Parliament decided to celebrate 70 years of Parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka this week, ironically in the shadow of a former Chief Justice going to the Judiciary complaining that the Legislature acted against the law of the land. He is alluding to the recent passage of amendments to the Provincial Council Elections Act controversially passed [...]


Supreme Parliament, Sovereign People


Parliament decided to celebrate 70 years of Parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka this week, ironically in the shadow of a former Chief Justice going to the Judiciary complaining that the Legislature acted against the law of the land. He is alluding to the recent passage of amendments to the Provincial Council Elections Act controversially passed in the House last month. After all, Parliament is meant to exercise the legislative powers of the sovereign people under the supreme law of the land – the Constitution.

The special session of Parliament to fete the occasion heard the President say that Parliament has been given back through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution its powers that were ceded by virtue of the 18th Amendment. That may be partially true, but yet, it cuts across the President’s refusal to clear the air whether he will keep to the pledge he made before he was elected to abolish the Executive Presidency.
His party, the SLFP – or the faction he leads has recommended to the Standing Committee on a new Constitution that the Executive Presidency must continue, a volte-face from the SLFP’s original position of 1977 when an Executive Presidency was mooted.

After 40 years and on to the sixth Executive President, the people seem to have had enough of it. They want it abolished and executive power vested back with Parliament. As it so happens, the UNP that introduced the system is in sync with that view, and the SLFP which opposed it, is now for it. It is very clear that it all depends on the current political standing of their leaders and is not aimed at what is best for the country in the long run. The JHU has a valid point in arguing that the system must remain as long as the Provincial Councils exist – as a check and balance to them.

The people seem to feel that the fears when the system was introduced in 1977/78 that it would breed autocrats, have been proved. Even the first Executive President J.R. Jayewardene contemplated a third term in office and so did the last President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
We have oft quoted the famous British man of letters, Alexander Pope, who said “for forms of government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best”. Parliamentary dictatorships are no different to a Presidential dictatorship. The redeeming factor with the incumbent Presidency is that the President has to work with a political party which is not his own, and thereby curtailing any inclination towards autocratic rule. The flip side is that it can be a Government pulling in different directions, thus going nowhere.

Representative democracy in Sri Lanka is more than 70 years old. The first election under Universal Adult Franchise was in 1931 to the State Council. In 14 years it will be the centenary of elections in Sri Lanka, one of the oldest to enjoy ‘one man/woman; one vote’, not just in Asia, but in fact, the world. Over the last seven decades, the composition of Parliament has changed as much as its location from Galle Face to Sri Jayawardenepura, Kotte and its name from the House of Representatives to the National State Assembly to Parliament today.

In the first Parliament (House of Representatives) of 1947, there were 3 million registered voters. In the last election of 2015, there were 15 million registered voters. Elected and nominated MPs totalled 95 in 1947 and 225 in 2015. The Cabinet in 1947 had 14 Ministers (including one without portfolio) and we have today 51 Cabinet Ministers. The increase in quantity does not reflect a corresponding increase in quality.
Those who had the privilege of witnessing the exhilarating and educative debates in Parliaments of yesteryear will testify to a marked decline in standards – except probably in the food in its cafeteria. Not that earlier Parliaments were boring affairs. The theatrics there were aplenty, but of high quality.

The drop in standards coupled with conflicts of interest and corruption among law makers is not a malaise exclusive to Sri Lanka’s Parliament. In the USA, Congressmen cannot bring in gun control laws because of the money-power of their National Rifle Association. In India, more and more families involved in crime are entering elected bodies. Even in the so-called Mother of Parliaments, the UK’s House of Commons, political analysts have described the change in the law-makers getting elected, announcing the arrival of the professional MP.

Earlier, the men – and a few women who became MPs came from different walks of life. There were the professionals and the University educated as much as the typical working class who came through trade unions. The landed gentry and those with peerages would end up in the second chamber – the House of Lords. There was a healthy mix – a cross-section of society represented, who could contribute to debates on subjects they were well acquainted with.

Later, political parties began appointing party workers who were in politics full-time and climbed the party ladder to get nomination. This happened in Sri Lanka as well somewhat differently, but with the same end result. Additionally, widows and siblings of MPs, and bodyguards and even the ‘gamey chandiya’ (village thug) found their way into Parliament. Thus, that wide representation was lost.

The onus lies heavily on the political leadership to put forward candidates of substance so that the future of Parliamentary democracy can be secure. It may be easier said than done, and one positive feature is the move towards a mixed electoral system of proportional representation (PR) and the old style first-past-the-post electorates.

Many abortive attempts at scuttling Parliamentary democracy – the 1962 botched coup d’état; the 1971 southern insurgency; the 1972 extension of Parliament; the 1982 Referendum to extend the term of Parliament; the 1987-89 second southern insurgency and the 1976-2009 northern separatist insurgency have all been serious threats that have been overcome – the militant ones put down by the often denigrated, not sufficiently praised Armed Forces of this country.

In his address last Tuesday to the special session of Parliament to celebrate its 70th year, the President kept stressing the proposed Constitution that is being drafted intends to “strengthen Parliament”, but did not elaborate on the modalities. He kept studiously silent on the future of the very office he holds – the Executive Presidency which is a bone of contention among those who supported him to this exalted office.

That is the crux of the issue facing Parliamentary democracy. Will it have to play second fiddle to an Executive Presidency and a Presidential democracy? And if the much flaunted “supremacy of Parliament” is to be a reality, it doesn’t mean pampering its members with duty-free cars to make a quick buck but rather opening its doors to public hearings of its many Oversight Committees like in all modern democracies and be an example of true leadership. While this country must be fortunate it has had Parliamentary democracy for so long, Parliament’s lustre must not be tarnished by the conduct of its supposedly “Honourable Members”.

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