By Niranjan Rambukwella –
The composition of Parliament today is not what voters intended it to be in 2010. By allowing cross-overs, the voter’s primary choice – his or her choice of party – has been denied. This is because Sri Lanka has a proportional system of representation. This means that the number of seats a party obtains is roughly proportionate to the number of votes it obtains in elections. However, the executive and the courts have distorted this principle, and thus the public’s will. In general elections, voters first vote for a party, they then record preferences for candidates from that party. But candidates are allowed to cross-over, even though they have been selected first on the basis of their party.
The legislature cannot effectively check and scrutinize the executive. 47 percent of MPs are ministers (or monitoring MPs) and are thus part of the executive. They are bound by convention to vote with the government, and also by the convention of collective responsibility which means they cannot scrutinize the executive and hold it to account. In other words, Parliament has become a rubber stamp for Cabinet. This is why in the UK no more than one-sixth of MPs may be part of the executive.
The committee system is largely dysfunctional. The committees are where the real business of parliament is transacted: bills are debated, ministries are held to account and implementation is checked First, there are too many committees and too few backbenchers – if almost half the Parliament is comprised of ministers, then each backbencher is unable to perform his scrutinizing function effectively. Second, the chairmen of the two most important committees – the Public Accounts Committee and the COPE – are ministers. The UK convention is that the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is member of the opposition, and certainly not a member of the executive.
The President can also take over ministries, making them largely unaccountable to Parliament. So much so that now 40 percent of the budget is controlled by the President, who I need not remind you, is subject to legal immunity. He is also not a member of the house, and thus cannot be held to account through its processes – i.e. debate and the committee system. For example, ministers are asked questions and compelled to explain their decisions in consultative committees; the President who is minister for many critical ministries – defence, law and order, finance, ports, highways etc – never attends consultative committee meetings.
Finally, the President has tremendous power over Parliament as he can dissolve it as his pleasure: he or she “may, from time to time, by Proclamation summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament”. This over mighty power, along with the other tremendous powers the executive president wields, were supposed to be balanced by Parliament’s power to impeach the President: but try getting an impeachment past Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, the President’s brother.