There is this old joke of how a man wanted to serve his country and thought one way would be to get elected to the country’s Parliament. So, he got himself nomination from a political party, and was duly elected. He went to Parliament and returned home after 30 days. “Martha,” he said to his [...]


Leaders passing the buck to the voters


There is this old joke of how a man wanted to serve his country and thought one way would be to get elected to the country’s Parliament. So, he got himself nomination from a political party, and was duly elected. He went to Parliament and returned home after 30 days. “Martha,” he said to his wife, “I’ve discovered one thing – it’s the first insane asylum I’ve seen or heard of that’s run by its inmates.”

Jokes apart – and a joke is a very serious thing, said Sir Winston Churchill quoting a poet by his surname, the country has witnessed, particularly in the last Parliament and since the ‘silent revolution’ of January 8, traces of this insanity Martha’s husband was referring to. There are moments of lucidity and unity like when it comes to the members serving themselves with duty free car permits (which most sell anyway to make a buck), allowances, pensions – and the Powers and Privileges Act.

But when it comes to taking action against one of their kind, or their supporters, there is a lot of hot air and little else. They are pretty slow to admit wrongs or admonish themselves in a real sense. The recent Treasury Bonds saga is a textbook case. Each party blamed the Governor of the Central Bank during the ‘others’ period of fiddling and yet, both carry on regardless.

It has been a perennial problem. During the early days of self-rule, a Commission of Inquiry held six members of the then State Council guilty of corruption. The late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike called for their resignation. He asked why ordinary people are thrown to ravenous wolves, while everything is done to protect influential people. When a State Councillor asked: “even if they are innocent?”, Mr. Bandaranaike replied, “yes, even if they are innocent”. That was because he argued that the bar on the incorruptibility of a legislator must be set higher than for ordinary people. The late J.R. Jayewardene who was a young State Councillor at the time quoted from that Hansard during the debate on the No Confidence Motion on then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in December 1975.

Right now there is a scramble for party tickets for prospective candidates to try for seats in Parliament. Backroom negotiations are the order of the day — and the night. Even a former President has been sweating it out for this all important ticket, putting his successor into thorough embarrassment.

A mounting ‘civil society’ campaign is calling political parties to nominate decent, upright men and women — and for voters to reject the rogues and rascals among them who still slip through the net of nominations boards. This campaign has had some success because there is a searchlight on the issue. This well-meaning apolitical grouping of venerable monks, artistes, election monitors, anti-drugs officials and civic rights activists see this whole election process as one big circus and the people given this one opportunity every five years to elect their so-called representatives to the National Legislature. The election campaign itself is a travelling circus with the good, the bad and the ugly – and some clowns on show. Whatever theatrics they perform once elected and drunk with power, the voters have no control over.

President Maithripala Sirisena in the meantime, has run into a storm of protests, especially from those who voted for him on January 8, for undermining his own much acclaimed, and much flaunted ‘silent revolution’ by giving nominations not just to his predecessor but a whole bunch of rascals to contest again.

To pass the burden of ejecting them at the polls on to the people is a dereliction of duty by party leaders towards the country. It is as if to ‘pass the buck’ and say to the people, “my hands are tied – you decide”. The problem is that the voters have to decide on the list that is given to them; a Hobson’s Choice.

In our Page 2 news item (Café Spectator) there is the JVP leader saying that when a leader of a country doesn’t have a conscience, the nation doesn’t have a conscience. That is to give a leader too much credit, but still, there is a ring of truth to that statement. And the venerable monk giving leadership to the civil society campaign for good candidates asking the people, in sheer exasperation, to get their exit visas — to hell.

Elections: Courts have a role to play
As nominations close tomorrow and the campaigning begins, the focus shifts to the role the Commissioner of Elections will play in ensuring a free and fair election. But what of the ancillary role of the courts in this exercise?

There was a time, admittedly far back in the past, when flouting of election laws actually resulted in the guilty parties losing their seats, even when elected. The sturdy independence of judges of that bygone era had to be admired. Examples are many but a few stand out. Arguably, the last of such cases was the notorious Kalawana case in the 1980s where the sitting MP was unseated after an election petition found that he had committed the corrupt practice of publishing false statements in relation to the personal character of the late Sarath Muttetuwegama, the opposing candidate.

What took place thereafter is well recorded. In particularly disgraceful contortions at that time, the UNP Government attempted to introduce a constitutional amendment that would have had the effect of having two members for Kalawana. Fortunately this attempt was again foiled by an intrepid Supreme Court which ruled that a Referendum was needed for this amendment.

Both the law and the courts, as the upper guardian of the law were regarded seriously at that time. There was little judicial hesitation in declaring elections void when the law was infringed. Candidates were strictly put on guard during a campaign to ensure that they did not engage in the offence of ‘treating’ — even interpreted to include instances where a candidate, agents and other persons acting on the candidate’s behalf, with due knowledge or consent, provided drink, refreshment and provisions to voters to corruptly influence the vote. There were to be consequences of violating election laws.

In these far more dissolute times, however, large scale ‘treating’ by politicians using state resources and ill-gotten wealth is shrugged off as a matter of course. The corrupt candidates have corrupted the voters. It’s time though that the Sri Lankan electorate and the country’s judicial institutions regarded the law with respect and mete out appropriate punishment when it is due.

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