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.