Without any violence and with the fullest use of the constitutional machinery, the Mahinda Rajapakse government has achieved a coup of sorts. The passing of the 18th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, with more than two-thirds majority in parliament, further strengthens Mr Rajapakse’s executive presidency, which can now go beyond the earlier stipulated two-year term and control the other arms of government more effectively than it could previously. Mr Rajapakse has achieved this phenomenal elevation of his office by crippling both the legislature and the judiciary. The president now has the power to appoint the chief justice and judges of the supreme court, high courts and the court of appeal, apart from deciding on the membership of all independent commissions, among them the election commission, the human rights commission, the police commission and the commission to investigate charges of corruption. These are sweeping changes and would have encountered significant opposition on a normal day. But with a population drunk on the government’s recent success over the Tamil Tigers and a toothless opposition unable to hold its own against the divisive politics of the ruling alliance, the amendment sailed through parliament effortlessly. Mr Rajapakse had judged the time perfectly when he had brought the presidential elections forward earlier this year. He has done the same with the 18th amendment. Matters of such tremendous importance to his own political well-being and that of his family, which now controls a large part of the government, could not have been left for later.
The consequences are twofold. One, the changes in Sri Lanka could lead to a steady decline in the health of its democracy. The people still remain the final arbiter of the president’s political fate, but with the State machinery doing the president’s bidding, any political change would now become a herculean task in the island country. Muzzled media and a stunted judiciary would make things doubly difficult. Two, a despotic government unfailingly makes the neighbourhood unsafe. India may have, for now, found a friend in Mr Rajapakse, who is even willing to accommodate India’s diplomatic needs and share its concern for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. But an all-powerful president makes India not only dependent on his munificence, but also more vulnerable than before should the friendship turn sour.