It takes an extra dose of cavalierness to bulldoze through Parliament a Constitutional Amendment intended for personal aggrandizement while the rest of the country is perilously close to a second wave of the novel coronavirus, better known as COVID-19.
More so, when the earlier assessments of the reach of the virus appear to be questionable and political rooting of success seem to be premature. Doctors warn of running out of hospital beds, even before any potential mass spread make its dent. (The 13 main hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients, had only 168 available capacity on October 15).
Yet, the government is forging ahead with the controversial 20th Amendment. It will be debated in Parliament for two days starting from tomorrow (21). The Supreme Court determination on the 20A will be read by the Speaker today. Earlier, the Sunday Times reported that the Supreme Court had held four-to-one, that four clauses of the Bill needed the approval of the people at a Referendum, while the rest can be approved by a special majority in Parliament.
The 20A was drafted in secrecy. Government’s spin doctors had argued that the public had elected the Rajapaksas to abolish the 19th Amendment, and implying as if they have the prerogative to replace it with anything of their likening. This is the Sri Lankan version of ‘One man, one vote, one time only.’
The 20A undermines the separation of power within the government and creates an imperial President at the expense of the legislator and independent institutions. It would have repercussion not limited to the tenure of the current administration, but for many generations to come.
Sri Lanka is in a pitiful state where that lopsided Constitutional Amendment is ready to be passed without an adequate deliberation inside the House and sufficient consultation from outside the house, from civil society, clergy and experts.
This is not particularly new. Sri Lanka is one of many countries that is trapped in an endless cycle of political manipulation of the constitutional process by elected political leaders, which has effectively curtailed its evolution to become a fully-fledged liberal democracy. Unilateralism in the constitutional-making is a central ill.
However, things are now getting direr, as the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already existent crisis in democracy around the world; since the outbreak began, conditions for human rights and democratic freedom have worsened in 80 countries, according to a report by the Freedom House, an American think tank. To make matters worse, the problem is acute in countries with struggling democracies and highly repressive states. Sri Lanka’s democracy is obviously struggling.
In a reference to Sri Lanka, it observes that “the government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa accelerated its authoritarian agenda over the past six months, stepping up efforts to control independent reporting and unfavourable speech by ordering the arrest of anyone who criticizes or contradicts the official line on the coronavirus.” “Early elections were called but, as the outbreak accelerated, were postponed, leaving the national legislature out of session beyond the constitutional deadline and weakening checks on executive power. Health concerns were also exploited by authorities as a pretext for human rights abuses, especially, against the minority Muslim population.”
Much of these observations are subject to interpretation, some folks would agree, some may not. Some inferences might even be overblown. Some are factually incorrect (elections were postponed by the Elections Commission and it is not Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government but being the President, it is Gotabaya’s ). Nonetheless, the gist of the observations is not without merit.
The passage of the 20A amidst a looming pandemic is the most striking example. Since the first patient was diagnosed on October 1, over 2000 confirmed cases have been found. Patients are increasingly discovered from areas out of the epicentre of the Minuwangoda cluster. Scores of cases have been reported from Colombo district. Limited PCR testing in the country leaves more questions about the prevalence of the virus in the country without answers.
For a responsible government, this is not the time for unwanted constitutional reforms. Its own MPs have made occasional cries of opposition. Maha Sangha, including the Registrars of the two leading Buddhist chapters, Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas have opposed the amendment. So did the Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
There is also callous opportunism in rushing through the amendment at the moment.
Social distancing rules, officially enforced or commonsensically followed, discourage the public from taking to the streets. Those who are willing to go that extra mile to protest would expose themselves to the virus. Probably, a further spike in the patients would compel the government to enforce extra restrictions on movement and social gatherings.
Pandemics create fear and anxiety in the public, and the current administration has credited itself with saving the country from COVID-19. People who are scared are willing to be led to the rescue, and more likely to place their trust in the strongmen and conmen. The government has exploited these dynamics of mass psychology. If the number of COVID-19 infections keeps rising, that façade might collapse. However, a milder epidemic would keep the public feared and occupied and would limit the civic-minded political activism.
What would the President get at the end? What is the practical use of untrammelled power he is converging at his office? The 20A does not make governance extra-smooth. Because under the current political dispensation, with his brother as the Prime Minister and an entire Rajapaksa clan in the government, it is smooth enough to ice skate. It cannot get any smoother.
It might make it easier for him to appoint like-minded folks to independent commissions, but, the composition of the Constitutional Council has always favoured the government – and necessary changes to avoid a stalemate in appointments could be made without turning it into a rubber stamp.
There is an often overlooked danger in the 20A. This government suffers from a reputation problem in the eyes of the international media and policymakers of functional democracies. Key stakeholders of the government know where that fundamental weakness emanates from. Without a degree of credibility of its institutions, things would be worse.
The 20th Amendment passed over a hapless nation is deleterious to government’s own health.