A strongman in Sri Lanka

A strongman in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s parliament on Wednesday passed a far-reaching amendment to the country’s constitution. Opposition groups have termed it the death of democracy.

Chief among the changes are the removal of the two-term limit on the presidency; the bestowing of vast powers of appointment— judges, members of the election and public service commissions and the police and human right commissions. An earlier constitutional amendment that had sought to depoliticize these appointments has been undone. The amendment, in its scope, is reminiscent of the 42nd and 44th amendments to the Indian Constitution that had made equally far-reaching changes.

This (18th) amendment, though, should be seen in perspective. It represents one more step, however lamentable, in the centralizing tendencies of the political system in Sri Lanka. These trends have been around since the presidency of the late J.R. Jayawardene in 1978, if not earlier. The reasons for these changes are complex and should not be attributed to current President Mahinda Rajapaksa, even if he is the moving force behind the 18th amendment. There is no doubt that he desired the changes, but it is equally true that the parliament acquiesced to what he wanted. The issue should be looked at beyond the personalities involved and larger, more impersonal, political forces at work in Sri Lanka.

There is also no doubt that such vast accumulation of powers in the hands of an individual leads to fears of whittling of democracy, if not an actual move towards dictatorship. That, however, is an issue for the people of Sri Lanka and their leaders. India should look at the matter dispassionately, through a realist lens. Democracy and dictatorship are not strictly appropriate categories to evaluate ties between the two countries. In the past, hopes had been raised for better ties between India and its neighbours that had moved from dictatorial and authoritarian systems to democracy. These hopes were not always met. In the case of Pakistan, democratic governments did not always lead to friendly relations. In fact, improvements in ties often came when dictators were at the helm of that country. There are other examples from South Asia that run against the received wisdom that ties between democracies are always friendly.

Sri Lanka is a friendly neighbour. Its politics is its own affair, so long as it does not impinge on our interests in South Asia.

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