By Rusiripala Tennakoon –
An issue concerning the eligibility of elected Parliamentarians to continue as Ministers and MPs has arisen due to a revelation that many politicians, including three ministers are dual citizens. This has made them ineligible to hold elected office according to the Australian constitution. Due to the high court giving a ruling disqualifying two ministers, they must go out of the Parliament. (Read here and here) The situation has turned even worse due to a potential risk of a legal challenge of the validity of the decisions they have taken in the meanwhile as Ministers. The resulting political turmoil can put the Turnbull coalition Government’s survival at stake as he has only a slender majority of one seat. Recently conducted opinion polls indicate that the support for Turnbull has hit its lowest level attributed mainly to an alleged cover up attempt of the issue.
Be it as it may, for it is a problem of the Aussies and they will handle it. But if we turn inwards into our own affairs we can witness a similar situation cropping up. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has given a verdict unseating the elected MP, Geetha Kumarasinghe, because she holds a dual citizenship! There is wide spread conjecture about several other MPs and even Ministers suspected as Dual Citizens with divided allegiance between two countries. Following the Geetha Kumarasinghe episode the most appropriate step for the Parliament to take is to call for a declaration by all MPs about the true status of their citizenship in the Public Interest. Besides the politics involved in the matter, and the Public concern, there is a requirement for such a step to be followed with sufficient transparency, as an ethical obligation.
However, many doubts and questions arise. Will our Parliament volunteer towards such a course, and will the Civil society activate a program to pressurise the legislature to do so? The initiation by the parliamentarians will depend on how many are handicapped and how influential they are to silence the others. Actions by the civil society shall depend on who is going to spearhead such a move since many identified role players labelled as the pioneers of Yahapalana era are now reduced to mere pole-bearer status! Civil activists more inclined to legal procedures in challenging issues, can consider whether they could explore a legal solution! But the Parliament, the Cabinet, cannot ethically refuse to ensure that none of MPs are dual citizens by way of a public audit.
Our experiences in this regard are rather disreputable. When we recall the events preceding and following the CBSL treasury bond fiasco, the appointment of a non- citizen as the Governor of the Central bank showed how bad the decision making has been. When an outcry cropped up regarding this appointment both in and out of parliament, Prime Minister as the Minister in charge of the Central bank refused to make him stand down and was seen engaged in soft peddling without much regard or attention to the several allegations and questionable acts of the Governor appointed on his recommendation. In such a situation can we believe that the legal dictum of Geetha Kumarasinghe case have any effect in influencing the free thinking of our parliamentarians despite they being the law makers?
Another recent revelation warrants special focus and consideration in the same context. The recently dismissed chairman of Litro Gas, arrested by the police, and remanded by the courts on an alleged international financial crime was also found to be the president of a political party registered with the Commissioner of Elections. This Party has been operating and even partaking in elections with him as Party President. Two presidential candidates have contested under this party symbol. It has become known while other investigations that he is not a citizen of Sri Lanka. So far it has not been concluded whether it is correct to register a Political Party by the Commissioner of elections, when the principal office bearers are non-citizens. If it has happened due to a false declaration, those responsible should be legally punished. If it was a lapse in the procedure for eliciting the required information prior to entertaining an application for the registration of a political party, then such shortcomings should be addressed immediately, and corrective measures taken.
In the unlikely event, however undesirable it is to some, of several MPs becoming ineligible under circumstances like Geeta Kumarasinghe case, there would arise a situation that may lead to a precipitation of a power imbalance in the parliament resulting in a change of government! Whether such a possibility would serve as a deterrent to the decision makers in taking the correct steps is a matter that remains to be seen. When the country is fast approaching belated country wide elections any lightweight disregards of such vital issues would certainly expose the government to the risk of being regarded as driven by self- interest, and not in the broader interest of the role of a legislature in a true democracy.
In the ongoing debate about a new constitution for Sri Lanka, the tabled constitutional embryo, not amounting either to a draft or to a proposal proper, provides an ideal opportunity to address the issue. If there is a binding requirement for a “universal disclosure” backed by citizenship documents, the people will have the benefit of securing a firm national commitment and a meaningful oath of allegiance from Public servants as well as elected representatives. Then it becomes a legally compellable matter with no room for any ambiguity. This step will also contribute to prevent a citizenship saga to batter a government, in the most unlikely circumstances of such a situation cropping up.
Legal luminaries and constitutional wizards needs, perhaps to consider whether the following areas should be covered under a future constitutional change.
- To ensure the citizenship eligibility as compulsory
- To ascertain the continued residency in Sri Lanka over a specified period
- The existing limitations of the number of terms applicable to the President for holding office should apply to the legislators as well
- No public servant/elected representative should hold office or any appointment or contract with any foreign government in any capacity
These will be in addition to other eligibility qualifications now in force and /or to be introduced.
This will fulfil the right of the Public to demand a high degree of transparency in this matter and a forthright conduct by the elected representatives. Any attempt, by any one in authority, to protect or cover up, would be declared as an illegal act and held responsible for the illegitimacy attributable to the government because of such an act.