaksa ever written in English:
“I’m livin’ in the 21st century
Doing something mean to it
Doing better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music.”
*Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a contributor to Colombo Telegraph, his articles can be found on his blog, icaruswept.com