22 November 2018

How about some sovereignty for a change?

In certain circles, political debate has been reduced to whether or not the Prime Minister is legitimate. Some argue that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ouster was illegal and therefore the issue of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s legitimacy is resolved by that very fact.  

Those who argue in this manner support their case in terms of parliamentary arithmetic. Strictly speaking, after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) withdrew from the ‘National Government,’ even by the injudicious and vague definition of the same, the ‘National Government’ ceased to exist, and immediately Wickremesinghe ceased to have majority control of Parliament.  

A vote against Mahinda Rajapaksa is not the same as a vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe, let us note, observing at the same time that no such vote was taken in terms of procedures established in parliamentary standing orders. In other words, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) may support a vote of no-confidence brought against Rajapaksa but this does not mean that they would back a Wickremesinghe premiership.  

There are minority governments all over the world. That’s not a pleasant thing of course but it doesn’t mean utter confusion or dysfunction either.  Hypothetically a vote in Parliament about who should be the Prime Minister might resolve the question of popularity, even if no one gets 113 or more votes.  The current political turmoil does not permit such litmus tests.  

The importance of examining parliamentary support is predicated on the issue of sovereignty.  In a democracy, however flawed the related structures, institutions and culture are, popular sovereignty holds that the authority of a state and government are created and sustained by the consent of the particular polity, the people, through their elected representatives. The key word is ‘people’. ‘Representative’ is secondary and representation subsequent.  

As of now, the voices against President Maithripala Sirisena’s move to oust Wickremesinghe and of course against Rajapaksa, stand on the issue of representation and related parliamentary numbers to ascertain ‘popular will’.

If we were to leave out the issue of legality (regarding dissolution), deferring respectfully to the wisdom of the Supreme Court, we would have to dwell on the question of legitimacy a la sovereignty.  

There are broadly two ways to handle this. First, we could examine manifestos, mandates and performance.  Few would say that the Yahapalana regime conducted itself with distinction. At best, even its most ardent supporters would have to qualify all claims with the two words ‘at’ and ‘least’.  Relative merits is a dangerous game and in the end inconclusive and of very little practical use. This is why we need to examine the second option: ‘what do the people think?’

Well, people’s opinions cannot be obtained except through an election. Usually when there’s absolute lack of clarity in all things parliamentary, it is best that the final arbiters on the issue, the people, be allowed to express will. That, as mentioned is in the courts as of now. We can, however, obtain some sense of where the people stand by checking out the results of the most recent election. Elections to local government bodies were held throughout Sri Lanka on February 10, 2018. That’s just nine months ago.  

What do the numbers say about how confident people were about the Yahapalana Government? The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna secured power in 239 local government bodies whereas the UNP got just 41 and the SLFP/UPFA led by Maithripala just 10. If we talk vote-percentages, the UNP got just 32,64%. If we use the Mangala Samaraweera Theorem (he added votes that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna — SLPP — had not obtained to say that the majority were against the Rajapaksas), 67.37% were against the UNP.  Close to 85% were against the SLFP (which can be taken as proxy for a ‘Sirisena Rating’).  

It can therefore be argued that the current composition of Parliament is a grotesque distortion, that it does not in any way reflect the general sway of voter sentiment.  Indeed, it hangs solely on dubiously worded articles in the 19th Amendment.  It is an error so enormous that arguments for and against who holds the confidence of the majority of MPs is itself an insult to the notion of sovereignty and the people.  One could offer than the current political imbroglio is but a product of this error.  

Even if we forget the numbers and what they say about sovereignty and its confusion and corruption, it would be hard to argue that the people are thrilled about the conduct of their ‘representatives’, regardless of which party they belong to. They have, by omission and commission contributed to the subversion of sovereignty.  

The people need an opportunity to express themselves. They need an opportunity to decide which party or coalition is best suited to represent them. They need an opportunity to decide who among this current lot deserves to be reelected and who should be shown the door. 

Is we talk about democracy, we need to talk about sovereignty. Talk of sovereignty cannot make sense if we are silent on the people and if you want to include people, then, all things considered it is imperative that elections are held. If court objects in its wisdom, then the legislative should amend the 19th to let the people’s voice be included in the democratic process. If not, they should suspend the use of the word ‘democracy’ from their vocabulary.


Malinda Seneviratne is a political analyst and freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com