ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20
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Wijeya Pariganaka

Soda bottle politics

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has succeeded in getting most of the country's political parties together in one way or the other to support his Government.

He has used the carrot more than the stick to attract this support knowing full well that seduction by way of Ministerial office is almost irresistible to power-thirsty politicians.

In the process of winning the support of the main opposition party, the UNP, the President appears to have dumped the party on whose shoulders he rode to office, the JVP. The JVP is accusing the President of veering away from his election promises, as he now steers a slightly different path. But all that can be put down to politics.

What is before all these political parties, the ruling PA, the UNP, the JVP and all the minor parties is yet another try at reaching some agreement on certain crucial issues on democracy, representative government and the election of the people's representatives.

For years, from the pre-Independence era to the present day - almost 60 years after Independence - this country and its leaders have been grappling with the onerous task of finding what political system best accommodates the wishes of the people, and which system is most suited to make democracy work.

Disillusioned as they have been with the functioning of democracy in Sri Lanka, which from 1956 onwards has seen a two-party system, many have asked the pertinent question as to whether this is a luxury that Sri Lanka can afford.

When they see the crass partisanship, how party politics has ruined lives, destroyed property, and caused efficient public servants to be flushed out of office for nincompoops to be brought in purely because of their party colours; how people are labelled and branded as supporting one party for no real reason; how nepotism has been practised as a fine art; and now, how people win elections from one party and without any conscience, cross over for ministerial office - one is permitted to ask whether this two-party system works.

That is until one reflects on a one-party system.

We have seen petty dictatorships under a two-party system. How would it be under a one-party system?

But to compare the two-party system with the one-party despot dictatorships you still find in many countries around the world is not what is best, but rather to compare it with multi-party democracy -- not just in name as we have had for so long here, but in practice.

Once again, the proposal to re-activate the Executive Committee system that was found under a Board of Ministers in the pre-Independence era has cropped up as a lesson in the entire legislature gathering together towards a common objective, that of national development.

This system was criticised as being flawed, and went into disuse soon after the Westminster-style Cabinet form of Government came into being, but many people have seen in it the foundation for collaboration between parties with different viewpoints.

Simultaneously, there is once again the suggestion to reignite the Dinesh Goonewardene Committee report where there has been consensus from all parties to have the present Parliament (no increase in numbers) elected on a mixture of the old 'first-past-the-post' system and the current proportional representation system. There seems to be a lot of merit in both systems, and a mixture is well worth a try as we continuously strive for the most acceptable voting system.

We have long supported the old Ward system being reintroduced for local councils like Municipalities because today, no one knows his or her Municipal member. The Executive Committees must not be mere namesake committees. They are meant to run Government. Today, these old-fashioned committees have been given modern names in the US, Japan and EU. In the US they are called Oversight Committees and are usually, chaired by Opposition congressmen or women with powers to summon officials and documents and hold public hearings.

There is far more transparency in these committees, as much as there is far more joint Parliamentary control of Government while at the same time, stiff Government-Opposition rivalry on public issues.

Parliamentary committees have rarely played the role that has been expected of them. As we mentioned only last week, the High Posts Committee has been a 'nothing' committee while the Public Accounts Committee, the Committee on Public Enterprises, both have fallen way below expectations. Members hardly ever go into the annual reports tabled by the Auditor General regarding public finances.

While there is a much greater need for Parliamentary control over Government and bipartisan control at that, the debate over the continuation of the Presidential system of Government has gone into limbo. That is the problem with Sri Lankan politics: It's all soda bottle politics. Very soon the fizz bubbles out and we are left, content to make do with only the froth.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.