Hail Caesar

The watchdogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. That might sum up the credo of the all-powerful Government as it motors along with the proposed constitutional amendments that would, in effect, turn the country's political establishment on its head in time to come. In a sense it is a circus we are watching. Musclemen carrying the burdens of office; trapeze artists swinging from one side to the other; clowns playing to the gallery - some cheering, some unamused.

Simply put, the amendments fall into just two categories. One is to lift the restriction on the President having two terms at the job, and the other to bring all appointments to the public service under the direct purview of the President. Once these amendments are passed, all pretences to an independent public service will disappear - it will be the President and/or the Cabinet of Ministers who will henceforth appoint those who will head the 'State Service' which here would include the Judiciary and the Election arms. In the case of the President being permitted to contest unlimited number of times, there is some merit in the argument as to why a President must be limited to two terms when a Prime Minister - or even an Executive Prime Minister is allowed to continue without term restrictions. The answer to that, is that the Prime Minister is only a Head of Government, while the President assumes both Head of Government and Head of State roles.

He also bags the job of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in his capacity as Head of State. When he contests an election, the President has the Armed Forces and the Police under his belt. In the recently concluded 2010 Presidential election we witnessed the increased deployment of the Forces and the Police for electioneering work, ostensibly to avert a possible mutiny due to the very nature of the Opposition candidate's credentials, but also a clear reminder to all and sundry as to who was in charge. Those who legitimately, or otherwise supported the Opposition candidate were purged or transferred as the case may be.

The real issue therefore, is not whether an Executive President should be given unlimited terms of office should he win but whether he or she ought to enjoy the unlimited powers that are vested in him as Head of Government - and Head of State. The US, which began Presidential governance, has, in its wisdom, decided to limit this period to two four-year terms. Insofar as the second aspect, the Government is now moving towards the complete emasculation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution - which was passed almost a decade ago. That was a valiant effort by the politicians of the day to reverse the progressive politicisation of the public service.

One of the salutary benefits the colonial British left us was an organized Public Service. Those were the days when the politician knew his turf, and the public servant knew where to draw the line. There was much give and take, but the 1972 Republican Constitution smashed this 'separation of powers' and the legislators gave to themselves all the powers over the public service through the Cabinet and Parliament. Gradually, the Secretaries to Ministries became political loyalists, some even card-carrying members of the ruling party. No doubt some were efficient, but most were mere incompetent stooges and today's standards of administration and the service they offer the public are best asked of the public themselves.

These amendments extend to the realm of Elections, quite apart from Bribery and Corruption, and the higher echelons of the Judiciary. Checks and balances and the separation of powers theories are thrown overboard and a new political culture is being institutionalised. 'Res ipsa loquitor' or the 'facts speak for themselves'. Why the Government wants to tighten its grip over these vital arteries of Democracy is clear. The intentions, however, could also be well-meaning. But that the path to hell is also paved with good intentions is an old saying. The President told his party faithful who raised their hands (some raised both) in favour of these amendments that the Opposition is raising a canard about these amendments and that they are eventually meant to strengthen the people's democracy.

Whether the people will ever get the opportunity to vote on these sweeping changes is left to be seen. As far as the Opposition parties are concerned, it might be more accurate to say that they just cannot muster the strength or the courage to challenge this steamroller of a Government. Others in the Opposition have already taken flight on the basis that 'if you can't fight them, at least let's join them'.

The President is once again doing what he is best at; the charm offensive - winning over Opposition members and reassuring his own 'doubting Thomases'. His adroitness and public ease tantamount to 'manipulative populism' as it is known in certain parts of the world, to seek passage for what would make him, in every sense King Mahendra, the First is patently clear. The Opposition believes, that all this will only lead to an implosion within the ruling party with dissension running high at some point of time. This may well be wishful thinking given the plums and perks of office on offer and the Opposition itself going further and further into the wilderness.

Several examples have been cited by political analysts and others that Sri Lanka is heading in the direction of some 'bad eggs' on the world stage such as Myanmar, Libya, Venezuela or some African states. Not long ago we ourselves wondered if this Government was unknowingly going in the direction of Indonesia under General Suharto when all powers were vested with him and his coterie with Democracy and the Rule of Law given the jackboot.

Recent examples of incarcerating a war hero; the release of a person convicted for murder because of his political connections in Ratnapura; and the farcical exoneration of a one-time deputy minister from a sham disciplinary inquiry are cases in point of an unholy trend. The road ahead seems clear; either you are with us - or against us.

After two decades, eventually Suharto was forced to leave the Presidential Palace in disgrace as the democratic space that was restricted built into a pressure-cooker atmosphere and students took to the street. Even the Army couldn't save him. Why a popular leader would want to take that road into the annals of history is difficult to comprehend.

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