The political phone call syndrome is fast leading to a hunt culture that seeks to sweep into hiding the reality of politics and its manipulation of law and order in the Sri Lankan democracy.
The Ranjan Ramanayake situation, arising from the questionable exposure of telephone call recordings, raises many questions on the trend of democracy today, and also in the past, especially in the past four plus decades, in the country that was Asia’s first to vote in a democratic government in the late 1930s.
The phone call syndrome is being swiftly manipulated into a political headwind moving against all opposition, for the Pohottuva Team to obtain a 2/3 rds majority in the next parliament, following the April 2020 general elections. It is necessary to look back at the political machinations in the decades since the country became a republic in 1972.
It must be recorded that a precedent disaster for good government and administration came with abolition of the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) in 1963, also by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government on the recommendation of the Wilmot A. Perera Commission, paving the way for politician-ministers to appoint the administrative heads of ministries, leading to the overall politicisation of governance.
The change in the constitutional system from a dominion to a republic, came with the victory of the United Front – SLFP – LSSP – CP- that brought the Republican Constitution, which significantly made Buddhism as the State Religion, moving away from secular State that prevailed till then, for which there was little demand in the electoral campaigning. This was the political work of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the then leading LSSP politician Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Minister for Constitutional Affairs.
That UF government did major economic changes but was also faced with the first JVP uprising. In the final record of that government, with nearly 10,000 youth killed, and violence by the state forces against the JVP uprising, did not carry a good image of Buddhism in matters of State. Significantly, the 2/3 majority that government had enabled it to postpone the general election that should have been held in 1975, and move to the two-year delayed 1977 election that saw the UNP led by JR Jayewardene sweep in with a 5/6th majority. This is the first warning of the dangers of a 2/3 majority in parliament.
The new constitution brought by the UNP and JR Jayewaredene’s huge majority in parliament saw many changes leading to breaking up of the democratic process that was the overall tradition of governance till then. JRJ’s 5/6th majority enabled bringing 16 Amendments to the Constitution, to enable important changes such as the Provincial Councils and the acceptance of Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, and also many narrowly political moves such as the prevention of cross-overs by MPs, extension of the period of the 11th Parliament by 6 years, and the increase of MPs to 225.
The constitution changing majority that JRJ had, enabled the manipulation of the constitutional process, moving away from the democratic parliamentary traditions, such as that against MPs crossing over, putting off a parliamentary election by 6 years, and the much larger aspect of the Executive Presidency which took away most powers of the parliament elected by the voters – making a mockery of the sovereignty of the people.
The change of the Constitution with a 5/6th majority in parliament was not an issue that was a major part of the election by the UNP led by JRJn in 1977. It was a campaign where the SLFP -led government, after the breakup of the United Front, had to face rising criticism on the cost of living and massive corruption that emerged in the latter phase of that government.
Benefitting from the public opposition to the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led government, and able to go far beyond the 8-member opposition group in parliament, the JRJ government used its huge majority to bring in the Executive Presidency, which had no precedent political debate in the country, and combine US & French traditions of governance, but outside the democratic values that prevailed in those systems, and also wholly move away from the importance of parliament that was the tradition in the UK.
The 2/3rd twist
A major constitutional change in favour of democracy and good governance under the republican constitution was the 17th Amendment passed in August 2000, by the government headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, which brought the Constitutional Council, and the independent authorities of the Public Service Commision, Elections Commission, JudicialCommission and the National Police Commision. What is most significant in this change is that it was not brought by a government that had a 2/3 majority in parliament, but by a government that had a simple majority, but obtained a more than 2/3 vote in parliament, supportive of the democratic process that was being promoted.
The next threat of the 2/3rd majority in parliament came with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 2010. This was after Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2009 parliamentary election with a simple majority. He was able through clearly undemocratic means, such as the promise of government office and other benefits, including financial gains, to obtain the 2/3 majority to make a massive anti-democratic move that was not part of any public debate. He used his popularity over the defeat of the LTTE terror – which did not give him an electoral 2/3 majority – to gain parliamentary support for the 18th Amendment which removed the limit on the number of terms that a President may serve and created a Parliamentary Council to make appointments to positions such as the Commissioners of Elections, Human Rights and judges to the Supreme Court.
This was the use of the 2/3rd majority within parliament, not given in a public electoral vote, but through political and crooked manipulation, for the overall defeat of the democratic process. The Executive President could serve for any number of terms (if elected) with the benefit of governing power, and removing the democratic benefits that curbed the powers of the Executive President through the 17th Amendment, such as the Constitutional Council and on the appointment of the heads of important Commissions.
The next democratic benefit through a non-electorally obtained 2/3rd majority came with the 19th Amendment on 2015. It reduced the president’s term to 5 years, brought back the two-term limit for the Executive President, brought in a minimum age limit for the Executive President, and widened the powers of the Prime Minister and Parliament in conducting the process of governance.
Once again these democratic and socio-political benefits did not come from a government that had a 2/3rd majority in parliament. It was passed with a huge majority, going far beyond 2/3s, with a UNP-alliance government that had just a simple majority, and almost the entirety of the Opposition, with the SLFP and its allies elected led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, also voting for it.
There are aspects of the 19th Amendment, such as the size of a Cabinet of a National Government, and the ministerial positions, if any, the Executive President could hold, which require amendment to make the process more democratic.
What is significant in this is that an electoral 2/3rd majority in not seen as essential for the progress of the democratic process. It is possible through the nature of the process or legislation presented, which can obtain a majority within Parliament, as seen in both the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the overall disaster of a 2/3rd majority in the 18th Amendment.
This is of importance in the context of the current campaign of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP, for the SLPP and its allies to obtain a 2/3rd majority at the coming general election. There are no proposals for the widening or deepening of the democratic process in the Manifesto of the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa election campaign, the Policy Statement of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and thus no requirement for an electoral 2/3rd majority in the House. What is necessary is for any truly democratic changes to be presented to the next elected House, with or without a 2/3rd majority, and expect the people’s representatives to give their votes for such moves as in the 17th and 19th Amendments.
The debate on constitutional change is very much distorted by the political twists and largely perverted aspects of the Ranjan Ramanayake phone recordings. A basic and simple rule that the prior consent of a person has to be obtained to do any recording of a phone call, is being hugely distorted in the play of the Ranjan Phone Drama in social media and TV, and the political contortion that is now in progress.
It is important to know how the former Ministers and political leaders of governments gave their special, often anti-democratic instructions to the Police and other officers, without any telephone communications. Are we to forget how the Police personnel dealing with MP Wimal Weerawansa’s ‘fast’ protest in front of the UN Office, communicated with the then Secretary, Defence, through a mobile phone?
When we go back to the JRJ years, do we forget the threats faced by the then Chief Justice, Neville Samarakoon (1977 – 1984) and believe there were no phone calls involved, or the threats and attacks to several other judges whose homes were attacked because of a judgment unfavourable to the government?
Is it in any way likely there were no phone communications in how the then Mahinda Rajapaksa government, pushed through the impeachment motion against former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, without any politically vital telephone communications, because they were not recorded by anyone? Was there no telephone (unrecorded) advice given to those who the political mobs that surrounded CJ Shirani Bandaranayake’s official residence at that time?
Is the public to believe there were unrecorded phone conversations, or direct communications with subsequent Chief Justice Mohan Pieris (who was also Attorney General) relating to the many questionable judgments and legal actions that were taken at that time, most favourable to the then government?
In the context of ‘Phone Call Justice’, why did the previous Attorney General and the current holder of this office, not initiate any probes as to the undeclared telephone recording made by MP Palitha Range Bandara of the call by MP SB Dissanayake on crossing over to the ‘coup’ Cabinet in November 2018 with loads of cash also on offer?
Also why has the current Attorney General still not initiated legal action against the now interdicted former former Solicitor General, Dilrukshi Dias Wickremasinghe, about a phone call on the Avant Garde case, that was handled by her? Is it due to negative pressure from the Rajapaksas?
This is a never ending saga of crooked politics that has prevailed in this country, especially with the use of a 2/3rd majority in parliament. The Ranjan Ramanayake situation today is overall political humbug, using a provision of law relating to phone call recordings, into a national call for the continuance of crooked politics and governance. Ranjan Ramanayake requires to be dealt with under the law for its violations, as any citizen should be; but not made to be an anti-democratic monster, by forces in power who have an ugly record of threats and damage to the democratic process.
In this context it is difficult to have much hope that democracy and justice will prevail with the lotus flower politics of today. That remains the hope the people should have, till the whole electoral process is changed restoring the Right to Democracy and genuine Power of the People.