18th Amendment: Legitimizing a culture of “Hondamai Sir?”

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The very short space of time that it took for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to become law, allowed people little chance to realize what was about to hit them. The public didn’t have the benefit of the broad discussion that should have preceded a ‘game changing’ move of this kind. But going by the little information that has trickled into the public domain, it appears that this Amendment could have the effect of bestowing the seal of legality on many of the existing evils in Sri Lanka’s political culture.

Analysts have pointed out that the 17th Amendment had shortcomings that made it impractical to implement. But the changes envisaged in the 18th do not seem to be aimed at remedying them. Instead, sadly they seem designed to undermine the worthy objectives for which the 17th Amendment was introduced. The new law by all accounts appears to target the independence of the very institutions that need to be strengthened in a democracy, such as the judiciary, the public service, the police and the Elections Commission.

“Hondamai Sir” was all that he could say. File photo.

In passing the new Bill, the UPFA government (along with a band of assorted Opposition renegades who voted with it) has eagerly given the President a blank cheque to make appointments to important positions such as IGP, Chief Justice and other Judges, Attorney General, Auditor General, Ombudsman and Secretary to Parliament. We are told the Independent Commissions remain intact – but the appointment of persons as heads and members of these Commissions is again, in the hands of the President. The ten-member Constitutional Council (CC) that was previously mandated to make these appointments will be replaced by a five-member Parliamentary Council (PC). But it appears all that the PC members can do is make observations, and that their recommendations will not be binding (whereas earlier the President could only make these appointments with the approval of the CC).

If the politicization of the public service was a matter for complaint earlier, now it looks as if there will be nothing more to bother complaining about. It’s legal. Appointments to the Public Service Commission, like all other ‘independent’ Commissions, will be made again by the President. All matters of policy relating to public service appointments, promotions, transfers, disciplinary control and dismissals will be in the hands of the cabinet. The cabinet also has power over appointments, transfers, disciplinary control and dismissals of all Heads of Departments. How much more politicized can it get than that?

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the politicization process is that the Police will be brought under this same ‘officially-politicised’ Public Service. The IGP will handle all matters pertaining to the appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of Police Officers. But seeing that the IGP will be appointed by the President, it is pertinent to ask if he values his job, what are the chances that he will be able to make decisions independently in these matters – if they are at all likely to displease the powers that be?

In the not-so-distant-past the country witnessed a drama in Colombo where the IGP attempted to do his duty by preventing developments that were being described as a ‘siege,’ by unruly elements on the United Nations’ office at Bauddhaloka Mawatha. It only took a phone call by a government Minister to the Defence Secretary, to thwart the police in their efforts. The officer at the receiving end of the instructions from ‘above,’ was obliged to withdraw his policemen. “Hondamai, Sir!” was all that he could say. Has the 18th Amendment ushered in a culture of “Hondamai, Sir” in all areas of public life?

The icing on the cake in this piece of legislation would seem to be the removal of the term-limit on the presidency. The incumbent who was hitherto restricted to contesting only one more time, may now contest any number of times. Consider this provision in the light of the ingredients that have gone into Sri Lankan elections in recent history: a generous portion of abuse-of-state-resources (by those who control them), a strong dose of thuggery-and-intimidation (of opposition candidates), a measured quantity of election-malpractice and a dash of luck. Read this recipe against the backdrop of the highly centralized power structure that the Amendment creates, and the result is not hard to predict, for years to come.

Leading up to the vote on this Bill was an almost farcical turn of events where a string of MPs who had won seats in the election contesting under the elephant symbol, as members of the UNP-led UNF alliance, deserted ranks en-masse to vote with the government. This fiasco once again turns the spotlight on the crisis within the UNP. The party’s failure as the main opposition party, to rally the support of its members and alliance partners to effectively challenge this legislation exposes multiple weaknesses.
Of the eight SLMC MPs who voted with the government, six were elected on the UNF ticket, with another two being given slots on the National List (to the dismay of other contenders).

The Opposition leader did not have many National List seats to pass around. Prabha Ganesan (DPF) and P. Digambaram (National Union of Workers) broke ranks with the alliance at an early stage complaining about non-allocation of National List slots to their party members. Sri Ranga Jeyaratnam (Citizens Front) followed suit. The UNP’s Abdul Cader and Manusha Nanyakkara also made election-related complaints, while Earl Gunasekera and Lakshman Seneviratne, both UNP office-bearers said critical things about the party leadership. The last-minute exit by the other two new MPs doesn’t seem to have any explanation other than opportunism.

It is interesting that none of the reasons given by the 17 defectors have anything to do with the merits or demerits of the 18th Amendment. SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem and Sri Ranga have suggested that that the presidency was not a major issue for their constituents. So their beef seems to be with the UNP itself. The departures of Digambaram and Sri Ranga have left the Opposition alliance with no representation in the Nuwara Eliya district, and Earl Gunasekera’s exit robs it of the only seat it had in Polonnaruwa. SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem says his party’s decision was to vote with the government only on this Bill, but if the SLMC goes further and abandons the UNF, it will mean the Opposition alliance will no longer have representation in the entire Eastern Province (where they have five seats thanks to the SLMC) and the Wanni district (where it has one seat, again SLMC).

It’s worth noting that 12 out of the 17 defectors belonged to minority parties representing Muslim and Tamil constituents. It would appear from recent developments that in addition to the leadership and organizational crises, the UNP now has to seriously ask itself another question. Why has it been ditched by minority parties that have been its traditional allies? Whether these parties decamped owing to the general crisis of credibility, or because the UNP is no longer able to convincingly present itself as a party that represents minority interests, or whether the UNP leadership simply mismanaged the whole business of nominations and National List allocations, the upshot seems to be that in the end the party itself is the biggest loser.

The writer is a senior freelance journalist.

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18th Amendment: Legitimizing a culture of “Hondamai Sir?”


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