27 February 2020

A ‘two-thirds’ we can all agree upon!

Pic courtesy elakiri.com

Mangala Samaraweera is reported to have opined that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will secure a two thirds majority at the parliamentary elections which are expected to be held in a few months’ time. Interesting.

Now Mangala, according to his cheering squad, is some kind of strategical whiz-kid. The track-record doesn’t exactly bear that out. He’s ‘led’ many a losing campaign. If indeed he had strategized on behalf of the United National Party (UNP) in Maithripala Sirisena’s presidential campaign, it would be a stretch to say ‘Mangala was key’.  The same could be said of General Election held later that year. It was more about momentum. If he was such a great strategist, the UNP would not have been creamed in every major election between 2005 and 2010 and in most of the local government and provincial elections during the same period.

However, those who take him seriously for whatever reason would probably be worried about his latest prediction, for one could assume their political preferences coincide with his. The cuter lot in that camp don’t say ‘we are worried about the political fate of our party.’ In fact they would vehemently deny any association with the UNP. Their slips show, nevertheless. Anyway, such people, pretentious to the core, talk about the implications of such an eventuality on lofty ideals. Democracy for instance. 

The argument is as follows. 

If any party secures a two-thirds majority it would mean that the constitution could be changed at the whims and fancies of party leaders. That would be terrible. Therefore, in the interest of a healthy democracy (which requires among other things a reasonably strong opposition) vote against the SLPP, even if you voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. 

Now some may buy that, but most would not. Simply, a ‘foreboding forecast’ is in the end little more than speculation. First, it’s hard to fool people. Most would immediately recognize the proposal for what it really means — trying to spare the UNP some blushes. Secondly, since the outcome will only be known once the counting is done, why on earth should someone vote against a political party he or she had supported just a few months previously (unless there’s absolute disappointment, which there isn’t), just because the party MIGHT get a two-thirds majority?  

We must commiserate with the UNP loyalists disguised as democrats considering their plight. However there should be a more compelling reasons to vote for the UNP than ‘the (remote) possibility that the SLPP may obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament.’  

And yet, ‘two-thirds,’ as it is popularly understood is certainly problematic. History bears witness.

The UNP, under J.R.Jayewardena, abused the majority enjoyed by calling a referendum (1982) that allowed a simple majority vote to protect the five-sixths majority that the party had secured in 1977. The UNP, under Ranasinghe Premadasa, used parliamentary numbers to push through several partisan amendments in late 1988 and early 1989, envisaging the loss of that majority in the general election that followed Premadasa’s narrow win in December 1988 in violently repressive circumstances. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa, following what could be called a landslide win in 2010, orchestrated a historic crossover of MPs from the UNP to the United People’s Freedom Alliance. Securing thus a two-thirds majority, he then pushed through the self-serving 18th Amendment. The political mess following Sirisena’s defection created a unique configuration of forces in Parliament after 2015, enabling the passage of the 19th Amendment, one of the most carelessly written pieces of legislation in post-independence history.

Obviously this constitution sorely needs amendment or even replacement by one that makes better sense. Therefore we need to think about ‘two thirds’ in a different way.   

This is where the ‘moment of the 17th’ could provide an answer. In 2001, defections from the People’s Alliance (PA) to the UNP created conditions for the JVP to step in and push through legislation despite relatively minuscule numbers in Parliament. That was the single memorable achievement of the ‘parivasa arrangement’ between the PA and the JVP. The problem with fortuitous circumstances (necessary for such things) is that they are unpredictable. Hence, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. After all, that was just a one-off out of as many as 19 amendments. 

It is obviously a tough ask. First of all, political parties and party leaders cannot be trusted not to put party and self before nation and citizen. Secondly, we have a political culture where representatives don’t budge one inch from the party line. What the leader says, they do. What the leader says, goes. 

However, even such cultures can change or rather can be changed. Sometimes it just requires a few people to stand up and speak their minds. The issue is that party leaders don’t really nominate men and women of courage and integrity. Even such people who do get nominated, as history has shown, are sucked into the corrupt and self-serving culture that prevails. It is hard to survive. 

There’s little that we can do, but the little that can be done must be done. People can tell party leaders or representatives what kind of candidate they want. They can insist. They can choose not to vote for those who have not delivered anything of substance over the past several decades. They can instead vote in good men and women. Professionals with exemplary track records. Individuals with courage and skill. People of integrity. 

Just imagine a parliament where two-thirds are made of such people, regardless of which party they belong to. Sounds a bit Utopian but it’s not impossible. Maybe we won’t get that many MPs. A dozen, though? Two or three? It might take time. It might take several elections. However, if there’s a PEOPLE’S two-thirds as opposed to a party’s two-thirds, it would mean either than the culture has changed or that it can be changed. 

We know political parties want to secure as many votes as possible. They would be pleased to get the highest number of seats, they would love to obtain a working majority and would be over the moon with a two-thirds majority.  That’s what parties are about Let them have their party. Let’s think about the kind of party we can have. The kind of outcome we can celebrate. 

OUR kind of two-third alluded to above is eminently possible. So let’s go for OUR two-thirds. It doesn’t matter which party we pick. What could be decisive is the candidates for whom we cast our preferential votes. There’s a two-thirds majority that beckons. It’s an ‘up to us’ matter. Are we up to it, is the question. 

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [February 20, 2020]