Sri Lanka holds on to a hard pillow

Written by WILLIAM H AVERY | Updated: Jan 28 2010, 06:53am hrs
Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to have won a second term as President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. How else could it have been According to Reporters Without Borders, which monitored the coverage of two state-owned television stations for seven days prior to the polls, over 96.7% of the 1,539 minutes of airtime on the race was devoted to the President and his followers.

Democracy is one way to describe Sri Lanka. Rotating dictatorship might be more apt. Lets look at the re-election record of sitting Presidents since the Executive Presidency was instituted in 1978. Three victories, zero losses, and one assassination while in office. It is a sad reflection on modern Sri Lanka that a sitting Presidents chances of assassination are greater than election defeat.

It may be difficult for Indians to comprehend the power that Sri Lankas Constitution affords the Executive Presidency. Consider yourself lucky that there is nothing remotely equivalent in India. Otherwise you would still be under Indiras State of Emergency.

Indias democracy is bigger than any one person, bigger even than any one family. Across the Palk Strait, however, it is possible for an individual to take over the State. Rajapaksa has done it, and the next six years will likely see him further strengthen his familys grip on power. Alas, this will be no Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of noblesse oblige. It is shaping up to be a take-no-prisoners approach to controlling the nations finances and levers of power, in a manner reminiscent of Africas post-colonial dictators.

The patronage power of the Sri Lankan Presidency is enormous. There are 109 ministers in the government (51 Cabinet ministers, 39 non-Cabinet ministers, and 19 deputy ministers). This is nearly half of the entire 225 member Parliament. Soon after Rajapaksa won his first term in 2005, a large number of members of the opposition crossed over to the ruling party. Many of them are now enjoying the perks of ministerial life.

Rajapaksa deserves credit for destroying the LTTE, a scourge of humanity, Sri Lanka and the Tamil people. He planned to ride this success to a second term, and in a cynical move called early elections before demands for a political solution could become too great. Now he is free to do as he pleases for the next six years.

But the job is only half-finished. The LTTE was a symptom, not a cause, of Sri Lankas problem. The core problem remains: a political system ill-suited to a multi-ethnic, multi-religious population. Unless Sri Lanka adopts a new system of government, it is only a matter of time before Tamil resentment breeds LTTE 2.0.

It does not have to be this way. Rajapaksa must now finish the job. He has the power to make Sri Lanka into a true representative democracy, one where the actions of the government express the will of all communities on the island. Rajapaksa can start with one single change to the Constitution, a change that only he can push through: abolish the Executive Presidency.

To be sure, returning Sri Lanka to the Parliamentary Democracy it was before 1978 will not solve all of the nations problems. Tyranny of the majority was a feature of Sri Lankan politics even under the previous system. But the Executive Presidency has exacerbated this and was one reason the ethnic conflict arose and lasted for over a quarter century.

Democracy is untidy. Politicians are bought by special interests. The money comes in a brown paper bag in developing countries, and through corporate donations to political action committees in places like the US. Returning power to the Sri Lankan people through Parliament will be particularly untidy, with no doubt more than the usual chaos and corruption. Small parties representing minorities could be sidelined by larger ones. But the small parties would have a greater voice than they do in the current system.

One irony of the current political landscape in Sri Lanka is that the leadership of the opposition party itself is undemocratic, aping the features of the government it aims to oust. The United National Party has been led by Ranil Wickremasinghe for over 15 years despite a long, nearly uninterrupted, record of election defeats. It is impossible to imagine the British Tory party sticking with the same leader in such circumstances.

The entire government, ruling party and opposition alike, needs a heavy dose of democracy. Only Rajapaksa has the power to abolish the Executive Presidency. If he does, Sri Lankans will be hailing him for a thousand years as the leader who sacrificed personal ambition to give birth to a new nation. He will be Sri Lankas George Washington.

If Rajapaksa decides instead to build his dynasty, he will only confirm the suspicions of Sri Lankan Tamils who believe they cannot get a fair shake. G Subash, a Jaffna shopkeeper interviewed by Agence France-Presse last week about the election, said it best: If you listen to them closely, neither candidate has promised us a power-sharing agreement. Voting for the general (Fonseka) or the President will be like changing a pillow to cure a headache. Subash awoke today with the same headache, and the same hard pillow.

The author is a former US diplomat