A popular misconception about Parliament is that it is the Parliament, elected by the people that governs the country. In Sri Lanka the elected Executive President is the head of the Government and though the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet are selected from among the majority party in Parliament it is not Parliament itself that governs.
Parliament consists of various political parties and its constitutional functions are lawmaking, oversight of the executive and control of public finance. In its oversight function questioning and criticizing the government is one of its primary duties. It is in Parliament that questions can be raised about the Government’s management of the economy; it is in Parliament that the pros and cons of proposed legislation can be debated; it is in Parliament that justification for taxes can be argued upon. All human progress is based on ideas and an effective Parliament would be a place where there is a clash of ideas which finally produces the best options for the country.
Why a 2/3 majority?
In this background what would be the effect of an overwhelming government majority in Parliament? Looking back on our history we may note that whenever a government enjoyed a 2/3 majority in Parliament it was used to commit excesses and gag the Opposition. The apparent purpose of seeking a 2/3 majority is to introduce a new constitution or constitutional amendments. At present all the ills of the nation are blamed on the constitution. The constitution has been bent, twisted and broken by the high and mighty quoting its many flaws as justification therefor.
|File photo: Sri Lankan Parliament
The rationale behind the requirement of a 2/3 majority for constitutional amendments is the fact that constitutional amendments require a higher degree of national acceptance than other legislation. Therefore even the approval of a major part of the opposition should be harnessed towards that objective. Thus it is not imperative for the government party to command a 2/3 majority. Constitutional amendments should never envisage advantages for the ruling party alone. Unfortunately in 1970 and 1978 the electoral winners had 2/3 majorities which were used in the hope of perpetuating their political power. In 1970 the then constitution had no prescribed method of replacing the constitution.
So Parliament formed itself into a constituent assembly and drafted a new constitution extending its term of office in the process. In 1978, with its overwhelming majority the government found it easy to adopt a new constitution with major changes. It did not bother to heed the views of the Opposition as it had a comfortable majority.
The last attempt at introducing a new constitution in 2000 was a messy and muddled one. The governing party at that time did not have a 2/3 majority. This constitutional draft was prepared by a Parliamentary select committee after lengthy public consultation and years of deliberation. It finally produced a "monumental mouse". The draft itself was based on the 1978 constitution with a few amendments to provide for a power shift from the President to the Prime Minister and the introduction of a non-executive President. In fact most of the articles of the draft constitution were verbatim reproductions of the 1978 constitution.
It was primarily aimed at enabling the incumbent President to be in political power beyond the second term in the capacity of Prime Minister. It did not address or propose changes on such issues as devolution, a more equitable separation of powers, a second chamber veto powers, electoral reforms or the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of citizens. In addition the government committed procedural blunders on the way. It was referred by the President to the Supreme Court; an unnecessary step in terms of Article 120(b) of the constitution which reads as follows;
“Where the Cabinet of Ministers certifies that a bill... for the amendment of any provision of the Constitution; or for the repeal and replacement of any part of the constitution intended to be passed with a special majority required by article 83 and submitted to the people by referendum, the Supreme Court shall have and exercise no jurisdiction in respect of such bill.” Subsequently during its presentation by the President (not the Minister of Constitutional Affairs) in Parliament there were unruly protests and it was abandoned mid-stream.
The failure to pass the year 2000 draft was due to its covert agenda of enabling the incumbent President to remain in political power even after the 2nd term in office. It was in pursuit of a personal ambition and not in the national interest. We may at this point recall that a few months ago President Zaleya of Honduras was expelled from power because he attempted to pass constitutional reforms aimed at extending his grip on power beyond the maximum second term in office. Therefore such narrow aims are universally frowned upon.
The value of constitutional amendments or a new constitution lies in its contents and the spirit and manner in which it is adhered to by the office holders. The mere passage of a new constitution does not necessarily mean that the new document would be a flawless legal masterpiece.
The 17th Amendment
In contrast, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced at a time when the governing party did not command a 2/3 majority in Parliament. This amendment was to make it imperative for the President to seek the advice of a Constitutional Council when making appointments to high posts.
Despite the lack of a 2/3 majority this amendment was passed in Parliament unanimously. We can safely draw the conclusion that its acceptance was because it was of national benefit and not for narrow personal or party gain.
Effect of a bulldozer majority
Stifling the voice of dissent. With a few members and curtailed debating time the Opposition would find it difficult to hold the government to account effectively. The role of the Opposition in parliament is vital and legitimate. When legitimate forms of dissent are stifled violence would be the alternative.
Ineffective committees. Representation in parliamentary committees is proportionate to that of the House. Negligible Opposition representation in committees would mean that the committees would be heavily tilted in favour of the government. In addition if committees are headed by government Ministers one could be sure that there would be no possibility of probing government activities effectively.
Less private members’ business. In the recent past there was hardly any private members’ business transacted in the House.
An effective Parliament
The strength of a government lies in its commitment to the rule of law and the prosperity of the nation. It lies not in its ability to stifle the opposition. Even a minority government could successfully serve a full term if the leadership has the vision and the capability to address the nation’s problems. A 2/3 majority does not automatically invest the government with strength or capability. It merely produces a “yes” Parliament.
The writer is a former Secretary General of Parliament