Mar 23

 

 

Three principal issues arise when voters ponder upon what action they should take regarding the forthcoming Parliamentary Elections. The first issue is whether to vote or not.  The second is to decide on the party to support.  The third is to identify the three preferred candidates.

In early January, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) appealed to the public not to waste their valuable franchise even if they felt strongly that casting their votes would do nothing to reduce corruption or reverse the escalating contempt for the Rule of Law and good governance.  This call was made despite our being aware that so many of the better known candidates spend millions of ill-gotten rupees and employ mafia-style methods to outmanoeuvre and defeat their opponents and party rivals, reckoning that the resources so deployed could eventually be recovered ten-fold, or even a hundred-fold.  It is only by casting your vote in such a manner as to send a clearly understandable message to the parties and their candidates that the deterioration in the quality of our Parliamentary representation can begin to be reversed.  Our plea to the public, therefore, is:  “DO NOT FAIL TO VOTE AND, WHEN YOU DO, PLEASE GIVE A CLEAR SIGNAL THAT ROGUES AND INCOMPETENTS HAVE NO PLACE IN PARLIAMENT”. Moreover, voters should also persuade everyone they know to put their vote to good use so as to avoid what happened at the Presidential polls, where over 3.8 Million registered voters abstained or were unable to exercise their franchise.    

As to the second issue, viz. which party is to be endorsed, one would ordinarily need to compare what is promised by the different parties in their manifestos.  However, when we recall how even the most solemn election undertakings made in the past were unashamedly breached by the parties who came into power then, it is our view that it would be better to give priority to the quality of the candidates being put forward rather than to the glittering policies and promises being marketed.  After you evaluate the various parties’ candidates on the lines suggested below, you may find, to your surprise, that you need to change your mind about whether to vote for the party you had initially decided to back or some other party or group.    

Over the past couple of decades, increasing numbers of citizens have complained about the poor quality of the persons voted in as MPs.  This year, the letters and articles published in the Press on this subject have been more numerous and more critical than before any previous election.  Most of them have listed the qualities they think that a candidate should or should not have.  If one collated all the criteria proposed, the list would be rather long and many voters could get lost in applying it to the task of assessing the relative suitability of the candidates.  So, with simplicity in mind, CIMOGG has worked out an appropriate procedure to help voters choose better MPs.

A straightforward evaluation of the 300 or so candidates in each District, can be made by voters with the aid of the lists sent by the Commissioner of Elections together with the polling cards.  The voter should begin by identifying those candidates who should not be in Parliament.  He should first draw a line across the names of those candidates who, to his knowledge, have proved to be incompetent, have a reputation for deriving income from drug-dealing, taking bribes to give government jobs and contracts, using foul language and violence, indulging in unfounded character assassination, being involved in an occupation or position that would plainly be in conflict with being an MP, and so on.  A candidate facing criminal charges that the voter believes are genuine should have his name struck off.  In carrying out this exercise, it is not incumbent upon the voter to look for irrefutable proof but to make a reasonable judgment on the information available to him.

The voter should also rule out the names of MPs who, as far as he can judge, have been sycophantic time-servers, interested only in making money for themselves, their relatives and their friends.

All responsible citizens abhor the pasting of posters, for four reasons.  First, this practice is a violation of election laws.  Second, there is no good reason why candidates should not limit themselves to newspaper, radio and TV advertisements, which could be designed to give some relevant bio-data and policy insights for the information of the voter.  Third, poster advertising has a huge adverse environmental impact, including highly annoying visual pollution.  Fourth, a massive proliferation of posters means that a vast amount of money would have been mobilised to print and paste them.  Where would this money have come from?  As one writer has pointed out, the cost of posters, cutouts and media advertising alone, in the case of certain candidates, would amount to more than the total income they could expect to earn as MPs over a 5-year period. Hence, those who plaster their likenesses and preference numbers indiscriminately on every vertical surface need to be viewed warily and blacklisted.

Where MPs have crossed over from one party to another, they may profess to have done so because their consciences drove them to it but their claims would have been more believable if they had resigned their seats instead, so as not to let down the voters who elected them.  If you believe that they made their move for personal gain – such as to get the perks and privileges of being appointed a Minister or Deputy Minister and/or in order to avoid the consequences of their culpability in any corrupt deals exposed by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and/or to evade having to face criminal investigations and prosecution for some other misdemeanour, you should remove them from your list.   

By now, your list will still have a large number of names of candidates about whom you know nothing at all and smaller number about whom you may have some useful information.  Obviously, it would make no sense to vote for someone about whom you know nothing and, hence, one needs to cancel the names of all those who fall into that category. At the end of the exercise carried out so far, the voter will have managed to get shortlists of potentially acceptable candidates in a few of the party lists and, perhaps, one or two of the independent non-party lists.  Now, comes the constructive part of choosing the best from these remaining names and identifying the party to which they belong.  This process requires consideration of some related issues.

What is the value to be given to the declaration of assets and liabilities?  Regarding the question of the declarations made to the Commissioner of Elections, we have to acknowledge that it is an ineffective measure at present because such submissions are not published openly and, more fundamentally, there is no statutory arrangement to have them checked for accuracy or to have the annual changes to the assets and liabilities reconciled with the (subsequently elected) candidates’ declared sources of tax-free, taxable and foreign income.  If, however, a candidate makes his declaration voluntarily and allows it to be published on the Election Commissioner’s website, and undertakes, if elected, to update the information every year, he may be given a positive mark.  Merely submitting a secret document of uncertain authenticity, which remains closed to public scrutiny, is a valueless exercise and need not be viewed in a particularly praiseworthy light.     

Most ex-MPs who claim that they have not drawn their salaries or allowances over certain periods are probably indulging in this gimmick to divert attention away from their real moneymaking activities.  It is only if the voter is satisfied, from whatever information that he has, that the claimed renunciation of salaries and allowances was not otherwise compensated by unlawful earnings, that he should consider giving the candidate any credit for his “sacrifice”.

If one were to ask any member of the public whether he believes that the typical MP has ever read the Constitution of Sri Lanka or whether the average MP has a sufficient knowledge of at least a few subjects such as finance, trade, public administration, environmental issues, information technology and so on, the chances are that the answer would be in the negative.  Hence, in evaluating candidates who aspire to be re-elected or freshly elected as MPs, preference should be given to candidates with a degree or equivalent qualification in, say, accountancy, engineering, law or management, with at least a few years of business or professional experience.  

Having gone through the procedure outlined above, you will find that the party or independent group lists will have differing numbers of names left.  Logic demands that the party or group that has the largest number of good or tolerable candidates should be one the voter should back. This would be more rewarding than abstaining from voting or spoiling your vote or, worst of all, blindly voting for a party because of historic family loyalties or personal friendships.  The selection of the final three preferred candidates from this party or group is a matter best left to the voter’s total discretion.

Mar 05

 

 

In recent days, some contributors to the Press have examined the goal set by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to get at least 151 of its candidates elected/appointed to Parliament at the impending polls. These commentators have made various insightful observations. The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) discusses the issue further here so that voters may have yet more background information on this vital matter so as to decide how they should vote.

The UPFA obviously wants to secure this level of Parliamentary strength to enable it to rewrite the Constitution disregarding any views other than its own. Disquietingly, voters have been given only a vague notion of what it plans to do. For a start, it has indicated that future Presidents would be figureheads without any executive powers. The proposed Prime Minister would be possessed of all executive powers, presumably without the kind of immunity given to the current Executive President. There is talk about combining the old “first past the post” system with provision for adjusting the numbers of MPs in line with an element of proportional representation, similar to the method employed in Germany. These ideas have not been presented in any detail to the public. The crucial need to strengthen the separation of powers between the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary is being wilfully ignored. There is also every prospect that other presently unspecified, unwelcome features would be hustled in at the last moment without the public being given sufficient time and opportunity to express their views. We would probably find ourselves again in a drama similar to the farcical one that was enacted regarding the canvassing of the People’s views by the All Party Representatives Conference (APRC), where over 700 submissions made by members of the public were ignored altogether.

If voters are expected to trust, without reserve, any group of 151-plus MPs, whether they be from the UPFA or from some other coalition, CIMOGG can only tell voters: “Beware! Do not give anyone so much power. Recall to mind the egregious experiences of the past and act wisely!” We need not remind the public that there are enough examples of how large majorities in Parliament (even less than two-thirds) have too often worked against the interests of the Country. Additionally, we have enough proof that large majorities are not essential to pass good laws which are worded in a reasonably non-partisan manner, as was the case with the 17th Amendment in 2001, which was approved without even one negative vote. Government MPs, and even Mahinda Rajapakse, who voted for this Amendment, now pretend that they never really supported it, even though they passed it without protest.

Going back a little further, the 1947 Constitution did not require a two-thirds majority to pass far-reaching laws. In fact, in 1950 or thereabouts, under this Constitution, D.S.Senanayake disenfranchised the Upcountry Tamils because he feared that they would favour the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and other leftists. Even though most Upcountry Tamils had been born in Sri Lanka and had been British citizens (like the rest of those who were alive before 1948), hundreds of thousands of them were forced “to go back” to India, a country that they had never seen. Governments that came into power later were eventually compelled to restore citizenship rights to those whom it had not been possible to chase away to India.

In 1956, S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike made Sinhala the only the official language of Sri Lanka, which decision ended up by alienating everyone except the Sinhalese from the body politic. Over a period of time, our representatives came to recognize the shortsightedness of this policy because it had caused, and was causing, as much damage to the Sinhalese, whom it was intended to favor, as to the Burghers, Malays, Moors and Tamils, who had been meant to be disadvantaged by it.

For her part, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in her 1972 Constitution, removed the protection given to the minorities in the 1947 Constitution and also ruined the public service by totally politicizing it. To allow her to formulate a new Constitution, she employed the stratagem of creating a Constituent Assembly outside Parliament. In a contemptible move, her government made Parliament supreme and the People subordinate to Parliament. The principal co-author of the Constitution took great pride in stating that it did not give citizens even the right to own a toothbrush!

J.R.Jayewardene, with his five-sixths majority, nominally restored sovereignty to the People but, at the same time, built into the 1978 Constitution so many features which had the opposite effect. Consequently, the benefits gained from the more constructive side of his efforts were almost completely counterbalanced by the immeasurable long-term harm

done to good governance and the Rule of Law. His notorious 1982 referendum was even worse than the subterfuge employed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike to extended the term of her government by two years without facing the electorate. Jayewardene had his Constitution framed in a way that he believed would keep the UNP in power for ever and make all the other parties irrelevant.

It was not until the 17th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution was passed unanimously by Parliament in late 2001 (without relying on a two-thirds majority, but on a multi-party consensus) that the politicisation of the public service was partly countered. This unanimously passed Amendment has a few easily corrected flaws but has been progressively emasculated by the misuse of Presidential immunity and the Machiavellian techniques employed to increase the UPFA’s Parliamentary majority.

Although Chandrika Kumaratunge (in 1994) and Mahinda Rajapakse (in 2005) promised to abolish the Executive Presidency, neither of them had a two-thirds majority in Parliament to achieve this on their own. The former did try to do something about it but failed to get the cooperation of the Opposition because she wanted to include certain features in the Constitution that would have favoured strongly a prolongation of her hold on political power. As for Rajapakse, he has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, the almost unlimited powers which come with the Executive Presidency and shows no credible intention of wanting to change the status quo. It is CIMOGG’s view that, if these two leaders had been sincere in their promises, they could, after their election to the office of President, have voluntarily refused to exercise those particular powers that they had found to be so repugnant whilst making their promises on election platforms earlier.

Noting, as recalled very briefly above, how political majorities have been misused against the People’s interests, we believe that the public should reflect on the very adverse consequences that are bound to ensue by giving two-thirds of Parliamentary seats to any one political grouping, without the checks and balances that a moderately strong Opposition can provide. There is little doubt that the excessive powers that would be given to a two-thirds majority Parliament would only help to compound the evils that the People have had to face on account of past unconscionable governmental actions. We would be well advised to keep in mind that Jayawardene once declared that the Sri Lankan electoral map could be rolled up for good because of the brilliance of his 1978 Constitution. Additionally, CIMOGG fears that any unilaterally drafted new Constitution, as well as the oath taken to uphold and defend it, however attractively they might be dressed up, will be violated even more brazenly than the present ones by any party with a two-thirds majority, whether it be the UPFA or another grouping.

In this connection, CIMOGG deplores unreservedly a prominent UPFA candidate’s recent boast, seen on TV, that, anticipating the possibility that the UPFA would not get a two-thirds majority in Parliament, he had already lined up enough defectors from among the more promising candidates of non-UPFA parties. By claiming to be able to persuade future MPs of other parties to cross over, by some unexpressed but obviously improper incentive (heavy bribing?), he is openly threatening to undermine the very meaning of the preferential franchise possessed by voters. How much more do standards in public life have to drop before the People refuse to countenance this kind of chicanery?

CIMOGG is in no doubt that all proposed additions or changes to the Constitution should be so patently non-partisan that the Opposition for the time being would not hesitate to support such amendments, whichever party is in power. Hence, no party should ever be given a two-thirds majority. How this embargo is to be achieved is a question to which there is no manifestly simple solution but we believe that “floating” voters, if they really give their minds to it, will come up with the answer.