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Sri Lanka: Rajapakse's constitutional power grab

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Today, September 22, President Gothabaya Rajapakse took full advantage of his victory in the August parliamentary elections to introduce sweeping constitutional reforms that will make that parliament virtually powerless.

His proposed Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution would effectively repeal the Nineteenth Amendment that introduced significant restrictions on the powers of the President. Those restrictions were adopted in 2015 in response to the increasingly autocratic rule of Mahinda Rajapakse, the current President's brother, who had been defeated in an election earlier that year.

That defeat had been engineered by an alliance between Maithripala Sirisena, previously an ally of Rajapakse, and a leading member of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party, SLFP, and Ranil Wickremasinghe, the leader of the United National Party, UNP, the traditional party of the country's ruling class. Despite electoral promises to abolish the office of the Executive President, the Nineteenth Amendment merely reflected the mutual distrust of these two leaders by dividing powers between them.

The powers of the Executive President have been the subject of dispute ever since the office was created in 1978 as the centre piece of a new Constitution whose ultimate purpose was to bypass parliament to ensure the passage of neo-liberal reforms to dismantle state and welfare institutions.

The Twentieth Amendment of Gothabaya Rajapakse has a very similar purpose. Ordinarily, such an amendment would require a majority in a referendum, but this provision of the existing constitution can be set aside if there is a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which is effectively guaranteed today.

The principal effects of the amendment will be to give the president the power to; appoint, and dismiss, all government ministers, including the prime minister; dissolve parliament after just one year, rather than four and a half years as at present; appoint the chairs of important commissions such as those overseeing elections, the police and finance, appoint judges, the Attorney General and other law officers and to pass proposed legislation through parliament in 24 hours if considered "urgent".

In addition, the President will be given immunity from all prosecution. Why the President should find that necessary is open to speculation, but many have suggested that his period as Defence Minister, during the final and most barbaric phase of the civil war against the Tamils, would not bear close examination. Into the bargain, the proposed amendment would also allow those with dual citizenship to be appointed to government posts. This is presented as a reform in the interests of equal rights but is more likely intended to open the way for Basil Rajapakse, another brother, to be installed as the Finance Minister.

Only a President intending to force through extremely unpopular measures would need such powers and that is exactly what the working class and the oppressed of Sri Lanka now face. The combination of the downturn in world trade and the tourist industry, made worse by the country's indebtedness, guarantees an onslaught on jobs, wages, working conditions, rights and social services.

The other side of the coin of Rajapakse's electoral landslide was, of course, the rout of the other parties - the UNP itself was reduced to just one seat - but, far more importantly, the election demonstrated the complete absence of a party based in, and fighting for, the working class and the oppressed. The results of the various socialist groups that stood in the election, a few hundred votes here and there, only underline this.

The task facing them now is two-fold; to support all working class struggles against Rajapakse's inevitable attacks, calling for and organising as far as possible, united action between all existing workers' organisations and, alongside that, to develop a programme of action that can lead the working class from those struggles to the struggle for power and form the basis for a working class party.

All socialists in Sri Lanka, whether members of organisations or not, should recognise the need for a thorough examination of the origins of the present situation. The League for the Fifth International has an existing Action Programme for Sri Lanka which will need to be updated in the light of recent developments and we invite all comrades to discuss with us the key lessons and how the working class should now go forward. The programme can be found at