The Sunday Leader

The New Democracy

We have a new constitution. Aside from bemoaning what is done, it may pay to look at what exactly has been done.
Many countries have a constitutional monarchy with an impotent monarch. We have a constitutional monarchy with an impotent constitution. How exactly does this work?

Mahinda supporters in the south during the last presidential election

The Presidential Suite
The ultimate authority in Sri Lanka is the president. The prime minister’s post is essentially a pension for party stalwarts. All ‘independent’ commissions are appointed by the president and he has the power to intervene on all matters pertaining to the country. This ranges from taking out billion rupee loans from China to giving gifts and money to individuals. The president is above the law and has the power to break the law as necessary.

The First Family
As all power flows from the President, power is not vested in institutions or bureaucracies, but in those with access to the President. These are mainly his family. His brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa controls the military, urban development and general aggression. His brother Basil controls economic affairs, foreign negotiations and general cool. His other brother Chamal keeps an eye on parliament. In the next generation, Mahinda’s son Namal (now an MP) seems set to assume Mahinda’s role, Yoshitha (a Navy Sub Lieutenant) seems poised to replace Gotabaya as the military sibling, while the more easy-going Rohitha could become a second Basil. Two generations are structured to keep all major powers within the family. The King does not suffer for want of sons.

The Royal Court
Even more than many parliamentarians, power rests in those outside of the usual hierarchy and appointed by the President or his family. These are, in essence, royal retainers, doubly trusted because they have no power base of their own. Inordinate power rests in those appointed but unelected, beginning with the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa until he became an MP and proceeding down to officials like Lakshman Hulugalle of the Media Center For National Security, the Director General of the TRC and other state bodies.   Even former LTTE terrorists like KP are given powers by virtue of their (newfound) connections to the family. On a lower level, there are countless people doing (or claiming to do) business deals and transactions on behalf of the family and muscling their way through normal procedures (and moral concerns) islandwide. As Mahinda has even more power for appointments under the 18th Amendment, he can place more loyalists in these positions, unaccountable to no one but him and his family.

The House Of Lords
Sri Lanka is now an almost classic authoritarian state with an informal and unregulated exercise of power. Parliamentarians are rich in titles, but poor in actual power or operating funds. The vast majority of the government budget and the choicest institutions are kept within the family and doled out to chosen catchers.  Ministers and MPs have overlapping or conflicting portfolios and are essentially show ponies, bought and sold when their votes are needed or not needed anymore. There are no ideological requirements for parliament anymore, all that is required is loyalty. Absence of ideology is actually preferred. The classic example of the symbolic parliamentarian is the prime minister. This was once a powerful post but has now turned into a retirement benefit for sleepy elders. He makes appearances at ribbon cuttings and public events but hold almost no power.

The People
At the bottom of this pyramid are the people. Since emergency law prevails a year after war and the President controls the funds, police and final authority on elections, he is uniquely positioned to manipulate them, as he has. Mahinda has gone so far as to blatantly abuse state resources, surround the opposition candidate with troops and try him in a kangaroo court. The people have the right to vote, but none of the other connecting parts in a democracy.  The free press, for example, now effectively censors itself after very public killings and arrests of editors and writers. The people, however, tacitly accept and even welcome this state of affairs as long as they are given stability, relative peace and economic opportunities. Like the deal the Chinese government and other dictatorial authorities have struck with their people, as long as peoples’ lives improve, they seem likely to accept the status quo. The difficulty is that the people have now given the presidency such dictatorial powers, that they may find it difficult to renegotiate should the deal go sour.

8 Comments for “The New Democracy”

  1. murugs

    This is Democra’z'y….sri lankan style. Bravo. Let us all reap the benefits soon !

  2. Pot Stirrer

    Well written article. The problem is that may be over 80% of the people in Sri Lanka don’t understand what’s the new amendment means There was no explaining of this to ignorant Sri Lanka people before it was passed. (That’s under 80% of the population). I even doubt whether some of the Government or Opposition ministers will know exactly what changes took place in the Amendment. While I condemn the amendment and the way it was done I some times wonder what benefits this amendment can deliver to the people of Sri Lanka now that it has been passed. “Development through corruption” is the only benefit I can think of.
    Hat’s off for Indi for writing this article. Another brave Samarajiva – not afraid to call a spade a spade and I believe the family of Samarajivas or (Samarajiwa | Samarajeeva ) comes not far away from Hambanthota)

  3. Thanks Pot Stirrer. The Samarajivas are from Dikwella a long long time ago, then slowly moved up the coast

  4. punchinilame

    Your article is in direct contradiction to what Dr.Dayan J has written. He has summed

    it with one sentence – that it is the Constitutionalzation of a war-time Presidency,

    and I suppose he means that is Democratically correct?

  5. murugs

    Thanks for the well written article Mr.Samarajiva. Dr Dayan J always contradicts even his own writings, if you have noticed. With all the doctorates etc., he couldn’t hold the last prestigious position at the UN. He served in so many prominent world organisations representing SL. His report at the “Lessons learned.. ” commission
    was biased & laughable. This kind of observation & submission is not expected from an educated eminent person of his calibre. Imagine if he became the Secretary general of UN ? May be he could do better than Ban-Ki-moon. Dr Dayan should
    have learnt some writing lesson from the well respected Late Mr.Mervyn de Silva,
    instead he got wrong lessons from Mr. Neville de Silva. Probably he is trying for another foreign posting !

  6. shehan jayawardene

    For once you have written an article that takes some guts. I was beginning to wonder if you were a 5th columnist from the Lake House after reading some of your previous articles in the Sunday Leader. So far only Fredrica, Tisaranee and Mr. Vander Poorten seem to have any ‘cojones’ as journalists. Continue writing like that. All the best!

  7. Gayantha

    There have always been concerns regarding politics in Sri Lanka. There are valid concerns of how power is being misused or how constitutional and other checks and balances are being eroded – not a new phenomenon. It is the ultimate dream of every politician in this country to have 2/3 majority in Parliament. However, it is important to be independent and to write with responsibility and sophistication. We don’t need an unprofessional half-baked journalist with an “identity crisis” to write slang. You are not a political expert or a intellectual capable of critical analysis. Which foreign forces are behind you? Who are your constant companions in Colombo’s posh restaurants and cool hangouts? Why don’t you go to Canada and write like this? Oh, I forgot, it is only here in Sri Lanka that people massage your ego and exploit your youthful naiveté!

  8. Mohottige

    Very well written, down to earth analysis. One in a row of good articles since the elections. The writer seem to have woken up to the political reality. Well done!

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