By Ravindra Gunasekara –
A few days before I had been travelling to my home town and, the radio was playing, not because I deliberately switched on and channeled but it worked as usual and, this time it was the debate over proposed 20th amendment at the supreme house, the Parliament. I do not like to dishonor the good readers here by summarizing the arguments in favor and against to the 20A but I beg your little mercy on succinct few sentences. The repeatedly made argument in favor of the bill was ‘ane his excellency has been paralyzed by 19A and, how and what does he do with this little power to serve the nation. This is not what people mean at the election and it should be reflected immediately, yah, sir should be empowered.’ To prove this, the buds unanimously table two main occurrences that happened during the 19A: bond scam and the easter attack.
Politics is politics and, when it comes to this part of the world, it is no more Greek ‘polis’ in which political life was purely a social life than the typical social life. We aware that politics is power but in a state or an organized context, this power should be legitimated as authority. And, if it is a democracy, neither power nor authority but the ‘social contract’ in which everything happens according to the compromises between people and their representatives. These compromises have been written in the constitution, that is why it called the supreme declaration. The barren Constitution of 1978 showed some of fertile characteristics with the 13A and 17A and, after that 19A, although the reforms were brought in extremely unparalleled eras. The objectives of the introduction of 18A suddenly disappeared with the unexpected defeat in 2015 and the 19A and, now the revenge with the 20A has been successful, thankfully to the unparalleled victory in the general election and wishes brought during the hard times of Corona outbreak at which people were exempted from association and gathering – politics of fishing in the troubled water.
What the hell with 19A? was his excellency paralyzed? Answer is ‘yes’ but, to be sure, not his true drive to serve the nation but pseudo hunger for nation building. This hypothesis cannot be proven without a sufficient review to the literature of pundits who have done enough on the politics of Sri Lanka. Traditional power pattern exercised in the feudal Ceylon was a full-scale or an excessive consumption in which the relationship between ruler and ruled held under the theme ‘devotion’ and, as a result, the king deserved everything and the rest entertained the fate because it was an honor to become devotees. Western colonization did not change this bond or the changing pattern was insufficient and unsuccessful to alter them because as devotees they were obsessed with the heritage and, hence, confidently resist. However, during and after independence, some significant modification such as freedom, democracy, constitutional governance, judicial system, public administration etc., were introduced to the body politics but engaged hardly and sadly with the primary factors of feudal solidarity such as ethnicity, religion, cast and conviction. None of them were exempted as peculiar for the new order gained with independence and the ruling class comfortably developed and applied these odds and devotees vehemently embraced not knowing the burden of ignorance.
Sri Lanka, according to political scientist James Jupp, similarly to other emerging nations in South Asia, a feudal democracy in which traditional values have blended with modern democratic standards. Democracy operates in the feudal scope, i.e., the theme is highly decorated with the slogans of democracy but the content is utterly feudal. So, what we have been doing nearly for a century after independence – changing the topping of the cake. In some other critics, author B.S Wijeweera insists that excessive power from top to bottom over every aspect of politico-administrative takeovers or politicisation is a re-emergence of the authority of the ruling elite that had been in practice in traditional society and insists that power in the ancient Sri Lanka always functioned within the confines of the ruling elite. Moreover, he claims that politicisation is a response to none of other than the internal suspicion that comes from within the ruling party over primary concerns and the external pressure on some of serious issues such as foreign debts, geo-political realities, corruptions, human rights violations, anti-democratic trends, etc. In this sense, authoritative moves in the decision making through politicization is purely a socio-political phenomenon and it is often discussed in political psychology as a potential threat to individual freedom and a source of negative outcomes in socio-economic development. Because they look at the world with uncertainty, ambiguity and sharply categorical terms and, do not tolerate diversity and right to participation and representation in the decision making.
The provisions of 19A demonstrate a great capacity in addressing the existing issues such as the problem of access to information, excessive powers of president and politicisation. The appointments of president to the independent commissions through the Constitutional Councils have been commendably systematic due to the pressure of statutory requirements, and other internal and external sources. As a result, functions and prospects of the independent commissions and the key officials have been acclaimed by the local and international experts and organizations. For example, educational and professional qualifications and personnel profiles of the members appointed to independent commissions and top posts of the public services have been commendable in comparisons to the appointments before the introduction of 19A. In addition, the degree of politicisation of public affairs has been significantly reduced due to the awareness and pressure derived from civil movements and legal provisions concentrated to the Constitutional Council. In this context, the Constitutional Council has played a key role in execution of its powers and functions reserved from the 19A of the Constitution.
In the meantime, there are some critical junctures in the 19A which are ambiguous and remain uncertain in determining their original meaning such as the idea of national government, the relationship between the President and Prime Minister and the term limit of Parliament. It does not mean that the true objectives of 19A have utterly failed due to few technical errors that can be recorrected in a cautious revision. However, the pundits, including some of professors continually argue that the 19A is a curse and caused to the break-up of integrity of governance and, thereafter, Saharan came to known with easter attack. Even though the mission is properly propagated among few intellectuals and associates with run-way tongues, the conscious do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
It is no need to make a deep study to understand the impact of recent constitutional change, a simple comparison between the Constitutional Council of 19A and the Parliamentary Council of 20A is pretty enough to determine the future of democracy in Sri Lanka. Article 41 A (1) of the 19A provisions to establish a Constitutional Council to appoint the members of nine independent commissions and eight higher offices in order to ensure the safeguard of the principles of impartiality and inclusiveness. The Constitutional Council comprises the Prime Minister, Speaker, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, one person appointed by the President, five persons appointed by the President on the nomination of both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition (only two of whom should be the members of parliament); and one person nominated upon agreement by the majority of the Members of Parliament belonging to political parties or independent groups other than the respective political parties or independent groups to which the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition belongs and appointed by the President. Since the Council cannot conducts its affairs without majority and the quorum was declared to five of the ten member assembly, its impartiality and rationale were guaranteed in terms of recommending personals for nine independent commissions and key judicial and administrative positions in the Schedule I and II of the 19A.
In retaliation, the 20A provides a Parliamentary Council instead of the Constitutional Council and established five member committee which comprises the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, two nominees of the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition from the members of Parliament. In this context, the Government can effortlessly win the majority of the Council in recommending persons to seven Commissions and key judicial and administrative positions. Despite the recommendations of Constitutional Council, the Parliamentary Council provides observations to the President in which he is not obligated to follow the remarks made by the Council in appointing members to the Commissions and key positions. The Audit Service Commission and the National Procurement Commission have been tactically removed from the previous inclusion of the 19A.
Moreover, the immunity from the lawsuit of President which repealed under 19A, has been re-established and his corporation with the Prime Minister in determining executive and legislative take overs has been completely obliterated by providing an arbitrary authority for the President. At this point, it is needless to say the state of danger in freedom and democratic rights of the people but still they confident and the majority believe that the supreme leader is the source of change to make the country great. These are nursery rhymes for the known of history and politics of this land. And, it is no matter when healthy and wealthy men recommend the rules of game to remain well but when sick people decide symptoms and poor give a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’ a tragedy occur.
*Ravindra Gunasekara teaches Politics and Administration at the Department of Political Science of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka.