Special Referendum at national intermediate level.
Posted on December 20th, 2023

Sugath Kulatunga

In our democracy the People can use the power of franchise in selecting a government only once in 5 years unless the Parliament is dissolved earlier. In between elections the voice of the People is muted. This makes them to resort to enraged demonstrations and Aragalayas. The government also takes decisions on conjecture. A typical guesstimate decision was the overnight ban on chemical fertilizer.  It was done with good intentions on the advice of a small coterie of pseudo experts, not anticipating an adverse response from the farmers. What the country needs is a mechanism to consult the People and for the People to show their response at an intermediate level between the Parliament and the grassroot constituency. In the current context public opinion on the increase in VAT could be tested in an intermediate referendum.

As provided by Article 4 of the Constitution the Sovereignty of the People shall be exercised and enjoyed at every Referendum by every citizen who has attained the age of eighteen years.

The Directive Principles of State Policy given at Article 27. (4)  calls for the State to strengthen and broaden the democratic structure of government and the democratic rights of the People by decentralizing the administration and by affording all possible opportunities to the People to participate at every level in national life and in government.

By Article 86, The President may, submit to the People by Referendum any matter which in the opinion of the President is of national importance and subsection (2) enables the Parliament by law to provide for a register of electors to be used at a Referendum.

Thus, it is clear that the Parliament can create a register other than the National Register of Electors of the Commissioner of elections to conduct a special Referendum. Such a limited Referendum was envisaged for the merging of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

A national Referendum is costly and time consuming and is a burden on the economy. Sri Lanka already has a democratically elected wide base that can be used for special referenda. The Pradeshiya Sabha and Local Government bodies in the country will have a revised representative membership of around 5000 members. This grassroot group mirrors the will of the People and can be utilized as the constituency for special referenda. Such elections could be conducted at the district level within two weeks of its approval by Parliament. In order to reduce any economic and social ill effect no election meetings, demonstrations and posters should not be allowed other than publicity over print and electronic media.

It is for the constitutional lawyers to consider these facts and institutionalize a national intermediate level to gauge the will of the People. It would be democratic to provide for the Parliament to invoke a special referendum with the approval of a 50% majority of all members of the Parliament.

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