16 May 2016

Mahinda Rajapaksa and third-term blues

There were cries of horror when Mahinda Rajapaksa was getting ready to bring in legislation to do away with presidential term limits.   Some of the objectors and objections were of course coloured by political preferences.  Had it been Ranil, for example, many of the objectors may very well have been quiet.  After all, among the older set of objectors were those who were silent during the anti-democratic referendum of 1982, proposed by J.R. Jayewardena.  There was similar silence on the part of those who supported Rajapaksa and the then Government.  The following is one of several articles I wrote objecting to the 18th Amendment.  This was published in the now defunct Sunday Lakbima News on May 9, 2010.   

It was the time of rubber hitting tar.  The make-or-break moment.  The now-or-nothing time of a school year. That’s what ‘third term’ meant and probably still means to school children.  You’ve taken things easy over the first two terms. You’ve cheered your team, gone for sports practice, done your scouting or guiding, immersed yourself in school plays and what not and all of a sudden you are in September and wondering how it is that you don’t have all your notes, hardly understand what the teachers are saying and what happened to ‘fun’. 

That’s third term.  It’s not a fun time.  It is about coming face to face with the reality that you really need to hit your books. That’s ‘third term’ in schools.  But this ‘third term’ is not that ‘third term’ and we are not talking about school children, but a seasoned politician.  His name is Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka.

Ever since J.R.Jayewardena came up with that horrendously anti-democratic document called the Second Republican Constitution in 1978, there’s been a lot of talk about reforming it and indeed re-writing it.  Sadly, the conditions for re-writing were themselves embedded in that flawed document and seemed forbidding to the point of despair and project-abandonment. 

The Constitution was amended 17 times, but on the first 16 occasions the then government had a two-thirds majority thanks to a) the UNP’s landslide victory on July 22, 1977 and b) to the counter-democratic ‘referendum’ of 1982, and the 17th a product of a rare number-quirk in Parliament. 

There’s been talk of course.  People like doing that.  So they’ve talked about amending, reforming, overhauling etc etc., and thrown in issues such as better governance, more balance in the separation of powers and resolving ‘ethnic’ conflict. The entire debate over the years has been presided over, interestingly, by the Executive Presidency.  ‘It has got to go’ some have screamed.  ‘It must be reformed’ others suggested.  Some said ‘let’s curtail the powers of the President’.  ‘Back to the Westminster system,’ some recommended and others said ‘let’s have a mix’. 

There was very little talk of doing away with term limits for the Executive President or making the current ‘two’ into ‘three’.  The reason was the rigidity and reform-resistant character of the Constitution.  For almost two decades we got just one Amendment and this too was a quirk (and flawed, let us remember), so constitutional reform was good for conversation and little else. It is not surprising then that people didn’t consider the ‘term limit’ issue.

The unthinkable happened, thanks to a number of reasons which we shall not go into here: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UPFA are very close to the two-thirds necessary for getting an Amendment passed.  They are short of some 6 MPs and persuading that number of MPs to switch allegiance cannot be difficult given realities and the President’s track-record at persuasion. Now, all of a sudden there’s talk of the President mulling over an amendment to either do away with the two-term limit or to make it a maximum of three.  Political reality indicates that he go for either option and win the right to stand for re-election. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa as President-elect in the year 2016 or thereabouts: Is this good or bad?   I prefer not to focus on personalities.  

The logic of term limits is to make allowances for frailties of the powerful. Power changes people and history has shown that the best of men and woman when holding power for too long, get lazy, arrogant and destructive.  People are popular.  They feed personality cults.  Personality cults can quickly transform into deification with the relevant deity being both kapurala and aathuraya that attends to him/herself and comes to him/her for succor respectively.  There is a well-trodden path from api wenuwen api to oba wenuwen mama to mama wenuwen oba to mama wenuwen mama (from ‘us for ourselves’ to ‘me for you’ to ‘you for me’ to ‘I for myself’). No human being can give any guarantee that he/she would choose not to walk this path and especially not when enjoying lots and lots of power and an ‘honest’ sense of being God Father/Mother to a nation.   

There is no such thing as a Perfect President.  We always pick who we think would be best among the contenders, or, more typically, the least bad in the pack.  We always get a consolation prize.  Someone can say ‘Mahinda is doing well and probably better than Ranil would have or Sarath or anyone else; let’s give him a third term’.  Another can say ‘I think Ranil would have done a better job; we can’t afford to give Mahinda one more term!’

I think we should go beyond names.  It is not about liking the incumbent or disliking him.  It is about the institution and what happens to it.  Just think of someone who according to you is really bad news.  Chandrika Kumaratunga was called ‘Chaura Regina’ (Thieving Queen).  What if she had that option, i.e. going for a third term?  She would have used all resources at her disposal, legal and otherwise, to secure victory, wouldn’t she?  What then?

It’s the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin all over again.  An instrument that is useful and good in one instance can be employed to cause harm and heartbreak in another.  The bottom line is President A might be popular on Day 1 but could decide at any point to be the worst possible tyrant.  A term limit imposes a D-Day for such a man/woman.   

On the other hand, if President A governs according to the Dasa Raja Dharma (the Ten Qualities for Good Governance), he/she will not go into a slothful retirement.  We have, for example, Jimmy Carter (US President) and Al Gore (US Vice President and Presidential Candidate) whose utility value did not diminish but indeed was enhanced after leaving office.  We have also Chandrika Kumaratunga and George W. Bush.  Negligible.

What a particular president does or doe not do in the morning after and afterwards is not important to us.  What is important is the worth of the proposal.  A third term for Mahinda Rajapaksa would be good news for the UPFA and Mahinda’s near and dear.  It would be a nightmare for Ranil, Sajith and the UNP.  My political preferences notwithstanding, I don’t think it is a good idea for any single individual, not Mahinda, not Ranil, not Sajith and not even myself to be given that much sway over the affairs of a nation because we are not talking about the anxieties of a schoolboy truant here.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com