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.