16 April 2020

Gota, Parliament and the Question of Representation

Long before the 2019 Presidential Election, stalwarts of the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and of course their closet lackeys painted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a monster. Gotabaya was a Rajapaksa, after all, and Rajapaksas are the villains of the piece, as far as these worthies are concerned. From their point of view, then, it was a valid fear. Except for a few uncomfortable truths which they feign ignorance of. Let’s nutshell them.

Apart from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), no political formation has a track record of absolute brutality that can come close to matching the curriculum vitae of the UNP and JVP.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa tenure wasn’t without blemish of course. There are charges of extrajudicial killings in which the military was involved. Compare that with the extrajudicial killings of Tamil combatants and civilians during the 80s and 90s (i.e. during the presidencies of J.R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandika Kumaratunga).

There are as yet unresolved cases of abduction and/or murder which turned the likes of Upali Tennekoon, Keith Noyhr, Prageeth Ekneligoda, Lasantha Wickramatunga and Wasim Thajudeen into pin-up boys for the UNP and JVP come election time, the last of whom was buried, exhumed, buried and resurrected over and over again. Compare that with the as yet unresolved cases of abduction, torture and murder to the tune of 60,000, not counting proxy arrests, illegal detention and other kinds of harassment at the end of the 80s.

Then there’s the issue of media freedom. Again, Mahinda Rajapaksa was branded as THE Villain. Then again, whatever limits were imposed during his presidency (marked more by a switch from censorship to ownership than rules and/or intimidation) pale to little or nothing when compared with the excesses of the UNP in the 80s on the issue of gagging journalists and media houses. Yes, that was the time of the aadaradeeya sadaadaraneeya piyaano (Ranasinghe Premadasa) of the much inflated but eventually made-to-look-small puthaano (Sajith Premadasa).

The magnitude of the particular wrong or the play of relative merit does not however leave Mahinda Rajapaksa with a clean record. By association and of course because of the fact of temporal proximity, fear or at least mild trepidation about a Gotabaya presidency is certain understandable. The specter of a dictatorship which was conjured by Colombots, Candle Light Ladies, Funded Voices and the Rent-a-Signature Club was of course silly and more indicative of the despair that their favorites were on their way out than anything else. However, Gotabaya was a military man and therefore extrapolations were easy.

Except for a simple fact. 

He was in the end elected by a handsome margin. It was Gotabaya ‘The Doer’ or rather that element of his persona that was most appealing, especially since the yahapalana regime that he ousted by that victory was characterized by rank incompetence, palpable inefficiency and absolute cluelessness, not to mention a zealous desire to hurt the sentiments of the majority community. 

Parliamentary elections were on the cards. Only someone who is absolutely out of touch with Sri Lankan politics would have imagined that Parliament would not be dissolved when it completed 4.5 years in office as per the provisions in the 19th Amendment. So Parliament was dissolved. ‘Too early,’ people said AFTER they knew more about the nature of the Covid-19 pandemic.

So now, with parliament dissolved, elections postponed and with constitutional limitations about reconvening Parliament, we are faced with an additional question. What do we have to say about representation?

So let's talk representation. Let's start with provincial councils. Well, they've been dissolved for quite a while now, years in fact in some cases. No one, not even the most ardent of the devolutionists, has uttered one murmur of concern. 

It must be pointed out that Covid-19 has shown that this is actually a blessing. The USA, for example, is struggling to design and implement uniform policies to fight the pandemic because of its federal structure. The richer states in the USA and the richer provinces in Canada are inwardly focused. They want more face masks for themselves. The country can go to hell, in other words. Just imagine a federal Sri Lanka where the Western Province, clearly the richest, determines something along the following lines: ‘To hell with the other provinces, let’s focus on saving ourselves.’ It won’t help, considering the behavior of the virus, but then the survival chances of the poorer provinces are immediately compromised.

Sri Lanka has, for all intents and purposes, a central command which is all the more accentuated in a situation where there’s no sitting Parliament. Apart from the local government bodies, it is only the office of the President that has representative legitimacy.

Now some have clamored for a reconvening of Parliament. Constitutional conundrums aside, this is a joke. The Parliament elected in August 2015 is no longer legitimate. Yes, this also means that the cabinet is illegitimate, but that’s another story. Reconvening a Parliament whose composition does not reflect the sentiments of the voting population is an insult to the spirit of representation. We cannot look back. The problem is that it is not easy to look ahead either.

Holding elections, some have argued, would compromise efforts to combat the spread of the virus. However, there are precautions that can be taken. The basic rules of social-distancing can be adhered to in both campaigning and voting. No meetings, no crowds, not even pocket meetings or door-to-door campaigning in the way we have got used to. Candidates will have to find different ways of reaching the voter, just as vendors have succeeded in reaching the consumer over the past four weeks or so.

That’s all in the land of speculation at this point. There’s a matrix which includes constitutional provisions/limitations and the advice of authorities relevant to fighting Covid-19 based on knowledge of the pandemic (which is getting updated all the time but subject to the caveat, ‘what we know now could be close to nothing compared to what we are ignorant of). And so, we cannot predict how things will unfold. 

In the event  there is a Parliamentary election soon, however, we would get a legislative that is representative (as opposed to one that has long lost its legitimacy and as such its right to represent). Until then, we have Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for good or bad, better or worse. 

Until then, we have a system where the state sector, led by the suvaviruwo, the tri-forces and the police. They are doing a hard but determined and highly commendable job. No question about this. There is a danger, though. If, for example, Sri Lanka succeeds in combating the threat under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency sans a functioning Parliament, there would be many who would consider it proof positive that we can do without one. Indeed, even right now that are people who are thankful that Parliament is dissolved because 'it would be an unnecessary distraction'. Secondly, the ability to overcome a threat of this kind could also plant seeds of ‘legitimacy’ for continued military dominance in civil affairs. 

What needs to be recognized however is that crises such as this are anomalies. Sudden, unexpected and monumental threats may need extraordinary responses which shelve certain protocols but there is a danger of that being turned into ‘the normal state of affairs’ when it comes to governance. 

We need representation. Right now, for all intents and purposes, the best representative we have in terms of overall legitimacy is Gotabaya Rajapaksa. We’ll have to make do with this situation, but we have to a) retain and affirm civic responsibility of holding him accountable, and b) agitate for the full complement of legitimate representation. We need a newly elected Parliament (yes, the provincial councils are no longer legitimate).  It cannot be impossible. Theoretically, parliamentary elections could be held over an entire week (or even two), province by province or else one district in every province on any given day over a period of several days with counting commencing only after all the districts have voted.

We have a representational deficit right now. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, considering that he was elected just a few months ago, certainly has a large slice of representational legitimacy. It may suffice for now, given the pandemic. It would however be dangerous to take our foot off the democratic and of course representative pedals.

We need to have parliamentary elections. Soon. Somehow.

This article was first published in the Daily Mirror [April 16, 2020]


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