Asking for political reform in a democracy is not a conspiracy or high treason — it is a core right of citizens. We must never forget that there is no one more important in a democracy than the citizen. The power of governance is part of people’s sovereignty. But often we forget that and are [...]

Sunday Times 2

A citizen’s agenda for political reform


Asking for political reform in a democracy is not a conspiracy or high treason — it is a core right of citizens. We must never forget that there is no one more important in a democracy than the citizen. The power of governance is part of people’s sovereignty. But often we forget that and are content to recognise governance as a theatre in which the only actors are politicians. It is important to recognise that it is we, the citizens, who are responsible for shaping our political destiny. That is the strength of a democratic system.

Now that we have the opportunity to forge a new social contract on January 8, 2015, we need to make full use of the opportunity to articulate our ideas loud and clear to ensure that we the people formulate the agenda for political reform.

Following is the core agenda for reform that I, as a citizen, demand. I do not present it with arrogance; rather, I do so with a sense of civic responsibility, having searched my conscience and having listened to the views of fellow citizens who I respect:

A decent political leadership

n First and foremost, I would like to see decency in political leadership. I can excuse the absence of heroics and personal valour or a large than life personality in a leader. What I want is political decency. Without that no change I desire would be possible.

n What I mean by a decent leadership is one which functions on the basis of a value base that sincerely respects democratic rights and liberties of the people and the right of every person and community to live in equal dignity and without fear. A decent leadership should acknowledge and respect diversity in society. It would not encourage or tolerate the debasement of any community.

n A decent leadership would base governance on the rule of law respecting the integrity of the Constitution, democratic institutions and systems. In short, an empathetic leadership which respects the citizenry and a democratic way of life — that is what I demand.

n I demand the creation of a political culture that is not based on opportunism, cynicism and one which encourages the adoption of any type of illegal and base behaviour to achieve one’s goals without guilt or personal remorse. The transformation of a crass political culture into a healthy democratic culture requires decent political leadership that can inspire change through example. While constitutional reform is important, constitutions alone cannot guarantee political decency. If President Mandela did not possess political decency he could not have encouraged the creation of a strong democratic and pluralistic political culture in South Africa.

We, the citizens, are responsible for shaping our political destiny

n The expected transformation of the political culture must necessarily ensure gender justice. The ease with which no lesser persons than political representatives of this country continue to publicly denigrate women with impunity is appalling. We must have the assurances of a strong political commitment to recognise and respect the equal worth of women and our right to live in dignity. A decent political leadership would be one that is serious about taking concrete action in that regard, including a zero tolerance policy on violence against women. It would take the demands of women seriously in all spheres of activity, including in the political field, and ensure respect for the constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination.

n The political leadership I demand is one that would reject political violence. It would not glorify or let political thuggery take place with impunity. It would not have connections with subterranean violent elements or be surrounded by scary looking hangers on who intimidate the average citizen.

n I expect such a political leadership to have the foresight to recognise that corruption is unethical, amounts to bad politics and that ill-gotten gains have a short life span. It would be embarrassed by opulence and would opt for a simple lifestyle (yes, the capacity to be embarrassed by excesses is a great political virtue). It would reject a grandiose style of governance embarrassed by wasteful public expenditure. I expect that type of leadership to be consistently accountable to the public and be transparent about governance.

n To begin with, I would demand the discontinuation of security escorts provided to politicians and also their kith and kin except when there is a proven security threat. Public funds wasted on such irresponsible and foolish extravagance should be freed up and spent for the benefit of the public.

n A decent political leadership would not engage in shameless patronage politics. All people of a country would be “apey aya” (“our people”). All should be able to live freely and compete for jobs and other legitimate opportunities on the basis of merit and fairplay. Only the most suitably qualified would be appointed to various positions. Nepotism would be strongly frowned on.

n I detest politics of fear. That should end. When politics and governance are legitimised by creating fear among the people by invoking various enemies and conspiracies that is a troubling sign. That shows that the leadership is insecure. Decency in politics must take citizens into confidence and respect their intelligence — not get their support by creating bogeymen and conspiracy theories. In my opinion, the biggest enemy is within — and that is bad governance. That is the most fearful enemy of the people. Bad governance makes the country unstable and vulnerable.
Constitutional reform

n As the executive presidency has destroyed the democratic fabric of governance in this country, it needs to go. So should the Eighteenth Amendment. Those are the immediate reforms necessary. However, the goal of constitutional reform should not end there.

n I wish to see the enactment of an entirely new Constitution which is formulated by a Constituent Assembly consisting of members elected only for that purpose. Politicians must have a minimal say over its formulation. The final draft sent to Parliament for adoption should be a consensus document.

n Constitutional reform must ensure that governance is driven by strong democratic institutions and processes and not by the discretion of personalities. Strong personalities may come and go, but the institutions and systems must continue intact. India provides a good example of such a system. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attempted to subvert the Constitution and the system of governance and failed miserably. She was eventually rejected by the people.

n I wish to see an executive that is accountable to parliament, a parliament that is representative (crossovers will have to lose their seats) and functions seriously and a strongly independent judiciary. There must be strong checks and balances. There necessarily must be judicial review of legislation.

n I wish to see a strong Bill of Rights in the new Constitution, one that would recognise both individual rights and group rights and economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights. There already is a well formulated Draft Charter of Rights in existence. That could be looked at as a possible draft for discussion.

n A constitutional mechanim must be put in place to ensure the independece of the judiciary and of important oversight institutions such as the Judicial Services Commission, Elections Commission, Bribery and Corruption Commission, Human Rights Commission, Police Commission, the Public Services Commission and important offices such as those of the Auditor General and Attorney-General. A strong Constitutional Council, much stronger than the one envisaged by the Seventeenth Amendment should be established. This is a desperate call to ensure that qualified persons of integrity be appointed to those institutions through a non-political appointment process. The security of tenure of the appointees must be guaraneed.

n There must be constitutional recognition of the pluralism in Sri Lankan society in its various dimensions. The drafting of a new Constitution should provide us with a unique opportunity to open up a broadbased dialogue to find a constitutional formula for power-sharing that would build confidence among the minority communities. Power-sharing will be meaningless unless the fundamental features of the Constitution are well established.

n Finally, we must ensure that the fundamental features of the Constitution be entrenched, meaning that they cannot be amended by Parliament. Fundamental features must be identified only from the perspective of people’s sovereign rights.

n As for legislative initiatives, I wish to see priority be given to a Right to Information Act.

Human development

n The model of development I desire to see is human development. That is to see that economic acitivity of a country benefits the average citizen so that they earn decent wages, eat better, have more cash in hand to spend on their children’s education, healthcare, entertainment and so on. They mut have savings rather than constantly be in debt.

n Development priorities must not be based on whims of politicians, but must be identified through broad consultation. Maximising public benefit and achieving sustainability must be the two major objectives of development activities. Infrastructure development is important, and living in beautiful cities is very pleasant, but those do not contribute to human development when expenditure is grossly disproportionate to public benefit.
n I wish to see investment in legitimate industries, the plantation sector and agriculture. The IT industry, for example, has not taken off in Sri Lanka as expected. Job opportunities should be created by the expansion of industries. The artificial bloating of the public sector with meaningless jobs must end immediately. We are currently relying on unskilled migrant labour to fill public coffers notwithstnding their exploitation and abuse. If indeed sufficient jobs cannot be generaed locally, then why is it that we are not sending well-trained nurses, English teachers, IT specialists etc. overseas in droves?

n A decent political leadership would not like to see huge economic disparities in society and would be committed to social justice. It would cut down on wastage and corruption and run a tight budget. It would have a fair taxation system that would not burden even the poorest of the poor.
n A decent political leadership would also ensure that economic opportunities are not distributed primarily on the basis of political patronage. There must be a policy of equal opportunity so that people can compete on the basis of merit and fairplay. The youth especially must not be made to feel disgruntled by the all pervasive patronage system — ‘gethi deshapalanaya’. The youth of any country detest such a system. An economy based on patronage is bad for the country.

n And, of course, decent political leadership would invest a large portion of the national budget in education, healthcare, public transport, public housing and other sectors that have a critical impact on the quality of life of the average citizen.

The above is this citizen’s core wish list for political reform. In my opinion, if we can get those fundamentals right, there will be great space and opportunities for other reforms that should take place. I may be called naïve by the cynical, but that is ok. If we, as citizens, do not speak up and demand the improvements we wish for we will forever have to hold our silence.

(The writer is Head of Department of Law, University of Peradeniya)

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