April 9, 2010 / 2:39 PM / 9 years ago

Q+A - Sri Lanka's president seeks constitutional majority

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling alliance won a majority as votes were counted on Friday from a parliamentary poll and predicted it would come within striking distance of a two-thirds majority.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa smiles to his supporters at a polling station after casting his vote for the parliamentary elections, in the southern district of Hambantota, about 238 km (148 miles) south of capital Colombo, April 8, 2010. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawawtte

Rajapaksa wants a two-thirds legislative majority so he can amend Sri Lanka’s constitution. Although he has said little about the changes he wants, the opposition has vowed to thwart what it calls a threat to democracy and a recipe for authoritarianism.

Here are some questions and answers about what may happen:

CAN RAJAPAKSA GET THE NECESSARY 150 SEATS THROUGH THE VOTE?

No. A spokesman for the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) said the alliance expected to land 137 or 138 seats. Those numbers are higher than even ruling party officials had privately predicted before the poll. But low turnout — estimated around 50 percent — heavily favoured the UPFA.

DOES THAT MEAN RAJAPAKSA’S PLAN IS FINISHED?

Absolutely not. If the forecast is right, he would need only 12 or 13 politicians to join his alliance, and he has shown a gift for engineering crossovers with a mix of charm, patronage and coercion.

After he was elected in 2005, he persuaded 40 politicians to join his government to gain the majority and counter a host of defections. He did that mainly by handing out ministerial and deputy minister posts with additional perks.

That gave him his present majority of 126, and more than 100 ministers and deputy ministers. However, he has said he wants to drastically trim the ministerial list so the inducements he will offer this time are unclear.

WHAT DOES RAJAPAKSA WANT TO DO?

As is his style, Rajapaksa has been vague about the specific constitutional amendments he would want to make, and with the two-thirds majority, changes would be up to his whim. He’s made broad comments about needing changes to spur development.

He’s also broached the idea of creating a lower house of parliament, and said he wanted to replace proportional voting with a “first past the post” system that awards a single seat to the highest vote-getter in each district.

This is a bit ironic because former President J.R. Jayawardene used his five-sixths majority in 1978 to change the constitution to replace the “first past the post” system with the current one.

Jayawardene also vastly increased the powers of the presidency, and many Sri Lankans have agitated for a new constitution to reduce those and include provisions to devolve power to minority areas.

Rajapaksa is cool to devolution, and some in his coalition want to get rid of the 17th amendment, which introduced three independent commissions to govern the police, the judiciary and the elections. However, it has hardly been implemented and the president retains near-total authority over those bodies.

ARE THERE ANY RISKS?

Naturally. Some critics say Rajapaksa wants to change the constitution to give himself another term when he is due to leave office in 2016 under the present two-term limit. The opposition has warned he will lean more towards authoritarianism by building a de facto one-party system.

However, Rajapaksa has promised to keep Sri Lanka’s long tradition of multi-party politics alive and right now faces little threat from a listless and fractured opposition.

As for reducing presidential powers, it is a rare politician who willingly cedes influence and post-colonial history is full of leaders who changed the constitution to stay in power.

Rajapaksa has not blushed at local accolades comparing him to King Dutugemunu, one of Sri Lanka’s most famous absolute rulers from the second century B.C.

Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Ron Popeski

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