By Radhika Coomaraswamy –
For the most part of the last few weeks we have been in a suspended state of disbelief. Yes, the 2015 government had not lived up to its expectations, some people were plotting for the next election to teach them a lesson, and then lightening struck. The Prime Minister was removed in the stealth of the night replaced by the archrival that the President was elected to depose, Parliament was prorogued and then dissolved and a cabinet appointed. Neither the Prime Minister nor the cabinet have shown that they have the majority of Parliament behind them and this autocratic rule will continue until the leadership accepts in theory and in practice that the legitimacy of a prime minister rests on his numbers in Parliament.
Every day my friends and I text each other with information on who is crossing, what is happening here, what is happening there, so much so that we get lost in the weeds and miss the big picture. What is the big picture? We are today witnessing the gross abuse of executive power in ways that have been quite unimaginable even to the best of our cynics. It is power being wielded not only against the traditions and customs of a parliamentary tradition but in brazen disregard of the words and terms of the Constitution. When I meet people socially due to spin and confusion they say, “Who cares- one set of crooks vs. another set of crooks”. This is not about the crooks; it is about institutions, democracy and the system of government you would like in place for your children.
The first institution under attack by this runaway executive is the institution of Parliament. It is true the public image of Parliament and parliamentarians is not very good but they do pass laws and do many other things that allow us to govern ourselves according to a set process. The procedure set for the removal of the Prime Minister is quite clear if one reads the plain meaning and the intent of the text as a whole. However even if one were to justify the removal, the most important point in a parliamentary democracy is that the prime minister must enjoy the confidence of a parliamentary majority. So even if the removal and appointment were legal, the next step would have been to go to Parliament and take a floor test as soon as possible to see who enjoys the confidence of the house. Instead Parliament was prorogued and dissolved leaving behind a Prime Minister and Cabinet that do not have the approval of Parliament. The fact that the SLPP is a willing partner in this even though it has a great deal of popularity in the country and would have probably won the next election is also disturbing.
What was equally as disturbing as the attack on Parliament was the pressure and intimidation aimed at the Speaker. Parliament is supposed to be a co-equal arm of government, a check to a willful executive. Parliamentary staff are expected to take their instructions from the Speaker who heads this co-equal arm. Instead officials of Parliament defied the Speaker and decided to follow the President, an institution they were supposed to check and balance. In addition the Speaker was under assault by some parliamentarians when no confidence motions were brought forward. Though parliamentary brawls around the world are epic, the image of incredulous policemen and women guarding our Speaker as abuse and objects were hurled at them is truly unique. Protecting the powers, privileges and immunities of the Speaker is a must if we are to remain a parliamentary democracy.
The second tradition that is being attacked by the runaway executive are long settled rules of legal interpretation. The arguments for dissolution that the government presented and will be tested in the Supreme Court are a case in point. The Constitution gives the President a general power to dissolve, as one of his many powers. Then in a specific provision it states that the President can only dissolve Parliament after 4 ½ years. It is one of the longest settled rules of legal interpretation that the specific trumps the general; specific provisions qualify the general power. Another well accepted rule of interpretations is that the later law qualifies the earlier one- this too is ignored with regard to the nineteenth amendment. This perversion of legal interpretation in this case will perplex most lawyers as a crude, instrumental use of the law.
Another strange development is the President using his powers to change the leadership of a party other than his own. Whether the UNP needs a change of leadership is something to be discussed by the members of the party and the public. But removing, proroguing, dissolving Parliament all because you do not like the leader of another party is quite extraordinary. The President in his first speech on the subject equated his relationship with the prime minister to a bad marriage. Surely the answer to a bad marriage is to seek the advice of a counselor and not to burn the house down with the children in it. In politics and in life one has to work with people one does not like. One can manoeuvre, discuss or position oneself in this situation but protecting institutions and their integrity must surely be more important than personality differences.
When the President prorogued Parliament to try and get a parliamentary majority I was alarmed but found that most people were equivocal. I was interested by the comments average people made. It was along the lines of “It is a done deal they will buy them over”. There was very little moral outrage in this reaction but a cynical acceptance of what politics was like in this day and age. The fact that my Member of Parliament can be bought over for any amount of money without any reaction made me realize the depth of despair in this country with regard to our politics. Interestingly the people who received the least respect were the minority parties. Many people assured me that they would be bought over first. As a minority I found this a stunning rebuke to our self-respect. Is that what people think of minority political leaders that they can be bought and sold like in an auction?
Speaking of minorities, the scenes at Rupavahini, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the release of the man supposedly responsible for the Digana anti-Muslim riots, instead of re-remanding him as they did in the past, began to raise the threshold of fear- the fear of unruly mobs let loose by politicians and some religious figures. The fear has not gone away. One must commend the Army Commander and the armed services for staying away from this very political contest and one must acknowledge that whatever else he did the President did not call out the military. Nevertheless there are ominous signs, pockets of violence, unruly demonstrations, pockets of thuggery, a pliant Attorney General and an uneasy peace.
In recent years we had become accustomed to a diversity of media voices. Today, even though pockets of diversity remain there seems to be a concerted effort to convey only one voice, one truth especially in the state media. Much of it is sheer spin. Foreign envoys, local political parties and other individuals would recount how they would meet the President on his request and they would speak their mind but the discussions were used as a photo opportunity to make out to the public that everyone was extending their support. There is so much spin that one does not know what is truth and what is reality. But this time it does not seem to be working. One young person told me that she watches the news but her instincts tell her it is all wrong. As a result everyone goes back to their social media bubble and perhaps the international press to discern what is happening. A country that loses touch with reality and the truth, especially a small country such as ours, is on a spiral towards disaster nationally and internationally
The international repercussions of what has happened will have huge implications especially in the near future. For the moment we are an internationally “suspect” country. Except for Burundi I do not think anyone has recognized the new government and probably will not until January. I worked on the issue of the Rohingyas and Myanmar and understood the terrible consequences of being a cast out nation. Yes they survive but at what cost? Many end up beating tribal drums, at war with the west while desiring their investment, and their people portrayed to the world as ugly and prejudiced. We became the number one destination of Lonely Planet, the most respected travel magazine in October and like “evil eye”, within the week the constitutional crisis occurred. Now we are nowhere important in the listings. When one was fighting a war it must have been exhilarating to be fighting the imperialist west but in peacetime, the west, India and China are equally important as tourists, as buyers of our exports and as investors. We must protect our national interest but be open to co-operation with all, full of confidence and maturity that the world will take seriously. Being a castaway nation even for a few months is just not worth the heated rhetoric.
We are now experiencing a runaway executive, autocratic governmental rule unrelated to Parliament, and promise of free elections under the rubric of that autocratic rule. One can hope the Supreme Court will stop the direction of this flow. Once constitutional principles are restored, perhaps we can have general elections. The first thing that any new government should do is to do away with or severely limit the powers of the executive president. Time and time again this institution has destroyed the fabric of Sri Lankan life. The Venerable Sobitha gave his life in struggling for its abolition. In his memory we must keep up the effort to ensure that any executive under our Constitution cannot act on whims and fancies, only according to democratic traditions and the rule of law.