ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 2, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 40
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The corruption of power

It's now all but official, our Political Editor quotes the President of the Republic as telling the Leader of the Opposition when they met this week, that he would, under no circumstances, appoint the Constitutional Council that is legislated to oversee appointments to several other areas of government. That prerogative is his, the President insists.

It is the most definitive word that has come from the President's chambers even though there has been no official statement to that effect.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa apparently believes that his predecessor Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had undermined presidential powers for appointments to the higher judiciary, the Police, the Elections Commission, the Bribery and Corruption Commission and the Human Rights Commission. He believes these are exclusively the rights of the president, and his alone.

The fact or reality, however, is that it was Parliament which unanimously agreed to give such powers to the Constitutional Council, and the present President was a Minister in that cabinet which agreed to support this move by way of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

At that time, the general opinion in the country was that the Executive President enjoyed too much influence over appointments, promotions and transfers of key persons in vital institutions, and that the politicisation process resulted in the public losing confidence in them. There was general consensus that the President's powers needed to be clipped in so far as that the Executive Presidency bestowed too much power and influence in the hands of one individual, and that such a concentration of powers tended to lead towards dictatorial tendencies.

The 17th Amendment therefore received rare unanimous approval in Parliament in 2001, but it was still a poor sop for the widespread clamour to abolish the Executive Presidency itself. Those who shouted loudest were the ones who defended it in the strongest terms later. When people marched the streets to call for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, those who gave 'solemn pledges' at election rallies to do so, unleashed the Presidential Security Division and their underworld cohorts to bash up the demonstrators' heads.

It is true there are some defects in the 17th Amendment, one of the main drawbacks being the provision to nominate members to the Constitutional Council being vested with political parties. The eradication of political meddling in the appointment of the high-powered council was stymied at the very beginning. The purpose of depoliticising the government machinery was nullified by allowing political parties to appoint members to the council.

There may have been no other way to get unanimity in Parliament by politicians who probably believe themselves to be the centre of the earth. Despite this, the overall exercise for the appointment of the Constitutional Council was a first step towards good governance. Now the President has spoken his mind, and made it clear that he wants to go back to the bad old days of not so long ago -- a retrograde step, to say the least. There seems to be a sense of euphoria in the corridors of power, that the Government is riding a wave of popular support because of successes on the battlefield against the separatist terrorists.

And that providing 'jobs for the boys' -- a phrase used to denote having the hurrah boys or the 'yes men' -- the loyal supporters adequately compensated, is the key to political success. Politicians see it that way; not Statesmen.

We see this as plain and simple sacrifice of good governance at the altar of political expediency. The goal of statesmen is to strengthen democratic institutions which help maintain the vital checks and balances for good governance, accountability and transparency.

In the final analysis, strong nations are built on strong democratic foundations. Strong foundations mean strong institutions that stand the test of time -- and not so much on strong individuals who are but mere birds of passage in the history of a nation.

The Government has added insult to injury by saying that the 17th Amendment cannot be implemented until the Parliamentary Select Committee (appointed in 2006) concludes its sittings. Such a stalling exercise is unworthy of a Government. The Government is propped up by a set of MPs who were in the vanguard of the movement to introduce the 17th Amendment. That was then. Today, enjoying a mess of pottage in the form of ministerial office, their muted silence is deafening. The Chairman of the Bribery and Corruption Commission has already spoken out saying that the abrupt removal of the Director General of the Commission by the President, with a nary a word of explanation, was done without consulting the Commission. It's all going wrong and the writing on the wall is clear: Absolutely power appears to be once again corrupting absolutely.

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