1 October, 2020

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‘Me The People’

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

‘Hope in Darkness ‘- Leonard Cohen

When ‘we the people’ is replaced with ‘me the people’ there is no denying that democracy is in grave jeopardy. Autocratic governance is around the corner. 

For the leader to deliver, all obstacles must be removed. The rationale of all populist leaders is that they and they alone speak for the people. 

Sooner than later populism must have its tryst with authoritarianism. It is inevitable. Then, it is only a short walk from “we the people” to “me the people”.  

“Yes, we did a lot in the first 100 days. But as per my standards, I am not satisfied’.”

This was the portentous pontifical preamble with which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa started his recent interactive exchange with editors of media institutions, soon after dissolution of parliament.   

Deepest truths are read in between lines. The overarching perspective was on matching performance with promise.  The argumentative emphasis was on explaining why it was essential for him to obtain a 2/3rd majority at the next parliamentary election. 

The President’s wide-ranging discourse covered the essentials of efficient governance. His laser sharp focus was on the 19th amendment. His views on the 19th amendment and the independent commissions set up under its provisions were unhesitatingly censorious and at times hypercritical. The performance of one member of the Independent Elections Commission appeared to have distressed the serenity of the president. 

The wide ranging pre elections backgrounder had one purpose. It was to explain why he needed a two thirds majority in the next parliamentary elections. 

The President felt shackled by the 19th amendment. “People voted me with high expectations to deliver as the Executive President. If the President can’t deliver what the people want, what is the use of the Constitution,” Rajapaksa said. 

He is right about the 19th Amendment imposing some restraints on the untrammeled powers of the executive presidency created under the 1978 constitution that replaced a titular president with an executive president. 

But we must differ on the purpose of a constitution. Organized society perceives constitutions as instruments serving a higher moral purpose that encompasses social justice, equity and the rule of law. 

We cannot go back and change the beginning. Yet going back to the beginning may help us to comprehend our present predicament and perhaps change the ending. 

The office of the executive presidency of the 1978 constitution was tailor made for JR Jayewardene. The 1977 general election under the first past the post system gave the UNP a 5/6th majority.

 Our first executive president, JR Jayewardene converted his 140-seat majority obtained with 50.92 of the total polled at the 1977 parliamentary elections into what he called an executive presidency. He claimed that all what he couldn’t do was to make a woman a man or vice versa. He didn’t tell the whole story. He made parliament an   impotent talk shop.   

What JRJ did with his 5/6th majority was akin to what Napoleon did when he crowned himself and declared that the republic will now have authority from above and trust from below. 

“I saw the crown of France, laying on the ground, so, I picked it up with my sword” said Napoleon. The 5/6th parliamentary majority was the sword JR Jayawardena used. What he picked up was a crown. A trait that runs in the family. See how his nephew runs his party. 

In 1982, when parliamentary elections were due, he had no sword to retain his crown. Proportional representation regulated the pendulum of public opinion. The irrational swing between sense and nonsense was no longer possible. 

JRJ was forced into the aberration of a rigged referendum to retain his crown. 

The 17th amendment and the 19th amendment are quasi corrective measures to make a monarchial presidency at least into the semblance of an accountable presidency. 

The 1978 Constitution is a democratic aberration. It is a travesty of democracy. One need not go far to look for proof. 

There is living breathing proof. The 1978 Constitution abolished by elections.  DEW Gunasekara the occupational communist entered parliament to replace the quintessential communist Sarath Muththettuwegama. Can you contemplate a more abominable aberration than that? 

For better or worse, we are “stuck” with this constitution as amended by the 19th Amendment. And we must preserve our democratic freedoms. The constitution resonates in people’s mind not as an instrument to aggrandize a president but as means to preserve our liberties and to strive for a better way of life. 

The citizen is the most distinctive component of a democracy. Not the president. All regimes have constitutions and rulers. Only the system where citizens rule, is called democracy.  

In a modern political democracy, the rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives. 

That is why the next parliamentary election should not give a two thirds majority to the president or his party. 

A hybrid of a presidential and parliamentary system such as ours has two forms of accountability. Vertical accountability and horizontal accountability. 

The Executive President is elected by the people in the expectation that the elected president will be responsive and accountable to the people.

It is the distilled essence of vertical accountability. In the case of a plural society such as ours, vertical accountability presupposes inclusivity. 

Democracy demands accountability to the majority and protection to the defeated minority. That civic norm has vanished after the adoption of the 1978 constitution.  

The idea of impeachment embedded in the constitution is a clear reminder of the concept of vertical accountability. The institutional polarization that occurred under the 19th amendment is a matter to be celebrated as triumph of democracy. It is not a signal inviting the withdrawal in to either an efficient autocracy or crony kleptocracy. 

There is a human face to political polarization. The popularly elected leader can turn out to be a menace to democracy. Not because he is intrinsically wicked. But because he is human.

The 19th amendment has its inadequacies. But it restored civic engagement of the citizen in a quasi-monarchic bazar run on patronage. 

The 19th Amendment has done enormous good. It has exposed the role of money in our politics. It has allowed us to discover who the political class listen to. It has exposed the economic interests of organized groups who shape state policy.

We must not be dazzled by the promise of governance by technocrats. Technocrats look for what works and not for what is good or just. What works and what is effective must not take precedence over what is legitimate and what is equal.

 Democracy is ‘rule by the people’. The people must always have the freedom to reject what they disagree with. Rule by the people is not some impossible to define ‘will of the people’ defined, shaped and altered by ‘me’. 

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Latest comments

  • 9
    1

    Can some one remind the President and govt that they had all the powers for almost a decade and we are well aware of the outcome.The judiciary (Sarath,Mohan and Eva), treasury/CB (Cabraaaal), Police, armed forces, tens of family members in power/parliament , hundreds controlling the govt institutions and agencies, media,Loo and Odor , all of which were at their disposal. So whats new ?????? Silly Lankans .

    • 8
      1

      We are supposed to forget the past where we had nepotism, corruption, threats, attacks, and murders of journalists, the theft of Museum funds,, and endless crimes, including interfering in our Supreme court judges, and only focus on the crimes of the previous government.
      We are also expected to accept a man who may or not be an American citizen, and carry on with our lives making sure we flash our Sri Lankan smiles at the right time.

  • 6
    1

    Should some one ask the President or Govt about “how they plan to finance day to day expense leave alone development. The election will cost 7.5 Billion followed by more elections (told by MR) to keep Silly Lankans entertained. Yesterday alone following stock market Mayhem Saudi Aramco the largest oil company reportedly lost more than $300 Billion of capital. Ambani one of the richest and now a partner of Aramco (which recently went public) lost 56,000 crore in in one single day. I guess each of them have wealth more than our Sorry Lanka,s budget. Hence the question is do anyone know what will be the estimated losses for Silly Lanka. By the way we may get some grace period to service debt but Corona will not of any help in defaulting. Also foreigners are pulling out wealth out of Asian Markets. Last week alone $9 Billion was withdrawn.

  • 10
    0

    I shudder at the thought of a man who does not care ‘two hoots’ for accountability getting the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament, so that he can have the total power and freedom to do whatever he wants to do! He really believes he knows perfectly what is good for you and me.

    • 5
      1

      The fools will vote for him once again. We never learn our lessons.

  • 2
    0

    People must at least stop focusing on 225 and GR for they cannot deliver. Nagananda has drafted a new constitution which appears much better to be introduced at least to bring about the envisaged change in order to empower people to boost the economy and fair play, it is imperative that people mobilize their right to vote and make a decisive choice at the coming GE rather than electing the same scoundrels again.

  • 2
    4

    It seems that the teachers at Trinity Vidyalaya, Kandy have taught all the ashholes who studied their a wrong lesson on democracy!
    /
    All those holes who studied there 40 or 50 yeas ago seem to fail to understand that ‘populism’ is a word used to denigrate democracy by those who fail to win popular support for love or money.
    /
    If populism is bad, how can democracy be good, Alwis? Give us an answer.

  • 1
    1

    Some where else, I read that these Sinhala buddhists, dictator is coming and autocractic governing etc., terminology or vocabulary had been used else where in other countries too and it is completely and totally political, Let me say NGOs but the by the Pivot to Asia Program managers.
    If you talk a dictator and the autocratic ruling, Ranil – ultra neoliberal Ranil is the typical example. Leeches can be removed but not Ranil.
    Why did Ranil go to Dubai in a hurry ?. Is it to bring back some BOnd Scam money for the election ? or to get some instructions from some one ?

  • 1
    0

    Sarath de Alwis; Your essay titled “Me The People”. How did this idea of “Me The People” came into being. In my opinion, that was “Planted” in the minds of the people, by the “LITERATES” followed by the “Media”. According to the “Constitution”, the people elect a “PRESIDENT’ to be the “Head” of the “STATE”, “EXECUTIVE” and of the “GOVERNMENT” and the “Commander-in-Chief” of the Armed Forces. Excepting this “Reference”, in all other provisions that define his position is referred to as “PRESIDENT”. Once you accused me of going into “nity-grity”, but, in my opinion, this reference to “President” as “EXECUTIVE PRESIDENT” is dangerous. I think, we must stop this idea of a “Executive President” getting spread to plant in the minds of the PEOPLE including the “President” elected to assume “He The President” and “Me the President”. This is the reason for the present President to say publicly: ” I cannot do what is in my agenda, without the 2/3 majority” Here ” I ” in his mind and ” HE ” in the minds of the people. So no wonder this usage of “I & Me The President” and “He Our President”. So why not CUT this term “President” to it’s CORRECT SIZE and start using the simple term as “President”. This is again my “nity-grity” to inconvenience you a bit Sorry for the disturbance..

  • 5
    1

    If the Rajapakses fail to garner that magical 2/3rds majority, ONE OPTION could be that the Army will move in[After all they have already moved in ! ] in a big way not on the pretext of security but on the pretext of controlling the spread of the corona virus.
    Our gullible will swallow it hook,line and sinker!

  • 1
    0

    In history there were a lot of “Me, the people”. Adolf Hitler was one of them. Incidentally he was called the Fuhrer, translation of the word being leader. Prabhakaran too was called Thalaiver, translation of the word again being leader. Yes! ME and MY THINKING. With that comes in “I cannot be wrong” graduating to “I am always right”. Alas! In the 2019 presidential elections, the two main candidates, in reality are two sides of the same coin, besieged with pet ideas. Both of them had a record of not tolerating any different point of view. I agree with the author that we must preserve democratic freedoms, the most important being the freedom of expression. It is myopic only to look one side of that coin with a hard look and the other with a Nelsonian eye. The reality is that 52% of the population chose one side of the coin. Having elected one of them, what is the sensible course of action? Must we continuously bash a powerful conceited individual to tempt him to curb the cherished freedom? One may say that the question posed amounts to a cowardly approach. The reality of the matter is the true form of the executive or semi-executive presidency of Sri Lanka is seen when the President’s political party secures a 2/3rd majority of seats in Parliament. Can that be stopped with the bickering that is going on within the main opposition party? In that light the question on temptation posed may not be cowardly at all. Individually in our writings, we should be fair and that fairness must give bleak of a hope to any megalomaniac that the criticism made is genuine. Collectively, with some external help, must form human rights watch groups which will be quite useful in times to come.

  • 0
    2

    7 Million inhabitants voted for Nanadsean , because they were sick of watching Yahapalana Rulers who introduced the 19 A, living in 5 Star Penthouses, Classic Cinnamon Garden Mansions and other posh Apartments, some of which are given by the Taxpayers on Lease , some which were purchased with Bond Scam Cash, and some the Thug Boys of Yahapalanaya forcibly took over from their ageing owners..

    And allowing the Overseas Muslim Radicals to open Madrasas and train Suicide Terrorists , while their handlers and mates were raking in big Bux by buying and selling Crown Lands,.while sitting in the Yahapalana Cabinet

    And doing deals to cancel Aircraft Orders and renegotiating Govt Debt .to collect Commissions .

    And the mother of all rorts . the CB Bond Scam through Insider Trading and outright cheating of the inhabitants EPF.

    These were all done by the do called Good governance . Clean as a Whistle UNP Rulers, with the kind assistance of those Independent Commissions which they themselves put in place under 19A.

    What more can you say about those Dr Rani’s 19A commissions and their Commisionners.

    If one wants more please ,ask our brother Cardinal in Colombo, who still can’t get an honest explanation of who did the Suicide Job in Kochchikade and Zion Church and Kutiyapitiya.
    And who helped them.

    BTW, the Yahapalana ex Ministers, in fact 30of them are still occupying the Government owned Houses , despite their free accommodation expiringa month ago including that 3 Months grace period , which our Taxpayers had been kind enough to give them as a Thank You.

    Now Prez Nandasena has to ask the Yahapalana Uncle who is the boss of all those Commissions to get them evicted or go to court to chase them out .

    Wonder how much that is going to cost our Yahapalana PAYE Taxpayers?..

    • 0
      0

      K.A. Sumanasekera: You say: “7 million inhabited vote Nandasena………….”. Very true. If those “ELITES” of Yahapalanaya, did their work, as “PROMISED” without making DEALS and UNDERSTANDINGS, this “Nandasena” you are referring to would have been accommodated to occupy a “WARD” and sleep on a MAT, in that building situated on Baseline Road. Not only, this Nandasena, but a very many who are “FANNING” him would have been, sent to keep company with him. Unfortunately for the country and the people, that “ELITE” you referred to made “UNDER THE TABLE DEALS” and “DECEIVED” the voters and no doubt they got highly frustrated, and in expressing that frustration, they cut their own nose to avoid the ugliness of the face. Do you agree?

      • 0
        0

        Douglas.

        Yahapalana Rulers got into power by peddling Bull Shit., with the Dollar Sign dangling in front of their Eye Balls.
        -.
        Man… 5.6 million not only didn’t buy their Bull.

        They were also determined not to allow their War Heroes to be dragged away by Dr Rani . Ponseka and Mangala Samare to please Ms Sooka, Solheim, Diaspora ,Friday Forum . Pakiosothy , Abraham , Sampathar and Vigneswaran.-
        Getting their hands on that USD 4 Billion which LTTE Suren in London had promised them.
        And to prevent Foreign Judges to interfere in Lankawe Constitution and help the Elitists to form their own version..

        What else did they promise , mate?.
        Unless you are talking about those Volks Wagon Assembly Jobs, Kicking the Chinese Out, Mitchellin Tyre Factories and Nano Cars for the not so Elite in Colombo…

        Muslims joined the Yahapalanaya hoping to double the gains again ,which they did in post Nanthikal , by hanging out with the then Government.

        And the Yahapalana Cabinet gave them such freedom and human rights to blow up the whole Catholic church while both the Yahapalana President and the PM were sitting in the National Security Council ,which has the record of eliminating the most ruthless, and deadly Terrorist Group which the West had branded as impossible to eliminate.

        The result is extra 1.4 Million finally realized what the Yahapalanaya did to them making it 7 Million.

        With the Yahapalana Cabinets Good Deeds all in the Public now , wonder how many more converted themselves even without listening to the Bull which is about to come out again..

  • 0
    1

    Sarath de Alwis has braved the ‘weather’ and the wrath of his children to come out with this magnificent piece of writing which I would describe as a Goldilocks piece: Not too hot as to aggravate the foul temper of one who is unpredictable, indeed manic; and not too cold as to allow the stark nudity of the arguments of that personage who wants “more” to remain hidden.

    The sorry truth is, Sarath, you are putting pearls before swine, and if history is to be our guide, our Sorry Lankans will be fed adequate buth packets, booze, cigarettes and other “santhosams” to return a 2/3 to this family of crafty buffoons.

  • 0
    0

    As usual this is another thoughtful and relevant articles warning people about the perils of authoritarianism. Which will probably go unheeded. Perhaps it should be be written in simpler English. The rulers will relentlessly propagate the message that they do not want any impediment to implement their program to bring prosperity to people. This message will message will be interspersed with the other potent populist message the Sinhala Buddhists need protection from weak and vulnerable minority groups. The combined message seem to be working. Far serious negative outcome of removing checks and balances and handing over authoritarianism to the rulers is carefully hidden. The mainstream political parties don’t seem to have understood the consequences of removing the checks and balances provided by the 19th amendment. Though 19th amendment is not perfect it is the only instrument that provides limited form of checks and balances. Removing that will be big mistake. Actually 19th amendment must be strengthened with further amendments to improve democracy. But that won’t happen. Rajapaksa clan is very popular and will get what they want from the voters and get unlimited power. How the majority community will benefit from the loss of democratic rights is beyond my comprehension.

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