Supreme Par­lia­ment, Sov­er­eign Peo­ple

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS -

SUN­DAY, OC­TO­BER 8, 2017

Par­lia­ment de­cided to cel­e­brate 70 years of Par­lia­men­tary democ­racy in Sri Lanka this week, iron­i­cally in the shadow of a for­mer Chief Jus­tice go­ing to the Judiciary com­plain­ing that the Leg­is­la­ture acted against the law of the land. He is al­lud­ing to the re­cent pas­sage of amend­ments to the Provin­cial Coun­cil Elec­tions Act con­tro­ver­sially passed in the House last month. Af­ter all, Par­lia­ment is meant to ex­er­cise the leg­isla­tive pow­ers of the sov­er­eign peo­ple un­der the supreme law of the land – the Con­sti­tu­tion.

The spe­cial ses­sion of Par­lia­ment to fete the oc­ca­sion heard the Pres­i­dent say that Par­lia­ment has been given back through the 19th Amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion its pow­ers that were ceded by virtue of the 18th Amend­ment. That may be par­tially true, but yet, it cuts across the Pres­i­dent’s re­fusal to clear the air whether he will keep to the pledge he made be­fore he was elected to abol­ish the Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dency.

His party, the SLFP – or the fac­tion he leads has rec­om­mended to the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on a new Con­sti­tu­tion that the Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dency must con­tinue, a volte-face from the SLFP’s orig­i­nal po­si­tion of 1977 when an Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dency was mooted.

Af­ter 40 years and on to the sixth Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dent, the peo­ple seem to have had enough of it. They want it abol­ished and ex­ec­u­tive power vested back with Par­lia­ment. As it so hap­pens, the UNP that in­tro­duced the sys­tem is in sync with that view, and the SLFP which op­posed it, is now for it. It is very clear that it all de­pends on the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal stand­ing of their lead­ers and is not aimed at what is best for the coun­try in the long run. The JHU has a valid point in ar­gu­ing that the sys­tem must re­main as long as the Provin­cial Coun­cils ex­ist – as a check and bal­ance to them.

The peo­ple seem to feel that the fears when the sys­tem was in­tro­duced in 1977/78 that it would breed au­to­crats, have been proved. Even the first Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dent J.R. Jayewar­dene con­tem­plated a third term in of­fice and so did the last Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa.

We have oft quoted the fa­mous Bri­tish man of let­ters, Alexan­der Pope, who said “for forms of gov­ern­ment let fools con­test; what­ever is best ad­min­is­tered is best”. Par­lia­men­tary dic­ta­tor­ships are no dif­fer­ent to a Pres­i­den­tial dic­ta­tor­ship. The re­deem­ing fac­tor with the in­cum­bent Pres­i­dency is that the Pres­i­dent has to work with a po­lit­i­cal party which is not his own, and thereby cur­tail­ing any in­cli­na­tion to­wards au­to­cratic rule. The flip side is that it can be a Gov­ern­ment pulling in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, thus go­ing nowhere.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy in Sri Lanka is more than 70 years old. The first elec­tion un­der Uni­ver­sal Adult Fran­chise was in 1931 to the State Coun­cil. In 14 years it will be the cen­te­nary of elec­tions in Sri Lanka, one of the old­est to en­joy ‘one man/ woman; one vote’, not just in Asia, but in fact, the world. Over the last seven decades, the com­po­si­tion of Par­lia­ment has changed as much as its lo­ca­tion from Galle Face to Sri Jayawar­denepura, Kotte and its name from the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the Na­tional State Assem­bly to Par­lia­ment to­day.

In the first Par­lia­ment (House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives) of 1947, there were 3 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers. In the last elec­tion of 2015, there were 15 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers. Elected and nom­i­nated MPs to­talled 95 in 1947 and 225 in 2015. The Cab­i­net in 1947 had 14 Min­is­ters (in­clud­ing one with­out port­fo­lio) and we have to­day 51 Cab­i­net Min­is­ters. The in­crease in quan­tity does not re­flect a cor­re­spond­ing in­crease in qual­ity.

Those who had the priv­i­lege of wit­ness­ing the ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ed­uca­tive de­bates in Parliaments of yes­ter­year will tes­tify to a marked de­cline in stan­dards – ex­cept prob­a­bly in the food in its cafe­te­ria. Not that ear­lier Parliaments were bor­ing af­fairs. The the­atrics there were aplenty, but of high qual­ity.

The drop in stan­dards cou­pled with con­flicts of in­ter­est and cor­rup­tion among law mak­ers is not a malaise ex­clu­sive to Sri Lanka’s Par­lia­ment. In the USA, Con­gress­men can­not bring in gun con­trol laws be­cause of the money-power of their Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion. In In­dia, more and more fam­i­lies in­volved in crime are en­ter­ing elected bod­ies. Even in the so-called Mother of Parliaments, the UK’s House of Com­mons, po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts have de­scribed the change in the law-mak­ers get­ting elected, an­nounc­ing the ar­rival of the pro­fes­sional MP.

Ear­lier, the men – and a few women who be­came MPs came from dif­fer­ent walks of life. There were the pro­fes­sion­als and the Uni­ver­sity ed­u­cated as much as the typ­i­cal work­ing class who came through trade unions. The landed gen­try and those with peer­ages would end up in the sec­ond cham­ber – the House of Lords. There was a healthy mix – a cross-sec­tion of so­ci­ety rep­re­sented, who could con­trib­ute to de­bates on sub­jects they were well ac­quainted with.

Later, po­lit­i­cal par­ties be­gan ap­point­ing party work­ers who were in pol­i­tics full-time and climbed the party lad­der to get nom­i­na­tion. This hap­pened in Sri Lanka as well some­what dif­fer­ently, but with the same end re­sult. Ad­di­tion­ally, wid­ows and sib­lings of MPs, and body­guards and even the ‘gamey chandiya’ (vil­lage thug) found their way into Par­lia­ment. Thus, that wide rep­re­sen­ta­tion was lost.

The onus lies heav­ily on the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship to put for­ward can­di­dates of sub­stance so that the fu­ture of Par­lia­men­tary democ­racy can be se­cure. It may be eas­ier said than done, and one pos­i­tive fea­ture is the move to­wards a mixed elec­toral sys­tem of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion (PR) and the old style first-past-the­p­ost elec­torates.

Many abortive at­tempts at scut­tling Par­lia­men­tary democ­racy – the 1962 botched coup d’état; the 1971 south­ern in­sur­gency; the 1972 ex­ten­sion of Par­lia­ment; the 1982 Ref­er­en­dum to ex­tend the term of Par­lia­ment; the 1987-89 sec­ond south­ern in­sur­gency and the 1976-2009 north­ern sep­a­ratist in­sur­gency have all been se­ri­ous threats that have been over­come – the mil­i­tant ones put down by the of­ten den­i­grated, not suf­fi­ciently praised Armed Forces of this coun­try.

In his ad­dress last Tues­day to the spe­cial ses­sion of Par­lia­ment to cel­e­brate its 70th year, the Pres­i­dent kept stress­ing the pro­posed Con­sti­tu­tion that is be­ing drafted in­tends to “strengthen Par­lia­ment”, but did not elab­o­rate on the modal­i­ties. He kept stu­diously silent on the fu­ture of the very of­fice he holds – the Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dency which is a bone of con­tention among those who sup­ported him to this ex­alted of­fice.

That is the crux of the is­sue fac­ing Par­lia­men­tary democ­racy. Will it have to play sec­ond fid­dle to an Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dency and a Pres­i­den­tial democ­racy? And if the much flaunted “supremacy of Par­lia­ment” is to be a re­al­ity, it doesn’t mean pam­per­ing its mem­bers with duty-free cars to make a quick buck but rather open­ing its doors to pub­lic hear­ings of its many Over­sight Com­mit­tees like in all modern democ­ra­cies and be an ex­am­ple of true lead­er­ship. While this coun­try must be for­tu­nate it has had Par­lia­men­tary democ­racy for so long, Par­lia­ment’s lus­tre must not be tar­nished by the con­duct of its sup­pos­edly “Honourable Mem­bers”. No. 08, Hunupi­tiya Cross Road, Colombo 02. P.O. Box 1136, Colombo ed­i­tor@sun­day­times.wnl.lk - 2331276 news@sun­day­times.wnl.lk - 2479332, 2328889, 2331276 fea­tures@sun­day­times.wnl.lk - 2479312, 2328889,2331276 pic­tures@sun­day­times.wnl.lk - 2479323, 2479315 sports@sun­day­times.wnl.lk - 2479311 bt@sun­day­times.wnl.lk - 2479319 fun­times@sun­day­times.wnl.lk - 2479337, 2331276 2479540, 2479579, 2479725 2479629, 2477628, 2459725

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