The Guest Column by Victor Ivon

17th October 1999

Why is it not possible to agree on basics before an election?

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The President's intention appears to hold the presidential election and the parliamentary election even without reaching a general agreement on a solution to the ethnic crisis, to say nothing of effecting such a solution. She says that it is necessary to have a mandate from two thirds of the members of parliament for a solution to the problem and because the opposition would not support her 'package', there is no other alternative but to go for an election asking for a two thirds majority in parliament.

It is impossible to assume that the President is unaware of the fact that under the existing system of proportional representation, it is not easy for anyone to get the absolute support of two thirds of the members of parliament or even the co-operation of two thirds. In the time of the UNP its leaders allowed this problem to fester without offering a solution to it. The leader of the PA, pretending to be genuinely interested in a solution, in a different way, allowed the problem to fester further.

Whoever may win at the coming elections, what will happen will be the same as that which has already happened. Like worms feeding on a wound, these political parties too subsist not on solving problems but on making them more complicated.

Although the existing crisis is described as an ethnic crisis, it is more correct to call it a general socio-political crisis arising from the collapse of the social acceptance for the existing consensus for the present political system. Absence of an agreement among ethnic groups may be a main feature of it visible on the surface. This lack of agreement is percolating to religious groups too.

In any democratic political system the ultimate power should reside in the people. The people vest their sovereign power for a specific period in a group of representatives elected from amongst themselves and the council consisting of those representatives of the people is considered to be the legislature.

The parliament, was once the institution which represented the sovereign power of the people of our country. At that time it was considered to be the supreme institution of the country. Thereafter J.R. Jayewardene created a system of executive presidency above it. Now which of these two institutions exercises the sovereign power of the people is a problem. Although the president stands above everybody else, he or she is not responsible to anyone in the period between two elections. Even the parliament can criticise him only in a resolution signed by two thirds of the members to impeach him. Even in the event of an extremely serious offence on his or her part it is not possible to prosecute him or her in a court of law.

It must be said that although a supreme power not subject to any control is vested in the president on the assumption that he or she is a perfect person not capable of committing any mistake, all presidents from J.R. Jayewardene to Chandrika Kumaratunga have not hesitated to commit questionable acts. President J.R. Jayewardene gave a special pardon to Gonawala Sunil who had been convicted of rape and was serving a term of imprisonment and appointed him a justice of the peace. President Kumaratunga has gone even further and appointed as the head of the judiciary a person against whom inquiries are pending.

If parliament is the supreme institution of people's representatives there must be a method through which genuine representatives of the people are elected to it. But in our country there is no system of free and fair elections to ensure it. The UNP introduced a villainous system of filling ballot boxes in such a way as to get whatever results it wanted. The last provincial council elections for Wayamba showed how Chandrika's PA government continued that system in a worse fashion.

For a democratic political system a party system operating on democratic principles is also necessary. Although there is a party system in our country those parties are democratic externally only and not internally. While one of the two main parties functions as the personal property of one family the other functions as that of a family group. Only members of those family groups can come to positions of leadership in those parties. The possibility of influencing the policies and programmes of those parties by their ordinary members is almost nil. Opposing whatever an opposing party does, whether right or wrong, is an inherent and prominent feature of the multi-party system of Sri Lanka and one of the greatest threats to the progress of the country. When the UNP government created a system of provincial councils the SLFP opposed it with all its might. Later when the SLFP came to power and tried to develop that provincial council system further the UNP did everything in its power to prevent it. It must be stated that this parochial attitude in the bi-party system of Sri Lanka is not confined to complex issues like the ethnic problem. Even in sectors like education and health when it is not difficult to achieve a consensus, this clash operates.

When the President wanted to introduce a programme of educational reforms she prepared and implemented a programme of reforms though a small group of persons without enlisting the cooperation of the opposition. Although the leader of the opposition could have warned her at the beginning not to act arbitrarily without a consensus in this matter he did not do it but allowed it to be introduced arbitrarily and got his youth league to oppose it when it was being implemented.

A provincial council system became necessary as a solution to the ethnic problem of the Tamil people of the North and East but does not operate in the areas where the problem existed. It operates where such a problem does not exist. What the people expected when they put Chandrika Kumaratunga in power was to ensure national integrity through a fruitful reform of the social structure that was collapsing and to restore order where disorder reigned. But due to her acting on the basis of narrow political attitudes without a proper understanding of the issues, what has happened is to aggravate the disorder instead of bringing order where there was disorder. In these circumstances it is not possible to hope for better times in the country even after the coming elections.

If the next presidential and the parliamentary elections are going to be held without a general agreement on just and free elections, those two elections will inevitably be violent and unrestrained. Such an environment will lead to an aggravation of the enmity that exists between the rival political parties and, whatever party may come to power under such circumstances, the opposition party will undoubtedly adopt an attitude of hatred to the activities of the governing party.

However if, instead of reaching an agreement on a program of reforms is arrived at before the elections, it is possible to identify the fundamental principles for such a program and to come to an agreement on those fundamental principles, all the parties will have to support a program of reforms to be implemented on the basis of those fundamental principles. The attempt at identifying those principles and reaching an agreement on them can be taken forward so that it will be possible to reach an agreement on the terms necessary to make the coming two elections peaceful and free.

What is required first is not to identify solutions to the problems but to identify the principles on which such solutions should be based. If it is possible to identify the fundamental principles necessary for a system of government that will guarantee the rights of all communities and will respect their identity and dignity and will promote national integration, it will the possible to turn the parliament after the elections into a constituent assembly and to enact a constitution that will be in accord with the principles agreed upon.

It will be possible to make such a program more successful only if it is possible to act with a perspective of building an all party national government for a period of five or six years, whoever wins at the elections. Such a program will remove the fear of defeat from all the political parties and will give an incentive for a free and fair election. It will be possible to convert the parliament consisting of people's representatives elected at the hustings into a constituent assembly and frame a new constitution and a state policy based on the fundamental principles agreed upon before the elections. It will be possible also to give the first leadership of the all party government to the person who comes first at the presidential election and the second leadership to the one who comes second, and to divide the other posts in the government equitably among the other parties on the basis of the number of seats won by them.

Under such an arrangement all political parties will contest the two elections separately, but after the elections they will rule the country jointly for a specific period. Such a program will give recognition to all political parties big and small and will give them the opportunity to participate fruitfully in the process of taking decisions. Such a program will also lead to a diminishing of inimical divisions that exist between ethnic communities and political parties, and might lead to a positive new political culture.

In the tragic situation the country is facing today, only if all political parties follow such a course of action will it be possible to have a solution that will be satisfactory at least partially. However such a situation can be attained only if the two leaders of the two main parties decide to play a role similar to those of de Klerk and Mandela and if some pressure is exerted on them by the smaller political parties and the general public.

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