The Rajapaksa Regime and the constitutionalisation of populist authoritarianism in Sri Lanka

Asanga Welikala reviews the constitutional changes introduced by Sri Lanka’s former president Rajapaksa to remove key limitations on presidential power. He argues that Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat last month suggests the basic ideals of democratic government have deeper roots in the Sri Lankan polity than have been visible in the recent past.

In a dramatic reversal of electoral fortunes, Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted from power in Sri Lanka’s presidential election on 8 January 2015. This was not an outcome that was contemplated as a possibility by even the most optimistic of Rajapaksa’s critics barely three months ago, when his regime appeared to enjoy what seemed like the impregnable support of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Part of the reason for Rajapaksa’s appearance of invincibility had been the constitutional changes he had introduced to consolidate his regime, after his victory in May 2009, in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Instead of offering a political settlement to address Tamil and other minority aspirations after the war, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in September 2010 abolished the two-term limit on presidential tenure and removed key limitations on presidential power.

Term limits are a key feature of presidential systems, given that an independently elected president is not responsible to the legislature in the same way as a parliamentary executive. And Sri Lanka’s two-term limit had been one of the only limitations on an executive presidency that was otherwise constitutionally omnipotent. The removal of the limit was exacerbated by the fact that in Sri Lanka, the presidential term is not fixed, i.e. a sitting President can choose the best timing for his re-election after the lapse of four years of the six year term. The abolition was directly related to Rajapaksa’s dynastic ambitions and would have allowed him (had he won re-election) to continue in office until such time as his son and heir – both affectionately and derisively known as ‘Namal Baby’ – was ready to assume the mantle for which he was being groomed. Continuous re-election would not have seemed difficult, given Rajapaksa’s willingness to crush any significant form of dissent with legal and extra-legal methods, and to use the power and resources of the state as his personal property.

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