The debate about reconvening  Parliament or holding parliamentary elections goes on unabated among the political establishment and indeed informed sections of the public. In the meantime the Constitutional and legal issues surrounding the dissolution of Parliament will be determined by the Supreme Court in the days to come. Despite the Constitution postulating that the three [...]


Parliament: An invaluable aid to governance in difficult times


The debate about reconvening  Parliament or holding parliamentary elections goes on unabated among the political establishment and indeed informed sections of the public.

In the meantime the Constitutional and legal issues surrounding the dissolution of Parliament will be determined by the Supreme Court in the days to come.

Despite the Constitution postulating that the three arms of Government are made up of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary the question in the minds of the public must be as to how long the country can go on without a functioning Parliament.

Since March 2, 2020 the country is functioning without a Parliament. The decision to dissolve the Parliament on that date was clearly within the powers of the President. In fact he, and other members of the Government, had been repeatedly saying Parliament would be dissolved at the earliest possible opportunity which was the March 2.

In the proclamation dissolving Parliament the dates for the election (April 25, 2020) and the summoning of Parliament (May 15) was announced as Constitutionally required. The period for receiving nominations too ended on March 19.

Days before the period for receiving nominations ended President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told SAARC leaders at an online meeting initiated by Indian Premier Modi to discuss a joint approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that the parliamentary elections would be held as scheduled.

The Government was keen to hold elections on two counts. The first was to secure a two third majority in Parliament primarily to amend the 19th Amendment and secondly to have what was described as a ‘strong Government.’

The Government was clearly not going to be deterred by the growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic in its desire to ensure its goal of securing a majority in Parliament.

However with the end of the nomination period, the power to decid the date of the election shifted to the National Election Commission which recognised the danger of holding an election as scheduled on April 25, 2020 and re-fixed the date of parliamentary elections.

The Election Commission had also its own logistical reasons for postponing the Elections. The conduct of an islandwide parliamentary election is a formidable and challenging one at the best of times. But in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and health regulations like social distancing and the restricted movement of public officials and people, the Election Commission would be hard put to train the election officials as well as create a level playing field in which all candidates would have ready access to the voters. In short, it would have been well nigh impossible for the Election Commission to ensure a free and fair election.

If the Election Commission, which is a creature of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, had not taken that decision, the Government may have continued with its plan to hold the parliamentary elections as scheduled which in turn may have resulted in a public health disaster for the country.  As it turned out it seems that the 19th Amendment had helped to avert a national health tragedy.

At present, the parliamentary elections is scheduled for June 20, 2020. The National Election Commission has said it will await the decision of the Supreme Court with regard to the petitions before it prior to deciding  the timing of the elections. Whatever the Supreme Court determines it is very clear that parliamentary elections cannot be held in the near future, and the country will not have a functioning Parliament for at least a few more months.

An observation of the debate surrounding the holding of the parliamentary elections reveals three clear trends. Some spokesmen of the Government said the Government has no intention of holding the elections until some sense of normalcy is reached in regard to the COVID-19 situation. The Opposition too, is of the view that while parliamentary elections are important, it should not jeopardise the people’s health. The Elections Commission Chairman too had said they do not like to conduct an election over the dead bodies of the public.

Therefore if the present situation continues there will be no functioning Parliament for the next few months at least. This is most unhealthy for a democracy and is contrary to the scheme of governance envisaged by the Constitution. From the people’s perspective a functioning Parliament is a must and whether it is the old parliament or a new parliament is  immaterial. However the choice between a new parliament (which the Government wants) and reviving the old parliament (as the Opposition urges) is not difficult to make. Since a parliamentary election cannot be held in the foreseeable future due to the public health situation in the country,  reviving the old Parliament has to be the inevitable choice.

Apart from the Constitutional implications, such as lack of parliamentary oversight of finances of the country by a functioning Parliament, there are other factors too which the Government will do well to consider.

The Parliament also plays a vital role as a forum to bring to the notice of governmental authorities the grievances of the people. In the current context of a governmental machinery that is hamstrung by its inability to function to its full capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, difficulties faced by the peopl in their day-to-day lives may well be lost to the sight of the powers that be.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the Government in the last couple of months is ensuring the basic needs of the people such as food and health are met. Thousands of daily paid workers are badly affected, farmers are struggling to market their produce at reasonable prices and the poor and marginalised are struggling to get food on the table.

There were complaints that even the Rs 5000 monthly payments were not received by all those entitled to do so. The officials distributing these payments like gramaseva niladaris, Samurdi officers and development officers themselves have been facing problems and have stopped work at different times.

The abject poverty and pathetic plight of the rural and urban poor can be seen  through the desperation with which   they run hither and thither to obtain the pittance of Rs 5000 given by Government. There are bound to be many other issues that the people are faced with and do not reach the eyes and ears of the Government and its officials.

It is at such a time that the practical value of Parliament can be realised. The members of the legislature function as a conduit to convey the concerns and needs of their constituents to the Government and its ministers. The members of parliament cannot play this rule when the Parliament has been dissolved because they do not have a forum nor an incentive to do so. The sovereign people are therefore deprived of the services of their representatives at a time when they need them most.

It can also deprive the Government of a mechanism to keep their fingers on the pulse of the people. In such a situation the Government can be lulled into a sense of complacency that everything is hunky dory with the people. This ignorance of the ground situation can even have disastrous consequences for the Government at a future poll.

Thus a functioning Parliament is not only a Constitutional requirement but an aid to Governance. Depriving the sovereign people of such an important pillar of democracy when they need its services the most can only be done by the Government at its own peril. It is akin to a lame man who needs two crutches to walk attempting to make do with one.

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