In last Sunday’s issue of this journal, we gave examples of how very little time and dedication most of our Members of Parliament (MPs) and Ministers devote to the work that they should be doing in Parliament. Owing to limitations of space, we were not able then to indicate how this undesirable state of affairs, which covers only one aspect of a much larger and more worrying picture, could be rectified. The nub of the matter is that, in order that Sri Lanka may revert to a genuine democracy, there is a desperate need for a new type of Constitution. Of the many important features to be addressed before a new Constitution can be properly framed, just a few are mentioned below.
Sri Lanka’s successive Constitutions have enabled politicians to grab for themselves most of the People’s powers. They have not hesitated to use unlawful means to enrich themselves, and their relatives, friends and supporters at the expense of the People. “Fundamental rights” has become an unwelcome concept, with reluctant attention given to it in practice. Our Constitutions have never had watertight provisions to nab those who rob State and private assets, misuse and waste State resources, collect protection money, employ violence against opponents and defenceless citizens, and commit other crimes. This flaw needs to be corrected but it cannot be done by tinkering with the existing Constitution. The reliable way out of this morass is to have a careful analysis carried out and solutions worked out from first principles so that the weaknesses of past Constitutions do not find their way back again into a new one.
Hardly anybody seems to be worried by the fact that, on average, fewer than half of our 225 Members of Parliament attend its sittings on a regular basis. To add to the waste of resources, the quorum for meetings of the House is only 20 MPs. Hence, there is every justification for proposing that a new Constitution need not have more than about one-half of the present total of 225 MPs. In this connection, it may be noted that we extravagantly have one MP per 90,000 or so of the population whereas India, our nearest neighbour, has only one representative per 1,100,000 of the population. Furthermore, as the Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka, after careful study, has recommended that we should have no more than 25 Ministries, it would be sensible in future to have, apart from the Speaker and two deputies, no more than 125 MPs who would be assigned to 25 Permanent Parliamentary Committees, which would be required to study in depth the issues pertaining to their associated Ministries. MPs should not be allowed to treat their job in Parliament as a part-time source of tax-free income, unearned perquisites and undeserved prestige. A fair day’s work should be a compulsory condition. There is little evidence to show that, with a few exceptions, our MPs are above average in intelligence or ability. Thus, it would not be difficult to provide suitable incentives to attract more capable and conscientious persons to become MPs on a more or less full-time basis.
At present, a citizen who wishes to come forward as a candidate for election must secure the approval of the king-makers in one of the political parties; he must have influential family, caste, race, religious and, often, underworld connections; he should satisfy the party that he has the ability to secure funding from rich financial backers, without regard to how they make their money; and he must also declare unquestioning loyalty and unqualified obedience to the party’s leaders. Thus, the Constitution does nothing to hinder the election of mostly unsuitable persons to Pradeshiya Sabhas, Provincial Councils, Parliament and other elected bodies.
Instead of committing ourselves to a Constitution that would perpetuate a system which empowers a small clique in each of the political parties to select largely unfit persons as candidates for election, a mechanism needs to be developed that would, say, enable each Grama Niladhari Division (GND) to elect about ten People’s Representatives on personal merit and allow only those who have gone through this first stage of selection to contest elections to the Pradeshiya Sabhas, in what would effectively be a second stage of selection. The third stage of selection would be to the nine Provincial Councils or, preferably, to twenty-five District Councils. Election to Parliament would take place in a fourth stage of selection. At each successive stage of this type of selection, which does not rely on improper influence, the quality of those going through to the next stage will improve. Thus, merit will gain the importance that it deserves.
A person wishing to be elected as a People’s Representative should be required to complete (in his preferred language) a 2-page application form, issued by the Elections Commission in three languages, giving his name, age, address, last school attended, last exam passed, any professional qualifications, work experience, social service activities and, very briefly, his most important priorities for action in the GND and the Pradeshaya in which the GND is located. The candidate would get his entries in the form translated into the other two languages. He would then arrange for the completed forms to be delivered to each of the 400-600 households of his GND. The whole exercise will not cost him more than a few thousand rupees. Later stages will cost even less. Refunding such costs by the State could well turn out to be a rich investment.
If, furthermore, the Constitution were to forbid the use of posters, newspaper and TV advertising, loudspeakers, public meetings, processions and other forms of promotion – as is the practice in several, successful democratic countries – there would be no need for candidates to go behind crooks to collect large funds to contest elections. There would be no election violence and hardly any disruption to the life of the citizenry. Thus, competent, hardworking, responsible and independent-minded citizens of limited means, including most women and young persons, would be able, without difficulty or fear, to seek election, initially as People’s Representatives from their own GNDs and strive to go on to Pradeshiya Sabhas, District Councils and Parliament..
An alternative system that would lead to a similar improvement in the quality of our elected representatives may certainly be given careful consideration.
Other than those few who would want, for their personal benefit, to continue to exploit their connections to the centre of power, almost everyone else who has an understanding of good governance and the Rule of Law would long to see an end to the Executive Presidency and the 18th Amendment. This has to be achieved by the steady build-up of public opinion so that Sri Lanka will be able to emerge from the deep abyss into which it has been painfully plunged for far too long.
The abolition of the Executive Presidency and the repeal of the 18th Amendment will not, by themselves, be enough to achieve the necessary degree of the separation of powers that is essential. The restraining of the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary from interfering with each other’s legitimate functions must be made properly effective by not allowing the anomalous situation where entities called “Ministers” have one foot in the Legislature and one foot in the Executive and are given the freedom to enrich themselves unjustly and also get laws passed that undermine constitutionally sound decisions made by the Judiciary.
Another reason why there should not be Ministers of any kind is the manner in which they have taken thousands of arbitrary and secret decisions in the past, without benefit of open, in-depth discussion by experts and legislators. These have led to serious difficulties and losses for the People of this Country. A few of the most recent examples are Z-scores, Year 5 scholarship exams, permitting gambling outside the law and collecting taxes by way of “licensing fees”, mucking around with the specifications that should apply to petroleum imports and hedging against oil price fluctuations. As for Norochcholai, the less said the better. Responsibility for presenting the facts on any issue should be the responsibility of Ministry Secretaries but they should then be studied by the relevant Permanent Parliamentary Committees with inputs from independent specialist advisors before any project is approved and funds are allocated. The freedom of information must be fostered so as to nip in the bud crimes against the People’s interests.
There is no reason to think that the Sri Lankan body politic is so uniquely sound that it would be permanently immune to a strong build-up of widespread pressure for change. If and when public demand for drastic improvement escalates to the point where it can no longer be ignored, a ready-made Constitution, based entirely on non-partisan concepts, would help to mould a consensus quickly. To the pessimists in our midst, we recall that Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. So, there is no reason to be despondent.