Ailing parliament and moribund democracy
Posted on October 3rd, 2017

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Sri Lankan Parliament, housed in a palatial building complex constructed with Japanese funds and equipped with computers from China, has celebrated its 70th Anniversary on a grand scale. One wonders whether the celebrations were also sponsored by a foreign government. As parliament turns 70, the need, we believe, is for sober reflection and not scenes of jubilation. What we are witnessing is like celebrating a terminally ill person’s birthday.

Democracy has faced a double whammy at the hands of the very politicians who organised yesterday’s grand event. First, they manipulated the local government election laws and postponed mini polls indefinitely without allowing the people to exercise their franchise, which is a fundamental right of theirs. Thereafter, emboldened by the success of their despicable mission and the impotency of their opponents, they went a step further; they stuffed an ordinary bill, at the committee stage, with sections of the 20th Amendment, which the Supreme Court had deemed inconsistent with the Constitution, and secured its passage in the most undemocratic manner. They have not only demonstrated their callous disregard for the hallowed principle of the separation of powers and the revered parliamentary traditions but also violated the people’s sovereignty by denying the public and the judiciary their right to have a say as regards lawmaking. Worse, when a division was called, sittings were adjourned for a long time until the government members and their allies came running to Parliament and mustered a two-thirds majority for the draconian Bill.

It is a supreme irony that the yahapalana government which reinstated Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake in 2015 by claiming that proper procedure had not been followed in impeaching her under the Rajapaksa government has acted in contravention of parliamentary procedures to postpone PC polls! Who guards the guards––quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Parliament has, no doubt, undergone numerous improvements under successive governments which allocated funds for feathering lawmakers’ nests with a generous hand. MPs are blessed with all luxuries in Parliament. They have separate desks and comfy chairs (in which they can doze after scarfing heavily subsidised sumptuous meals). This alone will make their British counterparts who sit in a crowded House turn green with envy. The parliament restaurants easily compare with the best in the world. MPs are paid better than most professionals in this country. They are entitled to pensions, duty free vehicles and soft loans besides numerous allowances. But, parliamentary standards continue to plummet at an alarming rate like the value of the rupee. Slanging matches and even fisticuffs pass for debates. More often than not, sessions are inquorate and there are times when even the members billed to open debates are absent. Questions posed by the Opposition often go unanswered. An Opposition MP has been trying for more than one year to elicit information about President Maithripala Sirisena’s foreign travel, but in vain.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the government is not a government; some of its members function as the Opposition. The Opposition is not an Opposition; its members co-habit with the government. The government has ‘appointed’ the Opposition and the latter is at the beck and call of the former out of gratitude. It is wrong to call this a political marriage of convenience; it is a ménage à trois. They fully cooperate to undermine democracy as evident from their collusion to postpone the PC polls. There has emerged an alternative to the official Opposition in the form of what has come to be called the Joint Opposition. But, that outfit, too, runs with the masses and hunts with the government; its leaders have chosen to remain silent on the biggest ever financial crime in the country, the bond scams, which have caused some state banks and the workers’ superannuation fund to haemorrhage funds.

The UNP, the SLFP and the JVP have abused the National List to bring candidates rejected by the people at the last general election into Parliament. Some of them have been made ministers. Never has parliamentary democracy been undermined in this manner!

There is no bigger threat to a country’s parliament and democracy than a government which fears elections and has no sense of shame.

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