The so-called people’s mandate

With important general elections on Thursday and all predictions of the ruling coalition romping home winners, such is the over-confidence in the Government camp that a two-thirds majority in Parliament (minimum of 150 of the 225 seats on offer), is its target.

The ruling party does not really say why it wants this huge majority; pressed, it says it is to change the Constitution. Vague noises that the UPFA wants a 'strong government to implement rapid economic development' etc., ring hollow and rumblings of reverting to the Westminster style of Government, i.e. abolishing the Executive Presidency and reverting to the supremacy of Parliament seem too good to be true.

In this vacuum, it is almost a blank cheque that the Government is asking for. In short, the people are being asked to jump blindly hoping they would land on a bed of roses, albeit with the thorns. Every Government dreams of a 2/3rd majority in Parliament. Each Parliament that had such a majority previously changed the Constitution (1970 and 1977 Parliaments).

There was a theory that no political party or coalition would be able to muster a 2/3rds majority in Parliament with the introduction of the Proportional Representation (PR) system simply because the votes get split proportionately among parties, and thereby seats in Parliament as well.

There is, however, great expectation in the UPFA camp that even if they do not get the required 150 seats on April 8, they would be able to offer carrots to MPs from the Opposition, win them over with portfolios and amass this magical figure of 150.

In this likely scenario, the question that arises is; where do the rights of the 14 million registered voters in this country lie?
It is patently possible that Voter A casts his/her preferential votes for Mr. B,C and D from Party E on April 8, and should Party E lose, Mr. B, C and D having been elected to Parliament as Opposition MPs cross-over and join the Government party F on Monday, April 12. Has Voter A been robbed of his/her vote? One would think, Yes.

While it is a two-way process in that a Government MP can join the Opposition, the more likely occurrence is for Opposition MPs to join the Government ranks in search of greener pastures.

No doubt the reasons given for such crossovers are altruistic; opposition to the dictatorial attitude of the party hierarchy or to serve the national interest etc., but the overriding reason is that it is best to become a Minister or Deputy Minister where you can serve 'your people' while serving yourself rather than languish for years in the Opposition. A prime example is the massive exodus of 17 MPs from the Opposition to the Government in 2007. It propped up the incumbents' shaky wafer-thin majority in the last Parliament where the UPFA was unable to even elect its own Speaker.

One might argue that this helped the Government to survive its full term in office and thereby defeat the LTTE, ridding the country of its greatest challenge. The question however lingers; did the sovereign people vote for these MPs to cross-over and do what they did?

There is a school of thought that an MP should have the right to cross over on a matter of conscience. But that is one man's conscience against a whole lot of people's franchise.

In Thursday's Parliamentary elections, where more than 7,000 candidates are falling at the feet of the voter, where Voter A is part of the sovereign people - but only until 4 p.m. on April 8; at what point does Voter A's sacred ballot turn into a farce? Is it when he or she discovers the person or persons he or she voted for have ended up in Parliament alright, but not on the side that Voter A voted for.

The matter is even more compounded now thanks to the interpretation of the law by our Courts. The history of recent cases could begin with the expulsion of Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake for their role in the 1991 impeachment putsch against President R. Premadasa. The courts held that their expulsion from the party was justified.

Then came the expulsion of Tilak Karunaratne from his party in 1993 where it was held, by a majority vote of the Supreme Court that he was entitled to criticise his party and that he was protected by the provisions of freedom of speech in the Constitution. In 1999, Sarath Amunugama was expelled from his party for giving tacit support to the opposing candidate President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the eve of the Presidential Election; the courts held that his expulsion was invalid. Justice Ranjith Amarasinghe held that there was "no weighty consideration" in his sacking.

In 2004, Rohitha Bogollagama crossed over to the Government and the courts held that though it was argued that by joining the Government he had ipso facto (by virtue of the fact) lost his right to be in an Opposition party, no proper inquiry was held before his expulsion. This extended to the crossover and subsequent expulsion of Keheliya Rambukwella in 2006 where it was held that he didn't have proper legal representation at the inquiry.

Last year, an Opposition member, Nandimithra Ekanayake who left his party and joined the Government, contested and became a provincial council member from the Government party. Thereafter, he was permitted to take a seat in Parliament from the Opposition party (which he had for all intents and purposes abandoned) on the death of a sitting Opposition MP (Alick Aluvihare) because Mr. Ekanayake was the next in line from the Opposition candidates' list. This criss-crossing with gay abandon has been deemed legal.

Today there are a string of stay orders in the District Courts preventing a party, usually an Opposition party, from expelling a truant member for crossing-over. These stay orders remain for years and parties are unable to discipline their members.
Many questions arise therefore, of this so-called 'mandate of the people' when more than a million Sri Lankans working abroad and sustaining the economy with their earnings don't have a vote; when votes cast by some are found burnt and dumped on wayside roads after polls; when many don't even get their polling cards or have no transport to take them to polling booths.

The country watches in disgust as candidates scramble for their manape (preferential vote) to get to Parliament breaking election laws even as an impotent Elections Commissioner looks on at the vulgar abuse of state machinery and spending power of some of the candidates with questionable sources of income.

If the sovereign people's vote, which they will exercise on Thursday and the 'mandate' that their vote carries with it is not to be made a mockery of in the democratic and electoral process of this country, the new Parliament has a lot of remedial work to do. This week's alarming decision by the Speaker not to permit the two new Opposition MPs gazetted by the Elections Commissioner as MPs to take their oaths, we sincerely hope is not a sign of things to come; where the 'mandate of the people' is so easily ignored.

In the meantime, it will be a total miscarriage of justice for the winners to say that it is 'open season' for them to do as they please because they have the 'mandate of the people'.

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