May 21

According to a recent newspaper report, MP Dinesh Gunawardena has expressed his strong opposition to the number of MPs being increased over and above the present total of 225.  Shortly before that, in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 10 May 2015, Professors Emeritus Herbert A.Aponso and Dayantha Wijeyesekera urged strongly that the 225 limit on the number of MPs should not be exceeded.  On its part, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has always advocated a smaller Parliament.

All sorts of plausible explanations are offered as the rationale for increasing the number of MPs but the real driving force behind this move is that, by enhancing the number of seats in Parliament, party leaders gain more and more opportunities to exercise their power of patronage over greater numbers of their close followers who plead incessantly to get nominated as election candidates.  Inevitably, the expansions of the number of MPs in Parliament have been one of the main factors in the serious decline of the quality of persons elected to it.

By September 2014, CIMOGG had developed, from first principles, a constitution that would provide for power to be shared more meaningfully and autonomously among Grama Niladhari Divisions (GNDs), Pradeshiya Sabhas (PSs), Districts and Parliament, thereby reducing the amount of time spent that Parliament would need to spend on matters that can be handled much better locally.  In the CIMOGG proposals, the number of MPs would be limited to 128 because Parliament would be required only to deal with national legislation, allocation of enhanced financial resources to the local units (GNDs, PSs and the Districts), as well as defence, foreign affairs, currency, taxation, national ports and airports, national highways, national standards, national reserves and all those subjects that any single District would not be in a position to handle.

There would be no place for Ministers who would have one foot in Parliament and another in the Ministries, thus badly fouling up the separation of powers.  There would be only 25 Permanent Parliamentary Committees (PPCs) plus a corresponding number of Ministries headed by Secretaries who would be required to strictly conform to the projects, programs and budgets authorized by Parliament.  Also, because it would not be practical to find enough experts who would want to give up their professions to become MPs, the PPCs would have prequalified groups of experts “on call” to advise them on technical matters on a part-time basis, whenever their services are required.  Integrity, intelligence and a commitment to regular attendance, then, would become the main criteria for suitability to be elected to Parliament.

Those interested in reading, without prejudiced mindsets, about these constitutional innovations may email “Ranasinghe”<power2people@gandhiswaraj.com> for a soft copy of the key chapters of the CIMOGG proposals.

Needless to say, politicians and those who are not used to thinking “out of the box” will almost certainly not welcome CIMOGG’s proposed scientific and logical constitutional structure but we remain optimistic in the realisation that, during years that CIMOGG and a few others were shouting themselves hoarse about “good governance”, few in the corridors of power or outside bothered about it.  It was only in 2014, after the last Presidential elections were announced, that there was an explosive growth in the frequency of references made by politicians to “good governance” and its vernacular versions, “yahapaalanaya” and “nallaatchi”!

One important feature of the CIMOGG concept is that there would be no need for repeated delimitation exercises, which are supposed to make every vote almost equal to every other.  These exercises are thoroughly wasteful and self-deceiving.  If we look at Switzerland, which is one of the best governed countries in the world, the cantons have one vote each irrespective of their populations.  They do not keep changing their boundaries with every census.  More tellingly, if we look at the United Nations, several countries with a population of less than one million each have one vote each whereas China and India, with populations exceeding a billion each, also have only one vote each.  Where is the equality of one man-one vote?  If it is argued that it is one country-one vote and not one man-one vote, why cannot one existing electorate have just one vote just like any other existing electorate?  Or, why cannot one GND have ten votes just like any other GND?  The fact is that the delimitations that Sri Lanka has carried out in the past have been pure gerrymandering exercises to satisfy politicians, with no benefit to the people.  The politicians involved now seek to make out that they are pressing for delimitation solely because of their overflowing abundance of love of the individual citizens’ rights.  This is all eye-wash and the people should, therefore, think twice about giving credence to these philanthropic “democrats”.

An equally important matter, despite any variations in the size of electorates, is how to get good people into our elected bodies, including Parliament.  It is now generally recognised that the current system of electing an average of around eight members collectively in each District is bad value for money as far as the public is concerned.  There is no question that some form of the first-past-the-post system would place greater pressure on elected officials to fulfill their responsibilities without passing the buck to someone else.  Several years ago, a Parliamentary Committee headed by MP Dinesh Gunawardena worked out a scheme that had some features of the old first-past-the-post system as well as some taken from the present system of District-wise preferential voting.  Although certain parties in Parliament did not favour this new model, this concept has been revived as the 20th Amendment, but with complex formulas required to achieve the idealistic notion of one man-one vote.  These formulas are almost certain, in our opinion, to be incomprehensible to the vast majority of citizens and should be simplified, even if it means that the over-rated one man-one vote principle is ignored to a significant extent.

In order to speed up the process of getting on with elections to get rid of the unviable minority-majority government that we now have, delimitation exercises should be abandoned.  Instead, what we see as a perfectly justifiable process would be to go back, say, to the electoral boundaries which were adopted in 1977 before President Jayawardene introduced the District-wise preferential system and accept these boundaries for the 20th Amendment.

The post-1978 electoral processes have done immense harm by preventing citizens from voting for the best candidates by the stipulation that the desired party should be selected first and that three candidates shall be selected thereafter solely from that party’s list.  If there is one good candidate in each of three parties, two of them would be deprived of votes that they might otherwise have secured from discerning voters.  If not for the current method of electing much riff-raff, under the cover of proportional representation, the type of MPs we have elected from time to time could have been of better quality.  We would not have had to witness the spectacle of MPs setting fire within the Parliamentary Chamber to hard copies of constitutional proposals and causing damage to the fittings, equipment and internal finishes (in 2000) or conducting themselves like uncouth street protesters by eating, drinking and sleeping on the floor of the Chamber (2015).  As for the bad language used during debates, even in the presence of schoolchildren in the Visitors’ Gallery, we have no record because of the mercifully protective orders of the Speaker and his deputies.

To get better MPs, we suggest the following simple procedure.  Subject to the 20th Amendment being passed soon, the Elections Commissioner should be requested to issue each candidate with a simple, short application form to be filled (in all three languages) by candidates, to be sent to the 20,000 or so households in the electorate.  The application form would have the name, date of birth, identity card number, address and other contact details, educational background, professional background, latest 10-year employment history, special accomplishments, case numbers of any criminal actions faced in the past or being faced now, social service work carried out, and priorities for action in the electorate.  The form shall not exceed in size the two sides of an A4 sheet.  Assuming that a completed form can be photostated for Rs6, put in a Rs4 envelope, and furnished with a Rs10 stamp, the total cost for the candidate would be Rs400,000, which represents a fraction of the sums that would be expended on posters, processions, public meetings, media advertisements etc. Candidates would be extremely foolish to declare credentials that they do not possess because there would be many voters in the electorate to expose their lies.

It is up to the public to put pressure on the authorities to get this idea adopted in principle and improved.  There is room for civil society activists, if they agree with this procedure, to help refine it and get it implemented.

May 01

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) welcomes the passing of the 19th Amendment (and the concomitant repeal of the 18th Amendment) with a majority only slightly lower than that which was accorded to the 17th Amendment in 2001.  Thanks to the accession of a modest and a truly patriotic statesman to the position of Executive President on 9/10 January 2015, there is hope that democracy, the Rule of Law and good governance may be established in Sri Lanka on a progressively firmer footing notwithstanding the active resistance of powerful corrupt forces.     

The next hurdle to be overcome in our endeavour to become a more just society would be ensure that the 20th Amendment is passed reasonably soon, even though it is quite likely to be in a less than ideal form after whatever horse-trading takes place in Parliament.

CIMOGG has continually urged that the number of parliamentarians and the number of ministries should be drastically reduced from the present (and recent past) levels.  Indeed, the general public has never understood why Sri Lanka should have so many Members of Parliament (MPs) when compared with much more populous countries.  Nevertheless, the proposed 20th Amendment seeks to increase the number of MPs by another 30 or so!  This will be a highly retrograde step but, taking into account current political realities, there is very little chance of countering it.

On the basis that it is Hobson’s choice when it comes to fixing the numbers of citizens who will be provided a seat in Parliament, we need to consider what is left for the public to do to influence for the better the future course of our political systems.  The first answer that springs to mind would be to try to make the best use of the 20th Amendment to improve the quality of our MPs.

From time to time, people ask us at CIMOGG whether we cannot suggest some effective means of ensuring that only honest, knowledgeable and hardworking citizens are elected to Parliament.  They bemoan the fact that there is no reliable, independent authority or institution from which election candidates could be compelled to secure beforehand a certificate that would attest to their character and ability.  Our inquisitors often add that probably the only two “professions” that do not require some kind of qualifying certification are prostitution and politics.  The critical difference is that, whereas prostitutes are not required to act on behalf of the public at large, politicians are most specifically delegated with large components of the people’s sovereign powers and should, therefore, be expected to possess a modicum of relevant training, qualification, experience and, above all, integrity.

To those who want us to take proactive steps to get some sort of certification introduced for political aspirants, we have always been obliged to point out that most of the well-known party oligarchies would reject outright any initiative to set up an objective screening process to identify suitable candidates for election to public office.  Their vehement opposition can be best understood by having a brief look at what is the practice now.

Leaving aside the few MPs who are brought in on National Lists on account of the special skills that they possess – and possibly a few other rare birds – a citizen seeking nomination to contest elections to enter Parliament currently has to have ten basic “qualifications”.  One, he must have a strong urge to earn the kind of money that he believes can only be accessed by becoming a politician, preferably a minister.  Two, he must yearn after the sensation of power that goes with elected office.  Three, he must want to bask in the glory of being addressed as “the Honourable Member of Parliament for ……… “.  Four, he must have access by family, school or friendship connections to the ruling oligarchy of a political party.  Five, he must be able to mobilize substantial funds (mostly black money of some kind) to spend on organizing meetings, securing publicity and paying supporters to help with election campaign assignments, a significant proportion of which would quite often be unlawful.  Six, he must subordinate his opinions and views to those of the leader of his party.  Seven, he must have no difficulty in ignoring his conscience and whatever his more decent elders may have taught him in the past so that he will now have no qualms about robbing the public, not only to recover his initial campaign investments but also to build up enough assets to enrich two or three generations of his immediate family.  Eight, he must have the gift of public speaking.  Nine, he must be able to think quickly on his feet to get out of trouble when caught lying to or ripping off the people.  Ten, within his electorate, he must drop in at least briefly at as many funeral houses as possible and try to attend all the weddings to which he is invited.

As long as a political aspirant has most of the above “qualifications”, it would not matter to the relevant party oligarchy whether, for example, he has been credibly accused of and/or charged with issuing cheques without funds in his account, snatching necklaces from helpless females, rape, killing people, threatening people with lethal weapons (even if they could be passed off as toys), robbing timber from forest reserves, mining sand without a permit, drug-smuggling, money laundering, importing ethanol to make liquor, and a host of other major offences against the laws of the country.

The worrying part, currently of exceptional importance, is that our citizens are helplessly forced to watch the constitutional changes and critical laws that are being made under pressure from large numbers of those who have got into legislature on the strength of the “qualifications” referred to above.  They do not allow anyone other than themselves to write our constitutions.  The parties in Parliament argue strongly for the inclusion of certain provisions in new legislation, expressing themselves in noble words designed to give the impression that their contributions are genuinely in the people’s interest and that no selfish considerations apply.    Neither a comprehensive draft nor enough time to study their proposals is made available to the public to give their inputs. These omissions are deliberate.  In fact, there is no doubt that our politicians have always made the prominent articles of our constitutions and legislation admirably high-sounding and, at the same time, have introduced articles or clauses elsewhere that completely undermine the said articles or have introduced procedures that depend on the approval being given by ministers at their discretion.  For example, in the case of the Right to Information Act, commentators have already deplored the fact that so many exceptions are being included that it may not, after all, be of as much benefit as it is made out to be.

What is most insidious is that there are no arguments between political parties when the issues put forward have anything to do with increasing the benefits, powers and rights that parliamentarians wish to give themselves irrespective of party affiliations!

Let us see now whether we can get at least some little benefit from the impending passing of the 20th Amendment.

Under the existing system of elections, the basic electorate is the District.  A citizen has first to decide which party he would like to vote for.  Once he has committed himself to a party, he is obliged to vote for his three preferred candidates from the list that that party’s oligarchy has prepared.  The candidates would continue to be virtually exclusively from those who possess the “qualifications” referred to earlier.

In contrast, in terms of the 20th Amendment, each of the 25 Districts would, on average, have about 6-7 electorates, to give a total of 160 electorates.  One has only to cast one’s ballot for the best candidate in one’s electorate, irrespective of the party that he belongs to.  There would be no obligation to decide first on which party to vote for and then choose the preferred candidate.

With this new system, some kind of certification could be introduced.  For a start, each candidate may be requested to submit to an independent institution formed for this purpose relevant personal information regarding himself.  He would do this by filling in a standard application form.  The contents of the application forms may be evaluated by the institution and a mark given, based on the information furnished by the candidate.  The public could be made aware of these marks through the media.  By its very nature, this procedure would have several difficulties in ensuring uniformity and impartiality in marking.  Pending the elaboration and improvement of this concept, we need to find a short term answer.

If, instead of wasting huge resources on posters, media advertisements, noisy processions and disturbing the public with meetings that cause severe inconvenience to the public, each candidate were obliged to fill in a suitably-designed, standard application form (on two sides of an A4 sheet), he would be able, at a very modest cost, to have copies of this form sent (in the appropriate language) to each of the households in his electorate.  The voters would compare the contents of the forms from the different candidates and make their choice.  It would be very unlikely that a candidate would claim to have credentials that are not genuine because there are bound to be many voters in his electorate alone who would be able to expose him.

The proposal made in the preceding paragraph would be a very effective first step in giving the public better information about candidates so that they may cast their ballots to better effect.