The CIMOGG article titled “Inadequate Constitutional Proposals” appeared in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 9 June 2013 and may be accessed at www.cimogg-srilanka.org.
In this second instalment, we turn first to the vexed question of the meagre numbers of women and youth in our elected bodies, with the classification “youth” being generally understood to be those under 35 years of age.
There are calls by spokesmen for the larger political parties to fix a minimum allocation of seats for women and youth. A combined total allocation of “at least 25%” is often mentioned. On the other hand, if we take the voting population as whole to be 14.1 Million, it is found that those below 35 account for approximately 46% and those above 35 take up the balance 54% (see Economic & Social Statistics of Sri Lanka 2013 – Central Bank). Therefore, if all voters are treated as equals, there should be around 27% of males over 35, 27% of females over 35, 23% of males under 35 and 23% of females under 35. If we now exclude the 27% that may be claimed by males over 35, the total target for women and youth should be 73% and not 25%! Consequently, aiming for 25% is hardly generous on the part of the males above 35 who currently dominate the upper echelons of political parties.
The principal reason why the majority of women, young and old, do not wish to get involved in the hurly-burly of present-day Sri Lankan politics is that they cannot cope with the crudities and violence of the electoral playing field. As explained in the aforementioned article that appeared in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 9 June 2013, success in getting elected is greatly dependent on having a large election war-chest with funding mostly from undesirable sources. Most women would be less inclined than men to seek campaign assistance from those who carry clubs, knives and illegal firearms or operate at the boundaries of the law in illegitimate enterprises.
Although it may be challenged, CIMOGG’s assessment is that, on average, the women of Sri Lanka have more backbone than the men and are more socially-conscious. It hardly needs emphasizing that optimum use should be made of these two admirable qualities. Indeed, it seems quite likely that, if there had been more women and younger people chosen on their own merits to elected office over the past six decades, regard for good governance and the Rule of Law would almost certainly have reached a much higher level than it is today.
The youth who are presently active in public life are almost exclusively related in some way to the leadership of the principal political parties. There is no question that the doors into the political arena need to be opened out much more widely so as to allow committed and capable young men and women from less well-endowed backgrounds to enter the Legislature. A new Constitution must, therefore, provide carefully-modelled electoral
systems where large amounts of money and violent support from disreputable sources will not have a significant role to play to get elected.
The next topic is of critical importance and relates to the poor distribution of political and economic power.
The excessive concentration of power at the “Centre” is a defect that requires to be addressed in a new Constitution so that local institutions are given the legal framework and the funds to do those things which they are fully capable of doing without having “Big Brother” in Colombo holding the purse strings tightly and deciding what is good for those at the periphery. This cardinal flaw in Sri Lankan constitution-making cries out to be corrected because virtually all the powers of government and the assets of the People, other than some of their fundamental rights and the franchise, have been appropriated by the institutions at the Centre, particularly by the Executive Presidency, Parliament and a subservient Judiciary, to do with as they please. Once Presidential and Parliamentary elections are over, citizens have little or no say in how the Country is managed or its assets utilized. Voters may decide to cast their votes against the Government at the next available opportunity but, even then, not much good will be achieved by this show of displeasure because the Opposition, once it gains power, will find it materially more rewarding to follow the bad examples of the ousted Government rather than try to correct the system.
It can be seen clearly enough that there is a paramount need for a new Constitution to address the question of how to restore power and control over local resources to the various units at the periphery, eg. Grama Niladhari Divisions, Pradeshiya Sabhas, District and/or Provincial Councils, so that as much as possible of the work of socio-economic development could be done locally by the members of these geographic units, leaving only problems of a genuinely national nature – such as defence, foreign relations, currency, national standards, major infrastructure projects etc – to be handled by the Centre. Have any of the proponents of constitutional improvement suggested that this should be done and, if so, how will their proposals achieve this?
We turn now to the question of educational requirements for elected representatives.
It is self-evident that elected representatives must be able to read administrative and technical reports, draft bills, petitions and a host of other documentation with a reasonable measure of understanding. Moreover, with advances in Information Technology, a modern legislator will find himself at a great disadvantage if he has insufficient training in the use of a computer to access national and international databases, as well as to communicate with his fellow representatives and the public. As Sri Lanka has had free education for around six decades, anyone who aspires to enter Parliament to be a representative of the People could reasonably be expected to have had the mental equipment, ambition and persistence to have acquired a degree recognized by the University Grants Commission and become acquainted with basic IT techniques. One cannot avoid mentioning here that a PhD awarded by a martial arts academy would not fall into the category of an acceptable degree! However, it has been strongly argued by some that the late D.S.Senanayake had not gone very far in his schooling but had been an able and respected Prime Minister, and, therefore, high educational qualifications need not be stipulated. On the other hand, today’s lawmaking and budget-making require a depth of knowledge that was not required in the less complex world of the period immediately before and immediately after the Second World War. How will the newly proposed Constitutions address this issue?
As things stand at the moment, the only thing that most MPs are capable of doing is to vote as ordered to do so by the party whips, without having to think for themselves. Indeed, sometimes they do even “better” by signing at the foot of blank sheets of paper and having someone else fill in the text above! Public perception, based on the media reports of the time, is that something on these lines happened on at least three occasions in recent years that have had a profoundly adverse effect on democratic governance and the Rule of Law. Considering that the Supreme Court has allowed MPs to retain their party membership, cross over to the “enemy” ranks, and vote against their own original party whips – on the grounds of conscience – should not a new Constitution include an explicit provision to allow MPs the freedom to vote in accordance with the dictates of conscience and not as forced to do so by their party leaders?
The next instalment of this series will attempt to highlight the need for constitutional provisions to deal with some other neglected issues, subject, of course, to the necessary editorial leave.