By Laksiri Fernando –
The sittings in Parliament during the last two weeks have been symptomatic of a deep crisis in parliamentary democracy, and in the political system in general. These are undoubtedly leader-made, and not at all people-made crises. The culpable key leaders can be identified as Maithripala Sirisena (the President), Ranil Wickremesinghe (dismissed PM), Mahinda Rajapaksa (former President and newly appointed PM) and Karu Jayasuriya (the Speaker).
The situation contrasts considerably, for example, to the last two weeks in France where the ‘Yellow Jacket’ groups broke into the streets, burnt vehicles and property, and had violent confrontations with the police over the issue of high petrol prices. Undoubtedly, the situation in SL Parliament particularly on 16 November was despicable where some UPFA MPs indulged in violence, while the Speaker came with a police force like a ‘paramilitary leader’ to conduct a parliamentary session at his will. All these culprits again do not represent the average citizens of the country where they go on with their day-to-day activities peacefully, although deeply worried about the future.
People and their Representatives
In any democratic country, presidential or parliamentary, there can emerge a considerable gap between the people and their representatives. The same applies to elected Presidents, as in the case of Sri Lanka. Although elected by the people, the representatives can get easily alienated from the people, particularly as the time goes by. In developed democracies there are several ways of ameliorating the situation.
In the US, there are midterm elections for both houses to gauge and rectify the situation. The term of the US President is also for four years and not five or six. In Australia, the term of the House of Representatives (HR) is only three years and not four or five. There are state elections to reflect the intermediary situation and caution any government. The recently held Victorian state election is one example where people friendly progressive Labour policies were overwhelmingly approved, instead of neoliberal trickle down policies of the Liberal commonwealth government.
Although the term of the House of Representatives in Australia and New Zealand is three years, there can be elections before, as required. Another approach to address the people’s grievances is to evolve bipartisan policies on important matters. After the significant political change in January 2015 this possibility was abundantly there in Sri Lanka, but the two parties, the UNP and the SLFP, terribly failed in this endeavour.
Although called the mother country of all parliaments, some of the above devices are not available in the United Kingdom unfortunately. UK is not a proper federal or a devolved system, to gauge people’s thinking from those elections. The term of the House of Commons is five years (not four or three) and now quite artificially fixed (since 2011), and the House of Lords is still a feudal institution. This is one reason why the issues like Brexit are now terribly deadlocked. Therefore, if Sri Lanka is going to take inspirations or examples only from the UK, it is going to be a terrible mistake.
Fixed Term is a Bad Idea
Sri Lanka is a country in democratic transition. Much more important underlying factor is the economy (its health and prosperity). Considering the high population, ethnic polarity and political diversity, political will of the people could easily shift from one side to the other. In such a context, a fixed term parliament is utterly a bad idea and could create enormous crisis in the political system as evident today. You don’t need a fascist or a similar movement to do that. The structural collapse can easily eventuate such a crisis, while people remaining passive and uninterested in parliamentary gimmicks.
Let us take some examples. Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential election in January 2015 with a 51.28% island wide vote. However when his party, the SLFP, contested the local government elections in February 2018, it was only 12.1%.
At parliamentary elections in August 2015, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP could obtain 45.66% of votes. However, at the local government elections, it came down to 29.42%. These are examples of how people’s choices could shift overtime or from time to time. During these two elections, August 2015 and February 2018, the JVP votes increased from 4.87% to 5.75%, while the TNA votes decreased from 4.62% to 2.73%.
It is noteworthy that the new party of the SLPP, under MR’s leadership, could obtain 40.47% of votes at the February 2018 elections. If the SLFP vote is also counted (12.1%), it might be argued that a SLPP/SLFP candidate even could win a future presidential election. However that is not necessarily the way the people make their election choices. Holding on to power at present, without a clear majority in Parliament, might disillusion the people of Rajapaksa intentions or objectives. The best option would be to resign to allow a new temporary caretaker government.
Mockery of Parliament
Whatever the criticisms one may have on President’s decision to dissolve parliament because of its apparent arbitrary and partisan character, a general election might still be the best option for the country given the above conditions. Even after the much desired change or ‘revolution’ in January 2015, the UNP could not obtain a clear majority in Parliament in August 2015. They could form a stable government only with the support of the President and some sections of the SLFP, although the UNP had implicit conditional support from the TNA (and the SLMC).
There is a long list of events that amounts to the distortion of ‘parliamentary democracy’ from the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the PM in January 2015 with only 42 MPs, to the recent holding of Parliamentary sessions without Standing Orders and arbitrarily declaring ‘No Government’ by the Speaker, Karu Jayasuirya. The repeated recognition of the TNA leader as the Leader of the Opposition was another distortion that the Speaker had previously committed. Another deviation from democracy was the freezing of elections for local government and then provincial councils. Both the UNP and the SLFP are culpable for this distortion.
It is in this series of distortions that the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the PM took place on 26 October with only 95 members in Parliament, hoping that the number would grow. The result has yet been a badly fractured hung Parliament which might justify the dissolution of Parliament politically.
There are other aspects to the distortions in the parliamentary system emerging from largely the electoral system. The abolition of the ward system has been a root cause of such distortions, in addition to the dreadful preferential competitions at elections. Not only that the so-called representatives have got alienated from the constituencies, but also have won elections on the strength of money and physical force. Women were the most disadvantaged. The situation has also created sort of a class distinction within all political parties between ordinary party members/supporters and the rich political elite/groups.
While the ordinary members/supporters are marginalized in the nomination processes, the rich political elite/groups overwhelmingly obtain nominations again and again. There is no wonder why the age composition of MPs and leaders in general is quite high across political parties. The deteriorated educational standards is also a common predicament. No rational person would argue that there should be legally sanctioned age or educational limitations for MPs. However, those should come naturally, if the system is healthy and democratic.
The freezing out of independent candidates is another major predicament of the present electoral system. If one wants to contest independently, then he or she has to give nominations in a group (with a higher financial deposit) which is the very negation of one’s independence. Sri Lanka in good old days of parliamentary democracy had a good number of independent MPs who could bring sanity into parliamentary debates and political party rivalry. Often the Speaker of Parliament was selected from one of them on a bipartisan basis. This is no longer the case and the recent Speakers have been behaving strongly in partisan manner.
Role of the Speaker?
The most extreme of this pattern is the behaviour of the present Speaker purely for political reasons. Let me add an anecdote or two. When I was in Colombo in August, a ‘leftist’ friend of mine (you can guess), who is very close to political planning unfortunately now on behalf of the UNP told me that they intend to put forward Karu Jayasuriya as the next common candidate and asked my opinion, believing I would still continue to support such an effort. I disagreed and said, ‘if it is a common candidate, the person should be from a nonpartisan basis and preferably a woman.’
Therefore it is no wonder why Karu Jayasuriya is behaving in the manner he does now in Parliament, conducting mock parliamentary sessions and countering the President in all executive matters. His fervent effort appears to get the support of the so-called ‘international community’ aka some Western countries, utilizing their misgivings about the newly appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the PM.
It has been my position and understanding, as expressed previously, that the removal of RW and the appointment of MR are constitutional, and also conventional even under a nominal Head of State, when a Parliament falls into a perilous hung situation. However, the MR’s appointment is politically controversial and not sustainable under the given composition of the present Parliament. The prorogation of Parliament has been less controversial constitutionally. I have also given my interpretation on the dissolution of Parliament, right or wrong, and this matter is now before the Supreme Court. There is no doubt that when all three steps or President’s ‘trump cards’ came one after the other, the people or even the so-called experts got confused and divided.
I am not at all a rebel and has never been in sympathy with any insurgency (or violence), North or South, even in my young days. My only deviation could be that I don’t mince my words and often relish in polemics and sarcasm! I am for orderly progress in both the economy and democratic politics. I am also not hesitant to change my overt political or policy positions in advocating progress under given circumstances.
The dissolution of Parliament is something that the political parties should have tolerated for the reasons given in this article. As the matter has been referred to the Supreme Court, the Speaker and the political parties in Parliament should have waited for its final verdict without having ridiculous sessions, although it may be true that the apparent time taken by the SC is too long for the impatient and acrimonious politicians to tolerate. The most damaging from a democratic and a political stability perspective is the mock sessions conducted by the Speaker in Parliament with the connivance of the UNP, the TNA and the JVP.
It is hoped that the present instability and chaos should end sooner than later, and both parliamentary and presidential elections should be held peacefully one after the other, in that order, to end the stalemate, although even that might not be a complete resolution to the underling crisis. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s speech today in Parliament is most welcomed. In agreement with all parties, there can be a new caretaker government, perhaps Lakshman Kiriella or someone like that as the temporary PM before the elections.
There is a strong need for independent candidates and voices to emerge at both elections, with considerable number of women candidates. In terms of the expression of views, on the present situation, ‘critical, independent and objective interpretations’ are most essential, without supporting any of the present leaders.