The End of Term Limits Means the Decline of Democracy in Sri Lanka

September 8, 2010, has joined February 4, 1948, and September 7, 1978, as a pivotal date in the democratic history of Sri Lanka. In 1948, Sri Lanka won independence from Britain, but in 1978, President J.R. Jayawardene and the United National Party (UNP) passed Sri Lanka's third Constitution, establishing expansive presidential powers. Now in 2010, with 161 votes, Parliament has passed a Constitutional Amendment further expanding the powers of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and stripping away the façade of democracy. Critics have dubbed September 8th "Black Wednesday."

The 18th Amendment will fundamentally transform Sri Lanka's political system, ending presidential term limits, eliminating the Constitutional Council that oversaw non-partisan appointments, increasing President Rajapaksa's control over appointments, and broadening the prerogative of the President to communicate with Parliament. Its effect will be to remove vital checks on Executive power and further undermine Sri Lanka's democracy.

Presidential term limits are critical to democratization. The concept of term limits for elected offices has been present in discussions of democracy since its earliest incarnations in Rome and Athens - both of which had term limits in some form. Without term limits, an individual and party may accumulate tremendous power. Incumbency advantages allow them to preserve and increase that power perpetually. The incumbent can rely on popular support, regime tactics, and opposition fragmentation to stay in office, setting the country's agenda ad infinitum.

The consequences extend beyond the immediate issue of an individual's accumulation of power over a lifetime and its use. As power becomes concentrated with a single individual and party, the range of views within the party decreases and opposition parties weaken and fragment, diminishing the representation of diverse views in democracy. The weakening of opposition parties also undermines electoral choice, leaving voters with few alternatives to the party in power. Government and politics stagnate.

Political party alternation, or turnover, is crucial to democracy. Political party alternation is more likely when the opposition faces a successor rather than incumbent, both because the successor does not enjoy incumbency advantages and because the opposition is more likely to unify when facing a new candidate.

Political party alternation is not just a symbol of democracy - it is essential to advancing democratization. Each successful turnover is a demonstration of democracy that increases legitimacy among domestic stakeholders and internationally. Awareness of the potential for turnover also makes officials and political parties more responsive to citizens and more likely to attempt to collaborate and reach consensus with other political parties. Following a turnover, the average improvement in Freedom House scores based on political rights and civil liberties among 20 electoral authoritarian regimes was 0.9 on a 7-point scale. By contrast, there was no improvement in these scores in the three years preceding government turnover in these countries.

In the absence of a Presidential term limit, corruption will grow within and outside of government. As an Executive and ruling party accumulate power, they become more likely to abuse that power. Parties are less vigilant in rooting out vice, and officials become more prone to corruption when they perceive little threat of removal or electoral repercussion. Without the potential for political turnover, businesses and other non-governmental actors have a greater incentive to invest in bribing and corrupting government officials, whose positions are more likely to be long-term and secure.

The end of term limits will reduce the potential for institution-building, policy reforms, and training integral to the development of stable democracy in Sri Lanka. Without each subsequent term, the incumbent feels less of an electoral imperative and becomes less likely to generate new platforms and policies or improve existing institutions and infrastructure. With a single party in power and little turnover among government employees and appointees, relatively few Sri Lankans will acquire the knowledge and experience necessary to become part of democratic government.

Presidential term limits are a fundamental feature of modern democracy. Although the United States' 22nd Amendment, limiting Presidents to two four-year terms, has only been around since 1951, it only codified the two-term limit US Presidents self-imposed -- from George Washington onward. (Only Franklin Delano Roosevelt served more than two terms.) The last of the major modern democracies to set term limits, France, did so in 2008.

Since the 1990s, and even earlier in some regions, the majority of transitional democracies and electoral authoritarian governments have also set term limits, although Sri Lanka is one of a number of countries that have revisited term limits in the past decade. Over the past few years, attempts to end term limits in Colombia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Zambia have failed while countries that have overturned term limits include Algeria, Djibouti, Uganda, and Venezuela. Currently, Indonesia is debating term limits.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed a "two turnover" rule: only after two successful political turnovers could a democracy be declared consolidated--or stable. By passing the 18th Amendment, Sri Lanka is regressing, destroying what democratic framework is in place rather than improving it.

The legacy of the 18th Amendment will be the destabilization of the Sri Lankan political system and the decline of democratic tradition. Its effects will only grow with time. The Amendment removes essential limits on Executive power and cripples the Judiciary while reducing the independence and influence of the Parliament; further, it ensures political stagnancy and precludes democratic progress.