15 November 2018

Sri Lanka’s Democracy Deficit

A cartoon that did the rounds during and after the heady days of the Arab Spring, so-called, had Uncle Sam declaring, ‘Beware! We will give you democracy!’ It’s a bit like someone grabbing a fish out of water and saying ‘I want to save it from drowning!’ Much of the democracy angst we’ve seen over the past few days is like that. 

On Tuesday, November 13, 2018, the Supreme Court granted leave to proceed on the matter of several Fundamental Rights applications contesting the gazette notification issued by the President to dissolve parliament. What this means, in plain language, is that the court has determined that there is a legal matter that requires examination, nothing more, nothing less.

The politicians who went to court cheered what they called was ‘a triumph for democracy’.  Now, had the court determined otherwise, would they have lamented ‘a defeat for democracy,’ one must ask. Anyway, such triumphalism is par for the course. So too, the cheers of the faithful. 

What’s amusing is the angst and subsequent relief of those who claim to be apolitical or at least non-partisan. They include, but are not limited to spokespersons of certain Western diplomatic missions, self-labeled ‘civil society activists,’ certain academics and other professionals. They also include those outside of these circles, for examples, ‘ordinary citizens’ who hold candlelight vigils and posters claiming (perhaps to alleviate embarrassment) ‘this is not about Ranil’.  

Let’s nutshell it. We didn’t hear no whimpers about democracy, darlings, when Maithripala Sirisena appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister on January 9, 2015 even though the man had less 25% support in Parliament. No whimpers when in April 2015, the Yahapalanists tabled a constitutional amendment drafted by a rank incompetent, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, that had more holes than swiss cheese. The UNP either didn’t see the holes or believed that the hole-guard, Maithripala Sirisena would a) not allow the opposition (the Rajapaksas, as they put it) to creep through it and indeed wouldn’t himself take a crawl. That the Mahinda-Faction of the SLFP voted for it is another matter here. The point is, there were no concerns raised then.

No whimpers when the President and Prime Minister worked to dissolve Parliament the very day the COPE report on the bond scam was to be made public. No whimpers when the democracy-champions used their respective national lists to accommodate persons rejected at the polls by the people. No whimpers when Sarath Fonseka was made an MP and given a ministerial portfolio.  

No whimpers, either in January 2015 or in August the same year when MPs crossed over to the government. But today, ladies and gentlemen, there’s  horror at the possible subversion of democracy. There are whimpers today. And therefore there are hurrahs at what is not an unexpected court ruling considering the fact that the architects of the 19th Amendment were incompetent and slothful. 

To elaborate, the Supreme Court pointed out points in Wickramaratne’s draft that were in violation of the constitution. The dissolution clause, court determined, required a two-thirds majority plus a referendum. Wickremeratne amended it, inserting a clause which allowed an interpretation permitting the President to dissolve at will, clearly at odds with the four and a half year moratorium on dissolution in a different clause. 

Back to whimpers. No whimpers when the Yahapalana Government kept postponing local government elections. No whimpers that the terms of six provincial councils have expired and there are no signs of elections being held.  

Not about Ranil? No, it is about Ranil for it’s Ranil that is the UNP and it is Ranil who was caught by the short-hairs by the President. If one were to be generous, one could say, ‘alright, it’s not about Ranil but it is certainly about the UNP and its political fortunes.’

The constitutional crisis should be talked of as a problem of careless wording. It is also about the machinations of politicians belonging to all parties, not just the UNP. However, the root of the crisis is about true representation. In other words the issue of legitimacy.

Sirisena mentioned a few months ago that there had been some 400 demonstration in Colombo since January 2015.. The official Leader of the Opposition votes with the yahapalanists on a consistent basis. What he and the heenen-bayavunu prajaathanthravaadeen (democrats who seem to have woken up from a bad dream) have not mentioned is the glaring representational anomaly. 

The opposition (which is of course not coterminous with the SLPP or the Joint Opposition) does not have proper parliamentary representation. Voter sentiment as expressed in parliamentary composition was mangled in January 2015 and this was repeated in August 2015. The results of the local government election in February 2018 is the most reliable indication of where the people stand. 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 a humbling 10.  If democracy is about people, then they have spoken. 

Unfortunately, there was a clause in the 19th that made it difficult to act so as to correct this anomaly, i.e. through the dissolution of Parliament. It took a parting of political ways for Sirisena to move on this and we know how that process is stumbling along. What’s pertinent, however, is that simple arithmetic clearly shows that the anomaly has got worse after Sirisena decided to form a political alliance with Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The court knows best, and one should not presume here. Whatever the outcome of the litigation process, it seems sensible to proceed in a manner that resolves the representational conundrum for if left unresolved, the basic premises of sovereignty will be compromised. 

Those who champion the cause of democracy cannot ignore the democracy-deficit in parliament. They cannot therefore hesitate on the need for correction. There’s no better corrective mechanism than elections. There’s no better test of approval available in a democracy. You can’t want democracy and not have elections; no elections, no democracy.  The bottom line, then, is a single word: ELECTIONS.  


From DS to RW: The Decline of the United National Party

Selective tear-shedding in seasons of demagoguery

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