May 06

 

Self-evidently, all the citizens of a country cannot run its government jointly. For practical reasons, the People retain only their fundamental rights and the right to vote but delegate their legislative powers to Parliament and their executive powers to the President. The judicial power of the People, on the other hand, is exercised by Parliament through what are intended to be independent courts, tribunals and similar institutions. The basic idea is that those who are entitled to vote are expected to elect honest, capable, public-spirited persons to act on behalf of the People, and that the persons so elected shall be paid appropriately and provided with other essential facilities to carry out their duties.

The factual position, however, is that it is not the People who effectively elect their Members of Parliament or other representatives. What really transpires is that ambitious individuals join one political party or another and the more persuasive ones among them convince enough of their fellow party members to promote their candidacy at elections. Closeness to the party leader, a silver tongue, personal charisma, family connections, race, religion, caste, ready access to large funds from secret sources, a team of committed supporters who think nothing of using violence, loyalty to the party, a touch of unscrupulousness, and a nonchalant contempt for the Rule of Law usually carry considerable weight in the selection process. For most of the candidates, love of the Country is limited largely to delivering platitudinous expressions of patriotism with a vehemence which is meant to hide the emptiness of their words. The public is also well aware that the frequent participation of politicians in religious activities and their much publicised visits to religious dignitaries are mostly eyewash. Citizens are left with the sole option of voting for candidates from the few who have already been shortlisted by one political party or another. It may be noted that so-called independent candidates have virtually no chance at all of success, other than in such bizarre circumstances as the last Colombo Municipal Council elections.

The public has become increasingly inured to the fact that most politicians are greedy for money, power and luxurious living at State expense. Politicians also love being the centre of attention at grand ceremonies, where they revel in being praised and even worshipped for giving away the People’s money, to both the deserving and the undeserving, while trying to give the impression that this largesse comes from their own pockets. They get their names prominently engraved on commemorative tablets for foundation laying and completion ceremonies of every conceivable type of project, taking the entire credit for the job. There is nothing on the tablets to acknowledge that even the poorest of the poor have contributed to these works with their sweat by paying customs duties, indirect taxes and other levies.

Successful politicians consolidate their positions by giving State employment and consultancies to their henchmen, wives, siblings, progeny, relatives, friends and supporters, giving little or no consideration to the merits of others who may well be more qualified, honest and hardworking. Getting traffic to give way to their vehicles and those of their entourages by intimidating, arm-waving security personnel gives an even greater kick to those who manage to become Ministers or Deputy Ministers.

In addition to these highly gratifying rewards, the majority of the People’s representatives manage to acquire a large cache of undeclared wealth by using their powerful positions to help themselves (and those who funded them) at the expense of the State. Inexplicably, Sri Lankan voters do not seem to be bothered by this kind of self-serving behaviour. They appear to be comfortable with the rationale that a man who has spent millions on getting himself elected can hardly be expected to forget about the risks and resources he would have had to deploy for this purpose. Surely he is entitled to make certain that he will be financially stable for the rest of his life, especially in the event of his not succeeding in getting re-elected the next time?!

What the People regard as their priorities are the responsible, accountable and honest administration of State assets, their personal security, access to impartial police and the Courts, selection for employment on merit, good education for their children, acceptable medical facilities for the family, affordable housing, and food, clothing, transport and household needs at reasonable cost, and so on. In contrast, adopting a different set of priorities, what our representatives hasten to do after being elected is to get under way some big contracts or procurement deals connected to areas of interest to the public so as to secure, by way of bribes and commissions, a handsome return on the investments made by them to get elected. Here lies the root of the conflict of interests between the People and their representatives. Although the public is happy to see something getting done, they have no idea of how much of its money has been skimmed off. The extraction of the “cream” is, of course, more easily hidden in the larger projects, particularly those involving foreign institutions, firms and even governments.

In these circumstances, politicians of whatever political allegiance will obviously do everything in their power to prevent any amendments being made to the Constitution which would tend to reduce the opportunities for making money or to reduce the perquisites that they presently enjoy or hope to enjoy when it is their turn to govern. Nevertheless, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) believes that the public, which has been lulled into indifference and somnolence regarding its own interests, and whose spirit of inquiry and resistance has been dulled by an increasingly hard line control of the media and the means of communication, should be informed and encouraged to keep up the pressure for a better Constitution that will provide for a more precise separation of powers between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary, and more effective provisions for ensuring greater transparency and accountability, however frustrating it might be to apply any pressure at all in the face of the strong resistance to be expected.

Virtually everybody who is concerned with the good of the Country is anxious that the next Constitution should not end up in a few years’ time in the wastepaper basket (like the preceding ones) because it turns out to have as many flaws as the ones we have had to put up with since we gained independence. The shortcomings in these Constitutions were due to the fact that they were bulldozed through without any space being given to stakeholders other than those in the government of the time. The US, Indian and South African Constitutions, on the other hand, took years of consultation with a large number of interest groups and constitutional experts and, consequently, acquired a sound basic structure. Because of the time, expertise, patience and goodwill that went into their creation, they are capable of being amended as the occasion demands without requiring a completely new one to be written each time there is a change of government. Indeed, the US and Indian ones have been amended scores of times without harming the integrity of the core structure.

Over the past several years, CIMOGG has identified and written about many vital features which are lacking in the present Constitution. Many concerned entities, including a number of constitutional and political authorities, have also made numerous valuable contributions. It is not feasible to refer within the space of one newspaper article to all the suggestions that have been made. What we can do is to urge the government not to produce a unilaterally oriented Constitution but to include concerned and qualified participants from outside Parliament into the drafting process. In this endeavour, Sri Lanka’s main hope lies in the persistence of the younger MPs who have still not lost their idealism and principles, and a few exceptional older ones, whom we call upon to safeguard the welfare of future generations of Sri Lankans.



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