By Jehan Perera –
It is now over four months since the local government elections were postponed by the government on the grounds of financial debility. For the first time ever an election was postponed outside of the legal framework and on the justification that the government treasury had no money to hold those elections. The government’s efforts to strengthen itself politically at the grassroots but without going for elections appear to have come undone. The Attorney General has opined that the government’s preferred option of reviving the dissolved local government authorities by enacting a law in parliament rather than by holding the local government elections is unconstitutional. Any other decision would have given rise to the question as to why the same principle was not used in the case of provincial council elections which have not been held for more than five years.
The Attorney General has said that the government would have to seek a 2/3 majority in parliament and also approval of the people at a referendum if it is to give new life to what is no longer in existence. The government is unlikely to want to consult the people through either the electoral process or a referendum any time soon. The most favorable of public opinion polls which show a rise in the government’s popularity, and in particular that of the president, also show that its overall popularity continues to be low. The fact that the government is likely to lose the local government elections if it should have them is, however, no justification for its refusal to conduct them according to the law. The government’s refusal to conduct the local government elections is another troubling indicator of the culture of impunity that brought Sri Lanka to the sorry situation it currently is bogged down in.
The main democratic method of ensuring accountability is elections that offer the people to get rid of leaders and representatives who have failed to perform or have betrayed their promises. The turnover at elections infuses fresh faces into the system. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has on numerous occasions invited the opposition to join the government. A few have heeded the president and left their political parties to join the government. They have been rewarded with ministerial positions. However, the government cannot expect the opposition as a whole to acquiesce in the clear violation of the electoral process and the constitution and become a partner to this subversion of the rule of law.
Under normal circumstances, if a government is violating the constitution, the opposition would take the matter up in the courts of law and obtain redress. On this occasion, however, the verdict of the courts that financial debility is no excuse for not holding elections has been ignored by the government. The judges in fact have been threatened with being brought before a parliamentary committee to inquire into the violation of parliamentary privilege. While this has not happened, neither has the government followed the judicial ruling. Those in the government need to set an example by showing respect for the judiciary which is the last institution of appeal and redress in a democracy, short of elections themselves.
The next step for the opposition to take might have been to mobilise the people to the streets. Neither the opposition nor the general public have shown an appetite to take the political battle to the street. They do not wish to create instability that would discourage the necessary investments to take place in the economy. They are also not willing to take on the government which has shown proficiency to use the laws to stymie public protest. The lack of accountability displayed by the government in its refusal to obey the laws of the land and conduct the local government elections when they should be held, would cross over into other areas of governance as well. There are countless other areas in which there is impunity. Ministers of the government are suggesting projects are very costly, and which seem to have no bearing on the people’s immediate welfare. The lack of accountability shown in the targeting of pension funds to solve the government’s debt restructuring is a tragedy, the consequences of which are yet hidden, for which there needs to be accountability.
The issue of sub-standard medical supplies has come to the fore due to the tragic fates suffered by many people who have gone to the government hospitals. The lack of accountability and corruption in medical supplies, which is having life and death consequences to users of the government health system has been brought to the attention of the people by the media. Due to public opprobrium there is a possibility that there will be constructive changes in that particular area. Similarly, it is important to note the numbers of children who have dropped out of schools, the numbers of people who have lost their jobs, and the numbers who have fallen out of the Samurdhi/Aswesuma social welfare net, so that remedial action may be taken, if not now at least in the future.
During this period without elections parliament is being likened to a factory churning out new laws. There are new laws for taxes, tourism, anti-terrorism, labour, anti-corruption, broadcasting, NGOs, and truth commissions. Some of these have been enacted as laws by parliament, such as the tax laws, some are pending such as the anti-corruption and labour laws, and others have been put on hold such as the anti-terrorism and media broadcasting laws. There are also the pending truth and reconciliation commission and NGO laws that have been much discussed at the conceptual level but not yet finalized for presentation to parliament. Some of these laws have positive features in them but the problem is that they are being produced by a government that is not accountable to the people. The contradiction in governance today is that a government that does not abide by court orders is prescribing laws for the rest of society.
The present government has a problem with its democratic legitimacy. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who is acknowledged by many as doing a better job than any other conceivable leader at the moment was legally elected as president as per the constitution. The international community and the business elites and swathes of the middle classes appear to be placing their faith in him. But he was elected by a parliament that has lost its moral legitimacy. When former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the entire government he headed resigned in the face of the mass protests that took place a year ago, the expectation was that elections would take place soon after and a new leadership would emerge to take over the governance of the country. Instead there is a situation in which not even local government elections are being held in violation of the constitution, putting the government in the position of deeming itself beyond the law.
The new laws can be pushed through by the government using its majority in parliament. But the reform of laws and the creation of new laws will not lead to either problem solving or better governance. The laws can be reversed, even as the 17th Amendment gave way to the 18th, 19th, 20th and eventually to the watered down 21st. What is necessary is that those who committed crimes, be they on the battlefield of war or in the national economy are held to account so that they will no longer be able to repeat their crimes and stand as examples to others. This is the value of the transitional justice process, which emphasizes finding the truth, holding those guilty of crimes accountable, compensating the victims and changing the system to ensure non-recurrence. In the case of economic crimes, those who will need to be compensated will be the EPF/ETF holders and those whose savings and incomes were halved by those who drove the country to bankruptcy. But if those who are the perpetrators sit as decision makers as in the case of the recently appointed Parliamentary Select Committee to probe Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy and submit recommendations, then recovery will be a long time in coming.