Political instability is snowballing with the Prime Minister of a minority Government saying ‘Parliament is dead’; a section of the same Government saying election pledges must be fulfilled before an election is held; and the majority Opposition declaring that Parliament must continue till electoral reforms are introduced through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. In [...]


Govt. on strike; President faces agonising choice


Political instability is snowballing with the Prime Minister of a minority Government saying ‘Parliament is dead’; a section of the same Government saying election pledges must be fulfilled before an election is held; and the majority Opposition declaring that Parliament must continue till electoral reforms are introduced through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. In between this rock and a hard place sits the President.

At a meeting this week with an international media delegation — the Government doesn’t condescend to meet local media delegations — the Premier made it clear that not just the Right to Information (RTI) Bill, but no Bills whatsoever would be presented to Parliament henceforth. The life of this Parliament, for all intents and purposes, is over, he declared, trying to precipitate a situation that would lead to an early general election.

Simply put, the Government is on strike; or at best, on ‘work to rule’ i.e. it will just do the basic work of governance. Presenting laws to Parliament is a fundamental duty of any Government and it is a crying shame that the RTI Bill, which was ready a month ago was not presented earlier for legislative approval. The Prime Minister may have a valid argument after what we saw happened with the dilution of the 19th Amendment due to the 70 odd last minute amendments that were moved mainly by the Opposition.

It is only to be anticipated that the Opposition will repeat this disgraceful behaviour to frustrate any future Bills this Government will introduce. Now, we have the bizarre situation of having RTI as a constitutional right of a citizen of this country through the 19th Amendment without a subsidiary law to give it actual effect. A golden opportunity has been squandered by the politicians’ in-fighting and Sri Lanka will have the dubious distinction of remaining the only South Asian country without an RTI Law.

On Thursday, however, the Cabinet spokesman announced that the RTI Bill would be presented before this Parliament was dissolved. It was an election pledge, he said. The Premier and the Government’s spokesman speak in contradictory voices; so who are we to believe?

If the Government is not going to introduce Bills to Parliament, it might just as well throw in the towel and go to the country as an opposition party which was frustrated from implementing its agenda. On the other hand, if the Opposition wants to govern in that vacuum it can turn the legislature into a ‘rogue Parliament’ — governing sans the will of the people who in fact turned them out vicariously at the last Presidential poll.

In this dogfight we are witnessing among the political parties, it seems apparent that the Opposition is preparing a major onslaught on the Government; a tit-for-tat of sorts for the string of prosecutions their members are facing by the authorities on the corruption front.

A resolution stands before Parliament signed by 88 members, including Cabinet Ministers, against the Governor of the Central Bank on serious charges of corruption over the purported Treasury Bonds scam that has hit the news since March. That the Prime Minister’s party board of inquiry findings, which the PM’s office said “exonerated” the Governor of “direct involvement” in the purported scam have still not been presented to Parliament, a month after it was handed over to the PM, only adds fuel to the raging fire.

When Opposition members are being hauled up for misusing government vehicles, or those who have not honoured a Rs. 5 million loan are being remanded, it is logical to ask if there are government ‘sacred cows’ who are being protected from investigation. The Government, therefore, leaves itself vulnerable to charges of a major cover-up, the consequences of which the Prime Minister will have to bear as head of his party leading up to a general election that he is calling for. Questions are swirling in the public domain, if not within his own party, as to whether this is going to be the Prime Minister’s Achilles heel.

Cockeyed as it may be for the Leader of the Opposition to say that the English signature of the Governor on a Sri Lankan currency note would deter foreign investors from coming to Sri Lanka, the Opposition has been left with ammunition that this Government is no better than its predecessor, in what it is being accused of doing, by protecting those in cahoots with the Government.

The best option available for the Governor would be to step down and avoid the avalanche of criticism that this Government is already facing – and will face if he stays. It might be the best thing he can do for his Prime Minister and the party he leads. It will, however, not prevent him from being further questioned by the Bribery and Corruption Commission. At least, unlike in the case of his predecessor, where the then powers-that-be allowed him carte blanche to do as he pleased –the Central Bank ran up huge losses in 2013 and 2014 according to its own annual reports– the Commission must be commended for questioning the incumbent Governor. And the Governor must know by now that the Commission’s detectives are hot on his heels. After all, like Caesar’s wife, a Governor of the Central Bank is not only expected to be honest, but beyond the reach of suspicion.

Meanwhile, with the Opposition deftly ignoring calls for an immediate dissolution of Parliament, and urging that local councils continue in existence, and the 20th Amendment dealing with electoral reforms be approved — the Cabinet this week appointing a ministerial committee to study proposals — one can feel for the President agonising over a decision whether to dissolve Parliament, or not.

The outcome of a costly general election is not a guarantee that one party will emerge with a clear majority to govern. Unlike the victories of the BJP (Bharatiya Janatha Party) in India and the Conservatives in the UK last week, the outcome in a Sri Lankan election is in the balance. Some may say that even in the UK, no one expected the Tories to win so handsomely. And in that country there is already a clamour for proportional representation after the Liberal-Democrats received 2.4 million votes and won eight seats while the Scottish Nationals obtained 1.4 million votes and won 56 seats. Otherwise, many Governments around the world have got accustomed to working with coalitions and minority Governments. In Israel, the Netanyahu Government has a majority of one seat in the Knesset (Parliament). It is considered stable enough to form a Government. The people are not in favour of public funds being used for election after election producing unstable Governments. They want the politicians to work out a suitable working arrangement to govern the country.

If the Sri Lankan situation looks ungovernable, with parties adopting antagonistic, adversarial positions, it has little sympathy from the people. How a future Parliament is going to form itself into a National Government or a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution is anybody’s guess. The country may be asked to jump from the frying pan – into the fire.

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