United Socialist Party and the fight for democratic rights
The present constitution in Sri Lanka, which gives semi-dictatorial powers to the president of the country, was introduced by the UNP (United National Party) regime under J.R. Jayawardena in 1978. They wanted to use it to implement the kind of economic policies adopted by capitalist governments in the west. Using it, the UNP was able to suppress trade union and working class rights and also suppress the poor farmers’ and students’ rights during the period from 1978 to 1994.
Apart from the UNP, the rest of the political parties and civil organisations in Sri Lanka, including the Tamil political parties, were all against this constitution. One of the main campaigns of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) used to be to change the constitution and abolish this concentration of power in the hands of the president. Since 1978, in each election, the capitalist coalition of the SLFP with the formerly Trotskyist LSSP and the Communist Party always promised to the people that they would change ’JR’’s constitution. Mahinda Rajapaksa used to pose as one of the pioneers of this campaign. He had this promise included in the election manifesto in 2005 when he won the presidency for the first time, and again in the 2010 election.
Now, after 32 years of experience of this dictatorial constitution, even the UNP’s present leadership has talked positively about the new, even more dictatorial, changes to the present constitution. Given the depth and the extent of the changes contemplated in the Eighteenth Amendment, the process adopted for its enactment is wholly flawed. Once again the procedure for emergency bills has been used, to make sure that the conclusion is inescapable. And this is to prevent, or at least attenuate, legitimate public discussion, criticisms and debate of the substance of the proposed changes. In the post civil war situation, there is a need for constitutional changes, addressing the challenges of diversity, ethnic reconciliation, and the minority’s rights etc. in order to ensure peace. But the current attempt to consolidate more power at the top and the attack democratic rights will sabotage future stability.
Thousand of families in the North after the war still live without proper housing. Many families have complained that their loved ones are still missing after surrendering to the army at the end of the fighting. It is these innocent Tamil people in the north who need urgent attention to their problems, not emergency changes in the constitution to increase the power of the president. Working class people are in a desperate situation and still without any wage increases. Since 2006 there have been none.
Early this year president Rajapaksa made a public announcement during the presidential election campaign – to increase wages by Rs. 2500.00 to meet the rising cost of living. These urgent problems of the masses have been forgotten by the Rajapaksa regime and they are doing everything they can to continue to be in power, as though Rajapaksa were the king in this country.
USP expresses anger
The United Socialist Party has expressed its deep anger and consternation at the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution Bill, which removes vital constitutional restraints on presidential power. We are convinced that the changes embodied in the 18th Amendment are entirely inconsistent even with the proper functioning of a constitution and liberal democratic values, and it is adversely affecting the democratic rights of the people and even the principle of a republic.
We have also condemned the manipulative and partisan manner in which the government has sought to introduce these changes. This is also contrary to the so-called “Mahinda Chintana” – the election manifesto of the ruling party – and therefore contrary to the successive mandates given to the president by the people in the 2005 and 2010 presidential elections. Hence we are involved in a campaign for the constitutional amendment, with such fundamental and far-reaching consequences, to require the approval of the people in a referendum. But the supreme court, under government influence, declared that these changes of the constitution do not need the approval of a popular referendum.
As we explained in a previous article, the Rajapaksa government did not even have the necessary 2/3rds majority in parliament. But, at the last minute, it launched conspiratorial methods to buy over opposition MPs in order to get a 2/3rds majority. The government used various tactics to bribe opposition MPs of the UNP, the Muslim Congress and one Tamil National Alliance member. Twelve TNA MPs voted against the amendment, together with former Army General Fonseka’s party – the Democratic National alliance (DNA). The UNP boycotted the proceedings in the parliamentary hall.
There is no tenable reason, in an open and democratic society, that such momentous changes should be introduced without the broadest possible discussion and deliberation or without the opportunity for the political parties, workers, trade unions and ordinary people directly to express their views in a referendum.
We see the biggest betrayal was that of the leaders of the small remnants of traditional left parties – the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CP) and the Democratic Left Front (DLF), who are all now part of the present Rajapaksa capitalist coalition government. During each and every past election, the SLFP and these so-called left parties promised to the people of Sri Lanka that they would abolish the executive presidency system, which was introduced by the JR Jayawardena government back in 1978. Contrary to the decisions made by the central committees and political bureaus of their own parties to fight in parliament against strengthening the presidential system and betraying the entire oppressed people in Sri Lanka, minister Dew Gunasekara, Tissa Witharane and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, ’left’ leaders, voted for this dictatorial amendment. This is another instance of them showing their cowardly opportunistic politics.
What the amendment says
There are two substantive elements to the Eighteenth Amendment. The first is the abolition of term limits for the executive presidency. The second concerns the abolition of any restraints on presidential power established by the (previous) Seventeenth Amendment.
In addition to the abolition of the Constitutional Council (and its proposed replacement with a manifestly ineffectual Parliamentary Council), the Eighteenth Amendment Bill also envisages fundamental changes to the independent commissions, in particular the Elections Commission and the National Police Commission. Many of the most important powers conferred on the Elections Commission by the Seventeenth Amendment, essential to the integrity of the electoral process, have been removed. The entire nature and purpose of the National Police Commission, as the central mechanism to ensure the political independence and professionalism of the Police, is to be altered, with the new commission performing the role of a mere administrative complaints body.
With these new changes to the constitution, there is hardly any room left to change the government in power. The election commission and the police will work totally under the president during the election period. The present Sinhala Buddhist capitalist government will not give any concessions to the Tamil-speaking people of this country. The 13th Amendment to the present constitution was introduced as a beginning of devolution of power to the North and East. Even though this amendment is a part of the constitution, none of the former presidents such as JR Jayawardana, Chandrika Kumarathunge or Mahinda Rajapaksa has implemented it. The merger of the North and East as a Tamil homeland and the vesting of police and land powers to the North East Provincial Council, as per the 13th Amendment, has never been realised.
The government is not keeping it a secret that any opposition to them will be crushed. Sarath Fonseka, the former Sri Lankan Army chief who led the brutal war against the LTTE, was the main opposition capitalist candidate at the 2010 presidential election. Now he has been incarcerated on the basis of a hurriedly summoned military ’court’. A second court-marshal has ordered him to be imprisoned for two and a half years with hard labour. He has been made an example of as a warning to all opposition forces who dare challenge the authority of the Rajapaksa regime.
Fonseka has been stripped of all military credentials and pushed into prison uniform doing hard labour. The kangaroo court – a so-called military court which is making these decisions – is not legally part of the judicial system. However it has attempted to function as such, and now it is contemplating abolishing Fonseka’s parliamentary position, which is the main preoccupation of the Rajapaksa government today. This episode clearly shows the vindictive nature of this regime.
Similarly the current regime is also hunting down any media establishments that are printing and publishing posters or any other publications that make even a slightest criticism against the anti-democratic and dictatorial policies of the regime.
In this situation, the working class and poor people in the south will face a similar situation as in the North. For example 66,000 families who have been living in the capital, Colombo, for years are now being forced out of the city. Further, Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) is going to be abolished and the plan is to establish a military-style authority under the Secretary of Defence. The working class and poorer sections of Sri Lankan society – the mass of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people – has no choice other than to join together in their struggles, on a socialist programme to overthrow the dictatorial capitalist Rajapaksa regime.