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".

Also Read

The full text of the 18th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution (PDF)

In India, experts viewed the amendment with circumspection, particularly in the context of China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka. The amendment “could have an impact on India if the president there is pro-Chinese and ready to ignore India’s concerns", says L.L. Mehrotra, former Indian high commissioner to Colombo. “Sri Lanka has been a friendly neighbour, but India will have to be alert to see that Sri Lanka does not cross the threshold that would affect India to the extent that it would be impelled to assert itself."

All-round protest: A group of Sri Lankan lawyers (top) and opposition supporters (below) protest against the proposed amendment in Colombo.

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 newest amendment, in conjunction with these other powers, has sparked fears of “constitutionally sanctioned" dictatorship, a worrying prospect for Sri Lanka as well as for South Asian stability.

The amendment represents “an erosion of democracy", says R. Hariharan, a retired intelligence specialist on Sri Lanka. “Rajapaksa could become more assertive. Where India is concerned, he will be unchallenged in taking decisions. Earlier some policy decisions have been affected by protests from other political groups."

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.

Rohan Edrisinghe, head of the legal unit at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank, calls the amendment “one of the worst…ever to be proposed in the history of Sri Lanka". Edrisinghe had, to no avail, made a submission opposing the Bill. “The urgent Bill unfortunately has been traditionally used by various presidents to rush through legislation that is anti-people in nature."

Rohan Edrisinghe, director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo speaks about his concerns on the 18th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution.

Loading video...

Video Courtesy:

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. The UNP, instead of educating voters and drumming up public opposition, was occupied with staunching the bleeding of its MPs into the government’s camp. The JVP, more vocal and active, is a diminished force in parliament. Neither civil society nor the media, despite some efforts, was able to make a visible impact upon public awareness. “No one can follow the arguments being made against the amendment," says Bala Thampoe, general secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union. “The arguments and discussion are all among the intelligentsia, who are only a powerless minority. It is all froth."

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. A popular political cartoonist who goes by the single name Janaranjana, who also made a submission against the amendment, concedes Thampoe’s point. “Mahinda enjoys a huge support base among the people," he says. “Only a minority of the people will even oppose the amendment. The rest are happy to let him continue as President for life."

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".

Elizabeth Roche in New Delhi contributed to this story.