The stench from Meethotamulla, metaphorically speaking, is being matched by the stench of political rivals lobbing chunks of political garbage at one another. The politically dispassionate pointing out that there are countries where such disasters resulted in the resignation of relevant subject ministers or officials, called for the resignation of those responsible. The most uncomfortable thing about all this is that people don’t have any position to resign from; they can’t give up their citizenship.
Much has been written about waste management over the past few days. Hopefully outrage and cheap politicking will give way to sober reflection, self-criticism, responsible citizenship and a scientific approach to the resolution of the problem at all levels which also eliminates the corruption that has made garbage disposal a lucrative business for some while bringing death to others. For now, let us consider the larger issue at hand, that of responsibility and therefore accountability, especially on the part of representatives.
We can always reject erring politicians at the polls. That’s the only option we have. Either we think this is enough or we are hampered by ignorance or impotency to come up with a better system. It’s a bit like waste management. The authorities have for years talked of the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse and recycle). They have tried to educate the public. They’ve set up various sorting mechanisms. The response has been poor. We expect our representatives to deliver and if they don’t we just grin and bear, and even re-elect them after playing a game where relative merits and party loyalty outweigh performance. In other words we essentially assume that politicians have a sense of responsibility.
We have to come to terms sooner or later with the fact that we just can’t expect people to do what’s right and leave it at that. We don’t worry whether candidates declare assets or not and no one bothers to demand an asset declaration from politicians at the completion of their terms. That’s how complacent we are. We are kings and queens until the polls close and are slaves thereafter until the next election. And even if we punish wrongdoers and the incompetent, they can still creep in through the backdoor called the ‘National List,’ a devise used by even the lords and ladies of the Yahapalana Project.
Accountability is a tough issue simply because it is the currently unaccountable who have the authority to script it into law. This is clear when we consider the fortuitous circumstances which made for the 17th Amendment, the ease with which it was done away with, the difficult passage of the 19th, the foot-dragging that preceded the Right to Information Act being passed and the strange silence about the 20th Amendment, i.e. on electoral reform, although it was screamed about by chest-thumping yahapalanists in the run up to the January 8 ‘Revolution’.
Without electoral reform and given the escape clause in the 19th Amendment pertaining to cabinet size the accountability measures currently in place are at risk. There’s no harm, however, in proposing additional measures, especially one that few have talked about, namely the right to recall.
It’s not a novel idea. Voters in British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly, for example, can petition to have their parliamentary representatives removed from office and can enforce it through a by-election (Sri Lanka’s Proportional Representation system forbids such procedures obviously, another reason why Electoral Reform should precede recall legislation). Several states in the USA permit recall on grounds such as misconduct or malfeasance. Even the ancient Athenians had a recall option, ostracism. In India it operates at local level bodies in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. We live in a hire-and-fire system and as such we have the moral responsibility to affirm the political equivalent, elect-and-recall.
Feroze Varun Gandhi in an article published on the subject in ‘The Hindu’ has offered some caveats which would be good to keep in mind.
“While it is necessary to ensure that a recall process is not frivolous and does not became a source of harassment to elected representatives, the process should have several built-in safeguards such as an initial recall petition to kick-start the process and electronic-based voting to finally decide its outcome. Furthermore, it should ensure that a representative cannot be recalled by a small margin of voters and that the recall procedure truly represents the mandate of the people. To ensure transparency and independence, chief petition officers from within the Election Commission should be designated to supervise and execute the process.”
As things stand we can’t expect resignation. Politicians are not into self-flagellation, they don’t self-immolate. They justify action and inaction (like everyone else). It is not that they are all dishonorable and have no notion of dignity, but such things are usually produced by a society that has high moral standards. Ours does not. It also follows that those who won’t hear of resignation will probably not want to talk about recall. This doesn’t stop the people from talking about it, however.
But let’s begin with the 20th Amendment. It is exactly two years (731 days) since the 100 days within which yahapalanists promised to institute electoral reforms. Was that project dumped and is it to remained buried in the Meethotamullas of Political Distraction? Shouldn’t this alone warrant a call for recall?
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: malindasene.