By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
News 1st, on November 05, in their program Face the Nation, aired a live debate titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister & Constitution’ lasting nearly two hours. The four panelists expressed some divergent views.
The panelists were Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of Center for Policy Alternatives, Ms. Tamara Kunanayakam, former Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations European Office, Mr. Jehan Perera, Executive Director of National Peace Council and Mr. Maithri Gunaratne, General Secretary of the United National Freedom Front and Attorney-at-Law.
The moderator Shamer Rasooldeen opened the debate stating, “Good Governance never depends on laws but qualities of those who govern.” He added, “the most important element of governance is the method of choosing your leaders.”
Saravanamuttu, in his opening remarks, stated, “what we see is a systemic crisis in that, the inability to get a framework of governance that is robust and resilient enough to see us through to chart our course.” He cautioned of the dangers of not resolving the issue in a civilized fashion leading to its spillage into the streets resulting in a dysfunctional system. He spoke of the need to recoup losses and come up with a system by which, the value of constitutionalism and parliamentary democracy is realized through debate and discussion not only by letter but also in practice. He opined, “selecting the Prime Minister was not the matter for a single person but Parliament, and it has to be the person who commands a majority in the House. He insisted, “if you go and sack the Prime Minister and appoint someone else in his place, surely the first order of things is a vote of confidence in that person by parliament.” Saravanamuttu concluded, “the delay permits the new PM to garner more favorable votes while weakening the former Prime Minister.”
Expressing views on the continued recognition of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) by the international community, Kunanayakam highlighted the absence of two vital factors in the entire debate, i.e. the People and the Nation, besides the external interventions in an internal political matter. She opined, despite much talk of an ‘anti-democratic coup, unconstitutional act,’ etc. RW had determined the discourse. By locking himself up inside Temple Trees, meeting foreign envoys and not going to the people, he had succeeded in taking the matter out of the hands of the people and placing it in the hands of the international community. She highlighted two options available to RW namely the legal option contained in Article 125 in the Constitution of the Republic and the Political option of taking the issue to the people by calling for a general election and asking the people what they wanted. Both options have been ignored, and the focus was on the date of reconvening parliament which was not raised in 2015 when RW was appointed Prime Minister with only 46 UNP Parliamentarians. She further stated LG elections result was an expression by the people of their dissatisfaction on several major issues such as Central Bank bond scam which first took place two months after RW’s appointment involving enormous losses of the savings of ordinary poor people and the intrusive UNHRC Resolution on an internal matter. Kunanayakam expressed the need to look at the current crisis not in isolation but as a systemic crisis.
Perera representing a civil rights movement opined, what had happened was unhealthy for the country as a significant change had taken place without the people’s knowledge. The violation of the democratic process when it unfolded caught all by surprise, and it happened outside the public domain. He considered the replacement of RW with MR rather than the prorogation of parliament as the greater of the two evils. He opined the issue was being discussed in offices, homes, and trains but not in the right political assembly, the Parliament as it should, and answers found. He also disagreed with President Sirisena’s claim of being pushed against the wall and reminded of options available to the Head of State to overcome such challenges. Perera emphatically stated RW as of now commanded a majority in the parliament, and he recognized him as the Prime Minister.
Expressing his satisfaction over the removal of former Prime Minister, Gunaratne stated, while the process of removal had some ethical issues, constitutional provision was available for the replacement. He opined, 19A did contain provisions for a national government, in the event of a single party being unable to command a majority of the votes. In the case of a single party having 113 members, a PM and cabinet of 30 ministers are appointed, and such a PM cannot be removed. However, a national government had been formed whereby parliament decided on the number of ministers. After three and half years in office, UPFA, one of the constituent parties of the national government (other being UNFF) decided to withdraw resulting in the dissolution of the cabinet of ministers but not the government. He further stated, he hoped MR had learned a lesson from his defeat in January 2015 and would not repeat old mistakes. Gunaratne concluded saying, due to difficulties of working with RW, President Sirisena had little choice but to offer the premiership to MR after both Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa had declined earlier offers.
To say the least, 19A was a poorly thought out piece of legislation designed hastily to satisfy ill-defined objectives. Whereas it may have worked in a situation where the President and Prime Minister are from the same political party and work as a team, it had no solutions to situations when they fell out and were unable to work together. It leads to situations as we are faced today.
In our fickle society, many who remained silent on January 9, 2015, are today screaming at the top of their voices calling for an immediate vote of confidence to prove the new Prime Minister’s majority support in Parliament despite there being little difference in what happened on the two occasions.
Saravanamuttu’s identification of the impasse as a systemic crisis, also endorsed by Kunanayakam perhaps best explains the current situation and the vagaries of Sri Lankan politics.
A few examples would suffice to highlight systemic failures that continue to be ignored by our self-serving politicians who are aided by thousands of servile and self-serving supporters.
As per Article 3 of the Constitution, sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable. The manner to exercise and enjoy these powers (of government, fundamental rights and franchise) is defined in Article 4, 4a (Parliament) and 4b (Executive). Accordingly, Legislators and the Executive (President) are but temporary custodians of people’s sovereignty.
Since independence, elected temporary custodians have abused people’s sovereignty except during run-up to elections. Unlike in western democracies, our politicians, both in government and opposition mostly ignore public opinion.
Politicians from both sides of the political divide giving no heed to public opinion or mood and carrying on regardless is indeed a systemic problem. Some issues eventually manifest into problems of Himalayan proportion as currently seen.
Both the current constitution and the much-hyped draft constitution proposals, a project headed by RW have some glaring omissions. If addressed, it could result in resolving some of the country’s systemic problems of governance.
Introduction of constitutionally mandated election dates for all elections would eliminate electoral gerrymandering in practices for decades.
Political crossovers lead to much instability and leave room for corrupt practices, but no interest is shown to prohibit the practice and to make any MP wishing to crossover having to return to his/her voters for a fresh mandate.
Governments cannot go to the people for every significant decision. Therefore, the most suitable system is to allow people to exercise their franchise and express their will more often than once in five or six years to elect the temporary custodians of their sovereignty by holding elections for 50% of MPs during mid-term similar to the American electoral system for Congress (both Houses). It will also act as a mid-term test for the government in place. Besides, it will encourage the government in place to produce results within a shorter period. The citizenry will be the beneficiaries.
Sri Lanka’s politicians are too corrupt and not sufficiently mature for people’s sovereignty to be entrusted for five years and left alone. Even those not corrupt get corrupted in next to no time. Therefore, people require an opportunity to recall their vote given to respective MPs by way of a petition signed by a set percentage of registered voters in the constituency, a practice found in some countries. Besides, term limits not only for Presidents but Parliamentarians and Provincial Councilors as well would prevent politics from becoming a lifetime occupation.
The need is felt for constitutional provision for a citizen-driven referendum initiative on any issue by submission of a petition signed by at least 33% of registered national voters and a Yes vote of 50% + 1 for implementation. In a country as ours with legislators available for sale, it is a necessary mechanism to address issues arising from a parliament disconnected with its masters, the People.
The primary purpose of a National List was to enable the entry into politics of professionals of the likes of Lakshman Kadirgamar. It now only serves as a backdoor entrance for candidates rejected by voters and is best abolished.
Constitutionalism can flourish only when the Constitution safeguards and protects the sovereignty of the people and not interests of temporary custodians.
Regardless of the outcome on November 14, weak governance is guaranteed due to the lack of a comfortable majority in parliament for either of two main political parties without being dependent on minority parties. An immediate general election for a decision from the people would be the way out of current impass.
Thereafter, will lessons learned from this imbroglio pave the way for badly needed systemic changes?