Sri Lanka’s president is amassing personal power

Sri Lanka’s president is amassing personal power

Constitutional amendments make Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority almost absolute

Never say Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaves things to chance. After decisively winning the presidential election last November, putting family in charge of important government departments, suspending Parliament and finally winning postponed elections in early August in a landslide for his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (slpp) and supporting parties, still the president insisted that “obstacles” to his authority remained. Changes to the constitution were the only solution. Parliament has granted his wish, creating a near-absolute presidency with the 20th amendment.

As so often in Sri Lanka’s turbulent history, the amendment in effect annuls its predecessor. The 19th amendment was a reaction to the overweening rule of Gotabaya’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005 until his surprise defeat in 2015. With Gotabaya, a former army officer, in charge of defence and intelligence, he had prosecuted the even more brutal end to an already bloody 26-year civil war. After the war’s end, triumphalism reigned and critics were intimidated. The amendment limited the president’s powers, expanded those of the prime minister, accountable to Parliament, and strengthened independent oversight of the police and the judiciary. More was promised by President Maithripala Sirisena and his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, including inter-ethnic reconciliation and devolved government. Yet so dysfunctional became their relationship that intelligence about impending terrorist attacks was ignored. Suicide-bombers struck on Easter Sunday last year, killing 269. Gotabaya’s message of security and competence, along with jabs at the Muslim and Tamil minorities designed to please the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, propelled him to the presidency.