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Balancing act

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Monday, 12 March 2018 00:04

Chinese President Xi Jingping succeeded in abolishing presidential term limits on Sunday, succeeding in a momentous political coup that paves the way for him to stay in power for years to come. During the time the vote was being taken President Maithripala Sirisena was meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, showing clearly the fine balance Sri Lanka will have to take in the future regarding relations with these two giants.

Nearly 3,000 members of China’s National People’s Congress voted in the highly controversial constitutional amendment of President Xi’s with two other amendments designed to shore up Xi’s supremacy also approved through the same vote. International media said these were the addition of a political philosophy called “Xi Jinping Thought to the Constitution”, and the creation of politically-driven “supervisory commissions” tasked with investigating party members and civil servants.

For Xi, who is now widely considered China’s most dominant leader since Mao Zedong, Sunday’s vote represents a landmark victory in his battle for complete command of the world’s number two economy.

However, opponents call the decision to scrap the two-term limit – introduced in 1982 to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the Mao era – a calamity that risks plunging China into a new age of political turbulence and one-man dictatorship.

The Chinese president’s intentions were clear quite early on. According to one recent count, since taking power in 2012 Xi has used an anti-corruption campaign to bring down a succession of heavyweight rivals including more than 100 generals and admirals and six top party figures who were accused of plotting a coup. Critics have accused him of using the campaign to root out political rivals. Yet the most significant change may be to China’s civil liberties and political rights, which have always been tightly controlled by the State.

Across the Palk Strait, Modi is readying for a different kind of challenge next year when he will have to run for re-election. Modi is largely expected to win, mostly due to the lack of a coherent opposition in India, but may see fewer votes as a result of incumbency fatigue. 

China and India’s competing interests regarding Sri Lanka are obvious and over the last few years the Sri Lankan government has continued accepting large Chinese investment and strengthening links with India, though at a slower pace.

The Sirisena Government, coming to the tail end of its own term and saddled with increasing debt repayments, may find both China and India easier to deal with as both are likely to have strongman leaders who will set out clear economic policies that Sri Lanka may find easier to deal with, provided it can put its own house in order so that it can take advantage of these developments.

But Sri Lanka, however much it gets economically closer to China, must still hang on to its democratic credentials, battered though they may be. Democracy is always a challenging form of governance to have and while it is tempting to control discourse and undermine institutions, the Sri Lankan Government must take the opposite view. This is the only way Sri Lanka can give space for its minorities and forge a way forward towards sustainable peace.


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