3 December, 2020

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The Unmet Task Of The Political Opposition

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

The government appears determined to go ahead with the impeachment of the Chief Justice.  So far the attempts to broker a mutually acceptable solution have not yielded success. Not even the messages sent by the highest religious dignitaries or their joint statements have had their desired impact.  There have also been civil society initiatives to find a way out of the growing confrontation.  They have sought to convey to the government leadership that it has lost the intelligentsia’s support on the matter of the impeachment and that any good society needs checks and balances as exemplified by an independent judiciary.   But it appears that the peacemaking efforts of civil society groups have also come to naught.

It also seems that the parliamentary members in Sri Lanka, including both government and opposition, are very concerned about the powers and privileges of Parliament and do not want those to be compromised. There is an emphasis on issues of sovereignty of the people and of Parliament.  It is argued that no judicial powers have been entrusted to the Parliamentary Select Committee that is investigating the charges against the Chief Justice, and so the Supreme Court cannot issues notices on them.   There is a focus on the powers of Parliament while there is an even bigger issue that needs to be addressed. This is the fact that the impeachment threatens the effective collapse of judicial independence.  What an impeachment of the Chief Justice will mean to the rest of the judiciary in relation to political interference has to be the greater priority.

The main challenge in society today is to safeguard and strengthen the system of checks and balances to control the abuse of power that comes from having absolute power.  The main political features in Sri Lanka are the ongoing concentration of power in the hands of the government leadership.  This gives an impression of stability, especially when opposition members are constantly joining the government and eating out of its hand. The opposition parties have so far not shown themselves able to mount a challenge to the government.  At this time the opposition parties and civil society are marginal actors.  The opposition is fragmented without much appeal to the people. There is also a culture of fear that keeps people from mobilizing against the government.  There is also co-optation that needs to be struggled against.

Larger Consequences 

As the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said, “I think we have to accept the sad fact that people are attracted by power. I have found that perfectly decent [people] are flattered when the ruling governments bathe them with some attention, makes a fuss over them, and this is true for Burmese people as well as for non-Burmese people who come to Burma. And this attraction that power and influence has over humanity in general works against those who are in the dissenting faction because we are who are dissidents, we don’t have the power, and people tend to think that those who are in power must be in power for good reasons when actually there can be very, very horrible reasons for people being in power. So I think what we have to do is to raise people’s awareness as to where it leads to in the long run – if you support those who should not be supported.”

Although the war ended more than three and a half years ago, Sri Lanka has not yet become a stable, democratic country.  The disappearances, abductions and killings that took place during the war time are very much less today.  But there continues to be a large military presence in the North and East, and the military intrudes into civilian life more than is necessary now that there is no more war or militant activity. The increase in the level and brutality of violence, despite the large security presence and sometimes due to it, is an indication that our society has still not healed from the war.  Robberies and thefts have always been a problem.  The real and imagined fear of the White Van is there to reduce the activism of those who are trying to even criticize and reform the government.

It is significant that the violence we see is happening despite a massive investment being made in security and security forces.  The Chief Justice of Pakistan recently made a speech that has relevance to us in Sri Lanka.  He said, “Gone are the days when stability and security of a country was defined in terms of numbers of missiles and tanks as a manifestation of hard power available at the disposal of the state.” Therefore, he said “A heavy responsibility lay upon Supreme Court judges for being the guardians and protectors of the constitution to uphold the canons of the constitution’s predominance and its supremacy over all other institutions and authorities.”  The role of the judiciary in maintaining the integrity of the system of democracy, and its necessary checks and balances, cannot be underestimated.

Unmet Task

So far the Supreme Court appears to be standing firm in upholding its constitutional position. However, the political position of the government in the unequal contest appears to be unassailably strong.  It has a 2/3 majority in Parliament and a popular President heading the executive branch of government.  The even greater strength of the government is its ability to get a substantial majority of people to agree on its course of action.  In terms of using the state and private media, the government voice is much more powerful than any other.  Government leaders, exemplified by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, also have an exceptional ability to put across the government’s point of view in a manner that is comprehensible to the masses of people.

In the absence of a strong opposition that is equally competent at taking its message to the people, it is unlikely that the explanatory powers of either the judiciary or lawyers can match that of the government when it comes to winning the support of the people.  The fact that the Bar Association of Sri Lanka has at last decided to file action before the courts objecting to the manner of the impeachment is an indication of how the larger part of the intelligentsia in the country thinks.  They are deeply concerned about the weakening of the democratic system and its checks and balances.  But they are unlikely to be the ones to win the debate for the hearts and minds of the people.  This is the unmet task of the political opposition.

Whether in Pakistan or Egypt, where powerful governments also took on the judiciary, it was not civic or legal action by themselves that halted those governments.  Those powerful governments were forced to step back by mass movements in which hundreds of thousands of people participated.  Those mass movements were led by opposition political parties, which had both leaders and party machineries that were equal to the task.  However, in Sri Lanka, the political opposition has not mobilized a mass movement of protest against the impeachment.  Instead it seems to be more interested in fine tuning the role of the legislature in relation to the judiciary.  This needs to change and there needs to be a larger vision.  The way is through increasing the level of political awareness of the people.

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Latest comments

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    What the leader of the opposition has said is that the judiciary can give their verdict on the impeachment motion and PSC without compromising the sovereignity of the legislature.

    Court is still to decide. Thereafter depending on the verdict the legality of the PSC may come into question and so will its reccomendations. At that point if action has been taken to remove the CJ it may be challenged in the Apellate Courts.

    So the Judciary maintaining their independence is essential to the outcome of this case. The issue could have been avoided if saner counsel prevailed and a judicial tribunal set up to consider the case instead of PSC. The Speaker has erred in this matter.

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    Good piece! Time for the Peace NGOs to as the Commonwealth Organization to shift the Heads meet to another country and boycott the Asia’s Gaddhafi., Lanka’s dictator!Marx wrote that history repeats itself, once as tragedy, then as farce. With the defeat of the LTTE and the brutal Rajapakse regime’s military occupation in the north and failure to share power with the minorities, 3 years after war ended, history is today repeating itself in Sri Lanka as Sinhala student leave Jaffa University following the military attack on Tamil Student at the Campus.
    History is repeating itself in a far quicker cycle than may have been expect given the military might of the Rajapassa regime. The north of Sri Lanka is gradually drifting towards and revert to South India, as national borders become irrelevant in an age of globalization – as was the case in the old days and Rajapassas grandiose claims to uniting Lanka will soon be rubbished.

  • 0
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    It looks like, in this case…..

    To the governing party – thalagoya has become kabaragoya

    while

    to the anti govt forces like the NGO peaceniks – kabaragoya has become thalagoya

  • 0
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    You are repeating the same story like Sri lankan media. It is the fault of the opposition not the government. Opposition can not do anything without the help of media and the people support including NGO,s like yours.

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    Why not the pro impeachment advocates read Mr Silva’s lecture and understand the law clearly as it is. May be devotion blinds their brains.God help them

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    The political system of the country keeps the Executive on top over the legislative(Parliament) and the judiciary. The unlimited power of the executive has been spread all over. The parliament majority power is in the hands of the executive.So this is not a struggle between Legislative and Judiciary but between the executive and the Judiciary.Unfortunately,the Executive (MR) has gained a mass support for his War victory over Tamils and he would sell it for another ten years.His fortune is that the opposition parties are fighting each other and the media is totally on the side of the regime for its survival.

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    “However, in Sri Lanka, the political opposition has not mobilized a mass movement of protest against the impeachment”

    Very well said..

    It is the opposition i.e the UNP and to a lesser extent the JVP – that have the grass root level organizations well in place to mobilize a MASS MOVEMENT.

    Let’s face it SF can’t mobilize a mass movement – but the UNP and JVP with their well spread branch organizations, can.

    However, the shameless Ranil Wickramasinghe who as the Leader of the Opposition should be leading the charge against the impeachment process is just piddling.

    So…….. NO MASS MOVEMENT.

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    What is there to talk, as this is the only corrupt, lawless Banana Republic that sent the War Hero to jail on false charges after winning the war and the corrupt leaders dine and dance with the terrorists who shared their wealth? God save former democratic Sri Lanka

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    You are spot on Jehan.The apathy of the massess is the biggest concern.Thirty years of war and suppression has made them akinetic to these issues and they are happy to look after their business and wait until something directly goes wrong against them.We need to wake them up and educate them about the looming dangers of anarchy fading values of free and fair society.Who is going to do that is the question.Ranil….Unlikely isn’t it.

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