25 May 2015

The 20th and the spectre of JR’s Referendum

In July 1977 the United National Party (UNP) swept to power in a landslide electoral victory, securing a five-sixths majority in Parliament.  JR Jayewardene promptly used this majority to enact a new constitution which not only created an executive presidency but vested it with unprecedented power. 

There was  a safeguard to ensure that parliamentary representation would reflect the preferences of the electorate better.  Proportional Representation (PR) would do the trick.  Indeed, it seemed logical.  After all, in 1977 the UNP did not secure five-sixths of the vote and yet that was the strength it enjoyed in parliament.  A PR system would correct this, it was argued.  This was long before the evils of ‘preferential voting’ or the manaapa-kramaya became apparent.  

In 1982 JR Jayewardene came up with a move that was antithetical to the democratizing sentiments embedded in introducing the PR system.  He wanted the people to vote on a strange and patently anti-democratic referendum: should the life of the then parliament be extended by a further six years or not?  

In effect, a simple majority (50% + 1 vote) would allow the UNP to retain its considerable sway in parliament for another six years.  In other words 50%+1 would translate into more than 80% power in parliament or rather the retention of that proportion.  All in the name of democracy!  

That and other measures which further limited the democratic space is in part responsible for the anarchic situation that developed towards the end of that decade, resulting in the loss of 60,000 lives in just two years.  

Thirty seven years have passed since we got the PR system.  It’s many ills became apparent many years ago.  However, and ironically, it was the PR system itself that made it next to impossible to do away with it: it was very difficult to obtain the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution.  Also, while the PR system was a curse for the voter since it effectively gave an unfair as well as significant edge to candidates with lots of money.  It is these very individuals now further empowered by the benefits of being parliamentarians who have to vote on measures that would be detrimental to their own interests.  

While JR was in power and until the UNP lost its two-thirds majority in 1989, all amendments passed essentially promoted the parochial interests of the party.  In any case, at the time, JR had in his hand undated letters of resignation signed by all UNP members.  In 2001, MPs did act against their interest to pass the 17th Amendment, but this was done in a hurry and perhaps they did not notice or understand its limiting effects.   

Mahinda Rajapaksa found ways of securing a two-thirds majority and used it to further ‘distance’ the presidency from the people.  He was popular and his MPs were too dependent on him for them to object.  

Today, we have a unique situation.  The President is the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Prime Minister is from the UNP.  The latter helped the former become President and the former appointed the latter as Prime Minister.  The deal was to see constitutional reform through, especially the pruning of presidential powers (done) and changing the electoral system.  The manaapa kramaya would go, they pledged.

President Maithripala Sirisena acknowledged that no one wants the manaapa kramaya: ‘The people have wanted it changed, all 225 MPs are in agreement.’  He is against it.  And so, an election promise was reiterated this week at a meeting with heads of media institutions.  The 20th Amendment (on electoral reform) would be enacted, he pledged.  

Then, strangely, the President interjected a caveat: ‘the MPs want the next election held under the same system.’   The obvious question was asked: ‘If the people think it is flawed, if you think it is flawed, if the entire Parliament thinks it is flawed, if everyone votes to amend the constitution to correct the flaw, what is the logic of holding an election under the previous system, i.e. whose flaws are universally acknowledged?  The President tried to pass the ball: ‘let the Parliament decide on it’.

Some balls, however, don’t pass.  President Sirisena is the Leader of the SLFP.  He is the Executive President.  He won a mandate from the people.  He made pledges.  He can do it or rather get it done.  He cannot hide behind the weak, silly and ultimately scandalous excuse ‘it’s up to the MPs’.  

There is absolutely no logic in changing a system to correct flaws and then using the flawed system even one single time.  If that is the case then the flawed system will produce a flawed result and we will not get the kind of representation that makes it possible to claim we are a ‘representative democracy’.  We will be saddled by the flawed products of a flawed process for a further five years.   

It is not the same thing that JR did in 1982 of course because theoretically it is a new set of parliamentarians that such an election would produce.  However, we will get the same type of MPs.  JR went against the logic of introducing the PR system.  This parliament, if we are to believe the President’s virtual vote of no-confidence on the MPs, would go against the logic that is expressed or to be expressed through the 20th Amendment.  

When the UNP tried to get a UNP-helping version of the 19th Amendment passed, the courts barred the way.  Whether the courts would stand in the way of the gross violation of the democratizing spirit of the proposed 20th Amendment, we do no know.  

JR’s machinations, as mentioned, helped produce a bloodbath down the line.  We don’t need a repeat.  What is planned (as per the President’s ‘revelation’) will certain help the country walk towards that bloody destination.  That plan must be scuttled.