By Chandra Jayaratne –
The role of an opposition is usually seen only from the perspective of the body of elected representatives, their respective political parties and the collective actions they take in and out of the legislature. The opposition should stand ready to act as the alternate government, if the current set in governance fails to maintain public confidence, resigns or are replaced at a future election.
It is contended that a Government has to remain answerable to the public at all times. The role of the Opposition in a parliamentary system must reflect this premise. However, a delicate balance must be maintained between permitting the elected government to govern and legislate effectively, whilst ensuring that this power is exercised with care, equity and justice and always with respect for the needs and aspirations of all citizens, including minorities. The opposition’s role in assuring good governance through dissenting views and exercise of democratic means holding the government and the executive to account are key features of a democracy. Thus a vibrant, independent and capable opposition is a fundamental building block in an effective governance framework.
Where a government in office fails its citizens or fails to govern in accord with accepted best practices of governance, it is incumbent on the opposition to take all democratic steps to form an alternative Government.
An article quoted below published under the title “Political Opposition”: Towards a Renewed Research Agenda” two PHD students, pronounce a new perspective on ‘who is’ and ‘what is the role’ an opposition must engage in;
“In order to provide with a broader framework for the study of opposition, which would not confine itself to specific and normative perspectives of opposition; we need to go back to the fundamentals. More specifically, we need to start by offering a new definition of what we mean by political opposition. In order to overcome the flaws that were underlined in the existing literature on opposition, and especially the very restrictive approach on the topic, we believe, following the footsteps of Dahl and Ionescu and de Madariaga’s studies on opposition, that we should define it by starting from the whole range of roles that the opposition entails, rather than from its locus or from its institutionalized and visible form, both of which may vary over time. This perspective would allow us to adopt a more neutral look –although influenced by Dahl’s definition of polycarchy and democracy- on the opposition but also to take into account a larger range of actors and types of relations.
As mentioned above, the roles and targets of the opposition are numerous and go from criticizing to offering new options, shedding lights on a specific question, politicizing issues etc. All these activities can have different targets, amongst which influencing the government, or the legislative arena, but also the public opinion. From these premises, we thus offer the following definition of the political opposition or rather of the political oppositions: “ *any organized actor –the parliament; represented political parties; non-represented political forces; trade unions; social movements * expressing its stance in the public sphere –in the government; in the parliament; in the media; in the street etc.- * that permanently or punctually checks, informs and criticizes the current state of affairs * through different non-violent modalities –legislative processes; parliamentary questions; press releases; mobilization of the media; public protests, demonstrations etc. * the targets of its critiques being the government and/or its policies and/or the political elite and/or the political regime as a whole.”
Thus citizens and civil society of this state are also an important part of the opposition and need to be vibrant, independent and capable of organized actions defined above, including taking on the responsibility for holding the government to account and where they fail to form an alternate government by democratic means.
An independent and professional analysis of recent public experiences in Sri Lanka noted below, demonstrates the failure of government in the discharge of its key accountabilities as a government, and this is despite the actions of legislators representing the opposition, as well as actions of the media, civil society and the public at large;
1. Peace & Ethno- Religious Harmony (especially after the 30 year War)
- Continuing incidents as seen in Dambulla, Grandpass, Aluthgama and most recently in Kalutara and the continuing ethnic tensions experienced by minority communities, especially those living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces
- Families with missing persons, single women headed households, war widows, trauma victims, displaced families and those withouadequate housing , sanitation, water and electricity, lack of livelihood opportunities and easy access to state services etc have not received justice and support due to them
2. Democratic Rights
- Election violence and defender parade led pressure tactics seen during the Uva Provincial Council elections
- Ineffective implementation of the 13th amendment based devolved power systems
3. State Capture of Independent Public Institutions
- All independent public institutions including the Attorney General, Auditor General, Ombudsman, as well as the Independent Commissions and All Regulatory Bodies including the Central Bank, TRC, PUC, SEC, etc, are under effective state capture and without independence, integrity and capability to function in the interests of stakeholders of society
4. Rights and Freedoms
- Protest campaigns of Rathupaswela, FTZ and Negombo fishermen as well as university students of Sabaragamuwa controlled by violent means
- Restrictions placed on meetings in remembrance of late Rajini Thiranagama and training of social media journalists in Negombo
5. Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression
- Consistent blocking of Colombo Telegraph and other independent social media sites and the capture and effective tacit control of a majority of local media institutions
- Journalists, camerapersons and film crew are in constant physical danger and foreign correspondents find visiting ad reporting a significant hassle
6. Muzzling the Civil Society Activists
- Civil Society Activists, especially those championing the cause of human rights are subjected to harassment and even physical violence and voices silenced by intimidation
7. Silence of Academics and Professionals
- Due to ‘fear and rewards’, academics and professionals refrain from engaging publicly in the discharge of expected best practices and championing productivity, quality and economy of resource allocations/use, both physical and human
8. Unreliability and Massaging of Key Economic Data
- Close scrutiny and professional analysis as well as affidavits of key staff members support the belief that key socio economic data are massaged and computed outside accepted norms
9. Complete failure of Effective Foreign Relations and Collapse of the Foreign Service
- Due to incompetence, interference and engagement of unsuitable persons assigned leadership positions, external relations, foreign services effectiveness and economic diplomacy led benefits are at a very low ebb
10. Indiscipline, Unlawful Acts, and Arrogance of Elected Representatives and Key State officials
- Lack of effectively imposed codes of conduct in public life, and unacceptable behaviours, ineffective performance and lack of commitment being overlooked results in poor outcomes and inefficient public services
11. Maintenance of law and Order and Personal Security of Citizens
- Murder of women in Kahawatte and murder of the Estate superintendent in Deraniyagala
- Ever increasing crimes, rape, extortion, kidnaps and signal failures of law and order
12. Security of Prisoners and Citizens in Police Custody
- Prison riots of Vauniya and Welikade and the number of deaths of detainees in Police Custody –“The vast majority of custodial deaths in Sri Lanka are caused not by rogue police but by ordinary officers taking part in an established routine.
—UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston*
13. Failure of civilian oversight mechanisms and Subordination of the rule of law to ‘rule by politics’*
- Passage of the 18th Amendment and abrogation of the 17th Amendment
- Politicization of law enforecents
14. Endemic police abuse
- The ‘safe’ assumption of most Sri Lankans that the victims of torture are confined to particular segments of the society–undesirables, terrorists or hardcore criminals–has been comprehensively debunked. Police brutality has been practiced against all types of persons*
15. Militarisation of law-enforcement agencies*
- The Public Security Ordinance being invoked every month, in every district with authorization to call up the armed services to assist the police in law enforcement
16. Militarization of The Economy and Civilian Administration
- The armed services personnel engaging in competing economic activities without effective overhead absorption in costing and pricing of goods and services, and negatively impacting on small holder farmers /traders
- Key government ministries, departments, state corporations being headed and administered by ex-armed services personnel
17. Land Acquisitions and Demolitions of Private Properties for Public purposes
- Failure to adopt the enacted legal procedures with armed services personnel (current and retired) exerting pressure and leading illegal demolitions, sometimes even in violation of judicial restraints
18. Maintenance of Rule of Law and Effective Justice Systems
- Impeachment of the 43rd Chief Justice
- Ethno Religious Extremists are rabble rousing, inciting and engaging in hate speech. They are allowed a free run and even state protection
- Perception that the judiciary is under state capture with the courts not seen as the option for dispute settlement and no effective options for judicial review of legislation and challenging the executive
19. Protection of Children and Women
- Continuing abduction of children across Sri Lanka
- Women employed overseas and providing a lifeline for balance of payments stability via inward remittances receive little or no recognition, protection nor compensation, in the event of being discriminated, ill-treated and physically manhandled/molested
20. Import, Transit and Distribution of Narcotics, Dangerous Drugs and Habit Forming/Poisonous Substances
- Significant expansion of these illegal activities with wide, effective and open distribution chains with protection offered by politically powerful persons
- Consumer protection mechanisms are in effective
21. Protection of the Environment and Ecology
- degradation and denudation of forests and illegal extraction of valuable timber, destruction of protected areas and strict natural reserves and capture, domestication and sale/export of fauna as well as endemic and valuable plants, birds and fish
22. Health Services and Education
- With lower than acceptable budgetary allocations and corruption/inefficiency, the service delivery standards have significantly deteriorated
- CKD, HIV, Dengue and other community diseases are at epidemic level
- Universities governed by political objectives are in constant crisis
- Inadequate resources allocations led poor support infrastructure, outdated curriculums/teaching/ competency testing methods, lack of competent teachers, political interference and poor emphasis on development of appropriate skills, values and attitudes produce human resources not meeting market needs
23. Justification of National Economic Resource Allocations
- Public needs/priorities, equitable considerations and economic sustainability criteria are most often ignored and post audit reviews not conducted
- Egoistic public spends and wasteful and extravagant tamashaes take precedence over priority needs of citizens
24. Mega investments in Projects unlikely to yield Adequate Returns and free Cash flows to Service Debt
- Mattala Airport, Hambantota harbor, Nelum Pokuna, Coal Fired Power Plant, City beautification, sea reclamation, etc
25. Exposure to Foreign Debt
- Sustainability of Debt Services being dependent on continuing high cost commercial borrowings ,especially as the promotion of export industries not pursued as a priority
26. Ineffective National Budgeting, Budgetary Control, Management Information and Balance of Payment Risks
- Effective Public Finance Parliamentary Control processes being by-passed
- Balance of payment stability linked to inward worker remittances, especially as domestic savings are inadequate and FDI impacted by lack of business confidence and credit risks
27. Mega Level Bribery, Corruption and Waste
- The perceived level is at heights never heard of, seen or imagined before, with even the Chairman of the Independent Commission to inquire in to such allegations having a complaint lodged against him and statements supporting wealth assessment presented by a spouse of a leading politician in a maintenance case far exceeding maximum potential earnings since entry to politics by a significant multiple
- Policy capture corruption and high entry costs deter FDI’s
28. Level of Black Money In the Economy and Money Laundering
- The perceived level is at heights never heard of seen or imagined before, with several businesses, foreign investments and establishments providing high end goods and services being perceived as fronts for money laundering and reinvestment
29. Right To Information and Rights To Express Citizens Wishes for Good Governance
- In Sri Lanka both rights and facilitation systems do not exist
30. Integrity of the Leadership and their Politically Connected Coterie
- Best assessed from the statement “It is not the political leadership who tried to derail us, but a morally bankrupt coterie of political appointee,s who felt exposed naked under the gaze of our scrutiny of their actions. If I am to give a message to the political leadership of this country, I have many, but the first would be to take cognizance of these corrupt individuals who mislead the political leadership for their personal gain. Let us not forget that thieves cannot advise their masters not to rob but to rob more and share the ill-gotten wealth.” by the outgoing Executive Director of Transparency International Sri Lanka
In awarding the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics the Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced that “Regulators and competition authorities have obtained “a whole new set of tools” from Mr. Tirole’s work.”Many industries are dominated by a small number of large firms or a single monopoly,” the jury said of Mr Tirole’s work. “Left unregulated, such markets often produce socially undesirable results – prices higher than those motivated by costs, or unproductive firms that survive by blocking the entry of new and more productive ones.” Before Mr Tirole’s work, governments and regulators often used simple rules such as capping prices for companies with a monopoly and banning co-operation between competitors, said the Royal Swedish Academy. Mr Tirole showed that under some conditions, doing so can do more harm than good.
They however forgot to add the post script “no regulations, however effective and appropriate, will function effectively and be independently administered in a states like Sri Lanka, where every public Institution and every branch of government are captives of the state, with policy capture and political connections/networks enable invalid /unjust and corrupt economic forces to receive and direct benefits in a manner negotiated with a political patronage driven core group and their cronies. ( eg. By passing Monopolies and Mergers requirements/controls over oligarchies/ insider dealings, market manipulations/consumer protection, etc). Rewards and Recognitions as well as law and regulatory enforcements go by corruption and singing praises of leaders (as seen in a full page advertisement recently) and business leaders and chambers find “Apathetic Silence and Blind Folded Action” as the way forward to grow their businesses.
Therefore Citizens must advocate and opposition forces must support, the establishment of effective democratic networks for citizens to directly participate in key legislative processes, decision making in governance, national resource allocations with equity, and citizens must be free and be able express their wishes/criticism on governance and management of public issues.
There are ready opportunities for US citizens to petition their leaders in governance;
” We the People” initiative of President Obama, enables citizens to petition White House,and where the cause petitioned has public support, the Administration is willing to responds to direct petitions.
In addition All Congressmen and Senators have their own web sites, and accept questions, info demands and respond to petitions and raises issues on behalf of citizens.
When can Sri Lankan Citizens enjoy these democratic rights?
In this context can Sri Lankan Citizens learn from the Pia Mancini’s Ted Talk; How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era where she articulates the following new model of the state and society, enabling via a new technology platform a conversation option for real democratic governance;
- 21st Century citizens must stop trying to interact with 19th century public institutions communicating via 15th century technology
- There is an urgent need to move away from a processes, where a few elected representatives and their appointed officials make daily decisions affecting many citizens, without a conversation with the many affected by such decisions and thus giving no heed to the needs, expectations and decisions of the majority
- Even where information is made available it is in a cryptic form not understood by many
- Barriers to effective engagement in decision making must be lowered and the desires and expressions of the majority must not be a mere monologue, but must compel authorities to take note of citizens expectations
- Citizens must not be silent, non participative or apathetic; otherwise the wrong decisions can bring up conflict, benefiting dictatorships, military rule and extremists grabbing power
- The 18th Century slogan “no taxation without representation, must be extended by adding ‘no representation without a conversation’”. This conversation must use modern day tools, and facilitate public debate, and importantly a seat at the table, effectively yielding and taking cognizance of the wishes of the affected majority
- Democratic Governance platforms can be built using the modern day ICT tools available
- The initiatives in Argentina built around the Software tool “Democracy S” supports the citizens participative decision making needs and facilitate effective dialogue, public debate and even provides options for indicative signals of how citizens wish elected representatives to design policies, develop laws, allocate public resources, structure projects and even how to vote for such changes, allocations and projects
- The real challenges to implementation of such a model are more cultural than capability and non availability of tools
Will the Government be receptive and the Opposition supportive building such a platform? Will they be ready to accept the culture change?
In conclusion democratic rights and freedoms, good governance, transparency and ethical conduct assurance by the governments and oppositions are the challenge before citizens and civil society and they must hold them both accountable to delivery and force them in to building participatory governance framework that promotes the plat form articulated by Pia Mancini.
That is the Alternate Government Sri Lanka Need So Badly- The Accountability for Advocating and Ensuring such a Governance Structure is implemented soon is with the Citizens and Civil Society.
*Refer -Subverted justice and the breakdown of the rule of law in Sri Lanka by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena