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Hardly the Death of Democracy or the Nation:

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Hardly the Death of Democracy or the Nation:
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Ten Points From a Political Scientist

The cynic in me is tempted to remark that the neoliberal, Rightwing Opposition and civil society groups wanted ‘regime change’ throughout the war years and boy, they’ve got it. They didn’t change the regime, the regime changed itself.

What has it changed into, why and how? Reading the vibrant commentaries that accompanied the impending passage of the 18th amendment, two resonated with my own sense of what was going on. In their distinct ways Kishali Pinto Jayewardene and Indi Samarajiva critically perceived it as a process and pointed to the quintessential continuities, while almost all others highlighted what they thought were decisive, dramatic dislocations and discontinuities.


As a student of politics, I have ten observations.

Firstly, had the UNP not set fire (quite literally) to the August 2000 draft Constitution presented by President Kumaratunga and negotiated by Professor GL Pieris, KN Choksy and Karu Jayasuriya, there wouldn’t have been an 18th amendment.

Secondly, while the amendment rolls back an attempt at roll back (the 17th amendment) and therefore restores a status quo ante, taking us back to vintage JR Jayewardene ’78, it makes de jure what was de facto, and gives constitutional form to the wartime Presidency.

Thirdly, it brings Sri Lanka more in line with the forms of state that are most widespread in precisely that part of the world which most strongly supported Sri Lanka in the war. Though it has its exceptions, this is the state form or regime type that preponderates in Eurasia and the global South, characterised by a strong Executive or centre, and governed by the most diverse array of ruling parties, from Westernised nationalists to Communists and centre right modernisers.

Fourthly, this evolution or modification of state form almost always occurs in the context of a real or perceived external encirclement or threat. External threat or intrusion almost always leads to internal hardening. "Circling the wagons" is what the Americans call such political ‘protectionism’. This shift is a salutary example of the counterproductive nature of the West’s failure to fully solidarise with and support Sri Lanka, a practising if flawed democracy, in its war against the Tiger terrorists, and the still more counterproductive character of continued external pressure against a post-war, post victory Sri Lanka.

Fifthly, any game has an umpire and as the saying goes, the umpire or referee’s word is law, or else there will be anarchy. One may disagree with the verdict but the point is that the Supreme Court heard the submissions of the critics, and doubtless read the papers, and has ruled on the matter, without dissent.

Sixthly, the 18th amendment is far less of a turning point, and far less dangerous than President Jayewardene’s Referendum of 1982, which arbitrarily extended the term of parliament by postponing a scheduled parliamentary election by means of a fraudulent and coercive referendum. This took place at a time when the main Opposition party, the SLFP, had been decapitated by the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s civic rights. All this closed off the safety valves and rendered explosion inevitable. It came six months later in the form of a massive anti-Tamil violence.

Seventhly, this shift is not the death/demise of democracy. Or to put it differently, the critical variable – the big story – is surely the meltdown of the main democratic opposition. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration of 1970-77 had a far greater degree of structural control over society, what with the abolition of the independent Public Services Commission, the notorious District Political Authorities and the near monopoly of the mass media. Yet it was swept away in 1977. In 1982 JR Jayewardene needed to have Sirimavo Bandaranaike politically ‘decommissioned’ and the most dynamic elements of the SLFP (Vijaya Kumaratunga, Ossie Abeygoonesekara) locked up on spurious charges of Naxalism, printing bogus rice ration cards etc in order to make his move. Mahinda Rajapakse has not suppressed the UNP in the least, has been solicitous of the political fortunes of its leader (far from depriving him of civic rights) and is the beneficiary of a seemingly endless stream of defections due to the ‘bandwagon effect’. Go figure.

Start with the simple arithmetic. How many of the votes for the 18th amendment, from senior Ministers to teleplay Barbies, come from former UNPers who crossed the floor precisely during the tenure of Ranil Wickremesinghe as UNP leader? How many non-UNP Opposition votes are those of defectors from Ranil’s stint as Opposition leader? The numbers and trajectories of the parliamentarians tell the story: if the 18th amendment renders the Presidency overly powerful, it is Ranil Wickremesinghe who has empowered him.

President Jayewardene would never in his worst nightmares, have thought that the 65th anniversary of the United National Party would have been commemorated in the Centre named after him. The Jayewardene Centre was used for exhibitions and gatherings of Friendship societies etc, and not the anniversaries of the UNP which can usually fill an indoor stadium. It is not as if Mahinda Rajapakse used state repression to reduce the numbers attending the UNP anniversary celebration. No, it has taken Ranil Wickremesinghe to confine to the Jayewardene Centre auditorium, what used to be the country’s largest single political party!

What is even more telling – and disgraceful– is that the UNP was reduced to such a pathetic state of insecurity that it chose to boycott the debate in the legislature on the 18th amendment, thereby passing up the chance to use the best possible platform, the floor of the House, to place its critique before the country and on the parliamentary record.


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