Almost a century ago — August 1920 to be precise, the United States of America passed the 19th Amendment to its Constitution. By this amendment, its Congress (Parliament) granted franchise – the vote, to adult women in addition to the men. It was a long, hard struggle for women, led by a feisty young activist, [...]


19th Amendment has arrived


Almost a century ago — August 1920 to be precise, the United States of America passed the 19th Amendment to its Constitution. By this amendment, its Congress (Parliament) granted franchise – the vote, to adult women in addition to the men. It was a long, hard struggle for women, led by a feisty young activist, Alice Park and her band of determined suffragettes.

They were thrown in jail for making such demands in the middle of World War I, but their relentless campaign bore fruit and the women of America gained equal rights with men to vote for their elected representatives. Universal adult franchise was introduced in Sri Lanka not much later – in 1931. Despite being under British colonial rule, all Sri Lankans – men and women over 18 — have elected their representatives ever since; the women of Sri Lanka getting that right even before the women of France.

The proposed 19th Amendment (19A) to the Sri Lankan Constitution is now gazetted and before the Supreme Court. It also deals with the franchise of the people, and much more. The majority of the people voted for “a 19th Amendment” at the January 8 Presidential election. Though the finer details of 19A were not placed before them, the broad contours were presented and the then Opposition received the assent of the people to proceed with it.

These broad contours were (1) to restrict the Cabinet to 30, (2) to abolish the Executive Presidency, (3) to bring back the provisions of the 17th Amendment and re-establish the Independent Commissions, and (4) to review the Proportional Representation system as it exists today.

One might ask if the draft 19A reflects these broad pledges, or if they have fallen down – at least on counts 1, 2 and 3 above. The only area where there seems to be unanimity is on count 2, i.e. the re-establishment of the independent commissions (police, public service, bribery and corruption, judicial appointments and elections).

One of the salient progressive features of 19A is to bring in the Citizens’ Right to Information as a constitutional right, though here too, the draft 19A seems to negate the subsidiary RTI Law that is to drive this Citizen’s Right forward. Poor attention to detail could easily defeat the Government’s good intentions on this score.
The 19A has already run into criticism from within the coalition Government. It is not easy to obtain consensus on all four of such an amendment when parties have such divergent views with some calling for the complete castration of the Executive Presidency and others asking that it be maintained albeit with reduced powers. Some want a referendum on 19A, while the UNP Government is trying its best to avoid it.

To make the confusion more confounded, a ‘National Government’ has been created blurring the separation between “the Government” and “the Opposition”. Political analysts describe this as ‘bizarre politricks’.

Just last week, President Maithripala Sirisena addressing his party (SLFP) parliamentarians strenuously called for a ‘National Government’. He said that this was the answer to the country’s political ills. He wanted 19A passed and the country administered on a Common Programme. Yet, however idealistic or altruistic it sounds, the ‘ground situation’ seems the motivating factor. President Sirisena is facing an uphill battle to retain party stalwarts from regrouping with a resurgent former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He, from the sidelines, has not thrown in the towel after his defeat on January 8, and is looking to bounce back in the thick of things.

This week’s appointment of several SLFP MPs in this ‘National Government’ concept was clearly a move to thwart disgruntled SLFPers from drifting towards the former President. In the process, however, the Sirisena Government broke an election pledge to limit the Cabinet to a maximum of 30. The number of deputies has also ballooned – the first casualty of ‘real politik’.

The traditional Government-Opposition divide has been turned on its head. Nobody is sure any more who is “Government” and who is “Opposition”. That in itself may be a new form of political science, but then politics has always been ‘the art of the possible’.

How far the people who voted for the 1, 2, 3 and 4 above, have been short-changed in this short period of time is a moot question. Clearly, the people were taken aback by some of the players recruited into the ‘National Government’ Cabinet from the SLFP. They were vociferous opponents not only of President Sirisena, but of 19A as well – and some have a questionable record. On the other hand, their votes are required to pass 19A with the required two-thirds in Parliament.
So what happens to the people’s franchise? Is what is happening in the corridors of power a reflection of the January 8 mandate, or is it a more realistic truism that ‘the end justifies the means’, and whatever manipulations take place, the ultimate goal is what is important.

Already, the crossover of MPs in the past has made a mockery of electing representatives through political parties. To reverse this trend, 19A provides for a complete ban on crossovers giving no opportunity for an MP to seek redress even in court. The balance between the party whip and the rights of an individual MP has been completely done away with, because of the greediness of MPs past and present, and courts eager to please the rulers. This is what happens when laws have to be brought in to ensure people holding high office who are expected to act judiciously, do not.

While President Sirisena is busy wading against strong undercurrents within his own party by those who want to bring back the old order, the UNP administration recognises the need to sit with its tormentors in a National Government because it just does not have enough seats to rule the roost. The UNP’s plan is to hold early elections, taking advantage of the split in the SLFP and for the next Parliament to sit as a whole in a National Government of the entire Parliament.

This concept comes from what you find in modern regional Parliaments like the European Union Parliament. There are no Government and Opposition benches in the EU Parliament, and they sit as a whole to legislate. How this will work in a national Parliament is left to be seen. After 65 years of Independence, this country seems to be still experimenting with systems of Government.

If the 1978 Constitution installed a Presidential system head on a Parliamentary system body, 19A appears to reverse the trend, explained the Prime Minister when he met media heads this week. The ultimate test, however, lies with what the old sage, Pope said; “For forms of Government, let fools contest – that which is best administered is best”.

In that simple wisdom lies the recipe for success – or failure.

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