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 Principles of Politics
 
Sri Lanka’s rushed amendment
Mint, India Thursday, September 09, 2010


Rajapaksa hustles change through parliament, sparking fears of ‘constitutionally sanctioned dictatorship,’ a worrying prospect for India.The 18th amendment, pushed through by Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance with some support from other parties, passed easily in parliament, especially after the main opposition party boycotted the session. the Sri Lankan public remains, for the most part, unaware of the amendment’s ramifications., writes Ayeshea Pereira in Mint.

Amid bursts of opposition protest, and with breathtaking swiftness, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa used his party’s parliamentary majority to amend the constitution and remove the two-term limit for the country’s presidency. The move—the first amendment to the constitution in post-war Sri Lanka—has been criticized as “unconstitutional” and “undemocratic”.

...

The 18th amendment, pushed through by Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) with some support from other parties, passed easily in parliament, especially after the main opposition party boycotted the session.

Marked as an “urgent bill”, the amendment was tabled and passed in only 10 days. The constitution now allows presidents to run repeatedly for re-election and gives them the authority to appoint the heads of independent bodies such as the human rights commission, the election commission and the public service commission. Even before this amendment, the president’s powers were considerable; presidents can dissolve parliament, hold as many ministerial portfolios as they wish, and claim complete immunity from the rule of law.

... ...

The day before the Bill’s passage, the Supreme Court had eased its way, rejecting calls from opposition parties to put the proposed amendment to a referendum. “Urgent” Bills need not be gazetted in parliament; they need only to be cleared by the Supreme Court, thus eroding any chance of scrutiny or debate.

...

Moving as it did within a day from cabinet approval to the Supreme Court, the Bill’s final version was inaccessible to those who wished to argue against it in court. Petitioners opposing the amendment were not given final copies of the Bill until the attorney general had made his submissions on behalf of the government. The Supreme Court’s decision, when it came, spurred MPs from the opposition United National Party (UNP) to protest outside parliament. After the Supreme Court announced its verdict on Tuesday, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) poured on to the streets of Colombo, clogging evening rush-hour traffic for hours. Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP leader who was visiting India when the Supreme Court was considering the Bill, led a parliamentary boycott on Wednesday and tried to lead a protest march from UNP headquarters to parliament. The march was stopped by the police and forced to turn back—another reminder of how impotent the opposition has become in the face of the Rajapaksa-led UPFA juggernaut.

Crucially, the Sri Lankan public remains, for the most part, unaware of the amendment’s ramifications.

...

Thampoe points out that, after last year’s victory in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), public opinion still supports Rajapaksa, and that the amendment would have passed even if it had been put to a referendum.

...

Thampoe also reads into the introduction of the 18th amendment an attempt by Rajapaksa to protect his future. It is only the incumbent president who enjoys legal immunity; that immunity disappears once the presidential term ends. Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former president, discovered this to her detriment when she was found guilty of abuse of power during her tenure by the Supreme Court and fined 2 million Sri Lankan rupees. Currently, Thampoe therefore pointed out, Rajapaksa “enjoys complete immunity (but) if he relinquishes the post he will become vulnerable. The President is living in fear of what will happen if he ceases to be President”.

This article was published in the Mint on Thursday, September 09, 2010. Please read the original article here.
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