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Editorial

Vote for democracy

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Wednesday 5th August, 2020

Sri Lanka goes to the polls, today, to elect a new Parliament. It is for the first time in the country’s electoral history that an election is held amidst a national health emergency. All polling and counting centres will be free from coronavirus, the Election Commission (EC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has said. Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Anil Jasinghe has also given a similar assurance. The EC has, with the help of the health authorities, taken necessary precautions, and polling and counting centres are being disinfected. These measures are to be appreciated; voters and public officials on election duty do not have to fear health risks.

The EC, in its wisdom, chose to hold the election on Wednesday, and, as a result, the virus-hit economy has suffered another blow owing to the disruption of work in both public and private sector throughout the week. Since the EC Chairman and the DGHS are confident that voters and election officials are safe, the question is why the process of counting votes cannot commence immediately after all ballot boxes reach the counting centres, as has been the practice all these years?

The EC Chairman has said the fear being expressed in some quarters that ballot boxes may be switched is baseless. During the last four decades or so no such malpractices have taken places except during the District Development Council Elections (1981), the referendum (1982) and the North Western Provincial Council election (1999), he is reported to have said, warning that if any polling centre is affected by malpractices, all the votes polled therein will be rejected. However, it is only natural that the fear of polls rigging continues to haunt the public, given the sheer number of malpractice-ridden elections they have witnessed including the ones Deshapriya has mentioned.

Both presidential and parliamentary elections, in the late 1980s, were marred by violence and large-scale rigging, as is public knowledge. The JVP unleashed savage terrorism in a bid to sabotage the polls, with its sparrow units knifing and shooting voters; the then UNP government exploited the situation to stuff the ballot boxes and secure another term. The JVP, either wittingly or unwittingly, facilitated the election of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988. In so doing, JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera and his partners in crime made a fatal mistake; they were annihilated on President Premadasa’s watch, the following year. Prabhakaran and his fellow terrorists would make a similar blunder 17 years later; they ordered a boycott of the 2005 presidential election, and that move led to the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the President, and he had them eliminated. So, one can argue that both Wijeweera and Prabhakaran together with their confederates paid for the sin of disrupting elections with their own lives.

The results of the 1982 referendum and the elections marred by widespread violence and rigging should have been annulled and fresh polls held. The European Union polls observers have said, in their report on the 2004 general election, that what they witnessed during that electoral contest, in the North and the East, where the LTTE backed the TNA, was the antithesis of democracy. The election authorities did not have the courage to stand up to repressive regimes and the LTTE; they made a tremendous contribution to the perpetuation of electoral malpractices by recognising the outcome of the 1999 North Western Provincial Council election, where the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s backers chased away UNP polling agents and stuffed the ballot boxes in full view of the police.

Let the people be urged to go to polling centres as early as possible and exercise their franchise. Their active participation in the electoral process is a prerequisite for ensuring the wellbeing of democracy.

 

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Editorial

Numbers, power and brains

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Wednesday 23rd September, 2020

The SLPP juggernaut is bearing down on democracy. The 20th Amendment (20A) Bill was presented to Parliament, yesterday, amidst protests from the Opposition benches. The government has 150 MPs on its side, and is confident that they will vote for the Bill en bloc. Some of them are disgruntled because they have been left out of the Cabinet but they are likely to be appointed ministers when the Bill is passed and the Cabinet expanded.

The Old Fox would guffaw in his grave if he could see those who once condemned his Constitution and called him a dictator going all out to enhance the powers of the executive presidency; 20A would make him green with envy. What a political dog and pony show they put on, under UNP governments (1978-1994), to have the masses believe that the executive presidency was a scourge that had to be removed forthwith! They even undertook to abolish it, contested presidential elections and obtained mandates for doing that, but they reneged on their pledges. Most of the protesting SJB MPs were ardent supporters of the executive presidency while UNP leaders were wielding it and abusing its powers. There has been a role reversal.

Following the 2015 regime change, many thought that the former leaders, who later formed the SLPP, had learnt from their blunders. It looked as if the collective pratfall they suffered had had the desired impact on them, and they had realised the need to act with restraint, upholding democratic values. But, today, they are practising the very obverse of what they preached during their Opposition days. Power has gone to their heads. Those who were intoxicated with power while in the yahapalana government have taken up the cudgels for the people’s democratic rights. This is why we keep saying, ‘Mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne’—‘when one has brains one has no power’, and when one has power one has no brains.

Let the protesting Opposition MPs be told that they, too, are guilty of having raped democracy. They, as members of the yahapalana government, unflinchingly steamrollered bad Bills through. The Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill of 2017 is a case in point. They stuffed it with sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, to postpone the PC polls indefinitely and secured its passage. It is their arrogance and blunders that enabled the SLPP to win a two-thirds majority at the last general election hands down. Their ugly past and hypocrisy will make it difficult for them to drum up public support for their campaign against 20A, as we argued in a previous comment.

The Executive President, directly elected by the people, should have enough powers to carry out his duties and functions, but the sky is not the limit. He should be able to hold the Defence portfolio as he is responsible for safeguarding national security. The 19th Amendment reduced the Executive President to a virtual figurehead so that the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could reign supreme. The 20A seeks to make the President extremely powerful so that the PM will be powerless again. Both these extremes must be avoided and a via media found. One can only hope that the government will listen to reason and agree to amend the Bill.

There is much more to democracy than parliamentary majorities. If all laws ratified with two-thirds majorities are to be considered legitimate and acceptable, then one cannot find fault with the 1978 Constitution, which was passed with a five-sixth majority in the House; similarly, the SLPP leaders should stop complaining about 19A, which all MPs save one voted for in 2015.

Meanwhile, one may recall that the Enabling Act (1933), which paved the way for Hitler’s dictatorship, was also backed by the German lawmakers overwhelmingly. Only the Chairman of the Social Democrats, Otto Wels, had the courage to oppose that draconian law. If only others had emulated him.

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Editorial

‘Diyawanna Post Office’

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Tuesday 22nd September, 2020

Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has warned that the proposed 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution, if passed, will reduce Parliament to a mere post office. One cannot but agree with him that 20A seeks to strengthen the position of the President at the expense of Parliament, and everything possible should be done to prevent its passage in its present form.

However, it is doubtful whether the Opposition and the civil society outfits backing it will be able to drum up enough public support for their campaign against 20A by merely highlighting what is likely to befall the legislature, for people do not care whether Parliament will be reduced to a post office or not; such is their disillusionment with the national legislature. Parliament has not lived up to the expectations of the public. While people are struggling to find turmeric, which is in short supply, due to a ban the government has imposed on spice imports, among other things, to save foreign exchange, it has been reported that the MPs will be given duty free vehicle permits soon.

When the Prime Minister and the President happen to represent different political parties, the former becomes more powerful than the latter owing to flaws in the present Constitution. This, we have seen thrice since the introduction of the presidential system of government, in 1978. Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga emerged stronger than President D. B. Wijetunge, in 1994. They, however, cooperated. But the country found itself in chaos when the Prime Ministers and the Presidents came from different political parties.

From 2001 to 2004, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) undermined the position of President Chandrika Kumaratunga (PA). He went so far as to sign a disastrous ceasefire agreement with the LTTE without the President’s knowledge. The 2001 regime change also led to the divestiture of some state-owned cash cows such as Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation. The LTTE consolidated its power and made preparations for its final war.

The country suffered again when the Prime Minister became more powerful than the President, in 2015, owing to the 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution. PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena were at loggerheads. The President’s position became so weak that the then Speaker Jayasuriya refused to carry out presidential orders during an abortive constitutional coup in 2018. The biggest ever financial crime—the bond scam—was committed while the legislature was stronger than the Executive. Then came the Easter Sunday bombings, which snuffed out more than 250 lives and left hundreds of others injured besides dealing a body blow to the economy. What has transpired so far before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing those terror strikes shows that national security was in the hands of a bunch of total misfits from 2015 to 2019. It was only natural that the people wanted a strong President to bring order out of chaos and elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

We do not argue that the people’s lot improves when the PM happens to play second fiddle to the President. The point we are trying to make is that even the PMs who could act independently succumbed to the arrogance of power and bulldozed their way through, giving the lie to the claim that the interests of the people are better served when Parliament is strengthened.

The success of any protest campaign hinges on the ability of its organisers to mobilise the public. Those who have taken it upon themselves to spearhead the campaign against 20A are the ones who had 19A tailored to further their political interests and, therefore, failed to convince the public that the powers of Parliament had to be restored to ensure checks and balances and better governance. The incumbent government is craftily using the bunglings of the previous dispensation to bolster its claim that the country needs an extremely powerful President, and 20A is the only way to achieve that end.

The ongoing campaign against 20A is characterised by a severe trust deficit, which the Opposition has failed to overcome. Sri Lankan intelligentsia is divided along party lines, and this has stood in the way of the formation of public opinion on some crucial issues. The government has managed to confine the issue of 20A to the political front, where it is strong. But let the SLPP leaders be urged to learn from their past mistakes and refrain from steamrollering 20A through. They had better remember that they employed the same method to secure the passage of the 18th Amendment but lost power about four years later, in January 2015.

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Editorial

Patriotism, hypocrisy and croc tears

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Monday 21st September, 2020

The government has taken on UNHRC Chief Michelle Bachelet for her criticism of the 20th Amendment (20) to the Constitution. It has dismissed her concerns as unfounded. The Opposition seems to be deriving some perverse pleasure from the rap on the knuckles the government has received in Geneva.

True, 20A in its present form is a draconian Bill, which, if enacted, will jeopardise democracy, but the question is whether the UNHRC is genuinely interested in protecting human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka. The UN human rights arm is a puppet of the western governments that have weaponised human rights, so to speak, to achieve their geo-strategic and economic goals. It did not call for action against terrorism which plagued this country.

It stands to reason that 20A should be attenuated substantially or rejected. But the UNHRC protests will only help the government drum up support at home for the Bill. In fact, the UNHRC is one of the international institutions that, in a manner of speaking, made the SLPP’s stunning electoral win possible. It will be counterproductive for the Opposition to hitch its wagon to the UNHRC or the western members of the international community.

Sri Lanka’s response to the UNHRC chief was not satisfactory. It should have asked her whether she had studied 20A, which she was criticising. For our money, she has not even seen it. One should read and understand the 1978 Constitution, the 17th Amendment, the 18th Amendment and the 19th Amendment before commenting on 20A. The UNHRC head has apparently gone by hearsay.

The government says the people have given it a mandate to do away with 19A. This is as much of a falsehood as the late J. R. Jayewardene’s claim, in 1977, that the people had given the UNP a five-sixths majority to write a Constitution, which he used to suppress democracy and act according to his whims and fancies. People voted overwhelmingly for the SLPP because they were fed up with the yahapalana government, which bungled on all fronts and, above all, compromised national security. There was no need for anyone to topple that administration; it was collapsing. The SLPP regime is misinterpreting its mandate in a bid to bulldoze its way through. Will anyone sane who voted for the SLPP at the last general election ever want the Auditor General’s powers reduced and constitutional safeguards in place to prevent corruption done away with? Who will want a jumbo Cabinet or a President with powers to do anything except making a man a woman and vice versa?

The need is for 20A to be defeated without the help of meddlesome foreign governments, etc., unless it is revised. This is the uphill task before the SJB-led Opposition, which should not play into the hands of the government by trying to internationalise the issue. Its leaders have to stop talking nineteen to the dozen, win over the public and launch an effective campaign against 20A. The SLPP’s strong point is its brand of patriotism, which it markets very effectively to further the interests of its leaders. Proving that the government is not as patriotic as it makes itself out to be and hides its true intentions behind the façade of patriotism is half the battle in making the public realise the need to oppose 20A in its present form.

The SJB has its work cut out to win public trust, given the presence of many undesirables such as the associates of bond scammers within its ranks. But there is one way it could turn the tables on the government. The latter is blowing hot and cold on the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, which it condemned as a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while it was in the Opposition. The SJB can submit a parliamentary motion calling for rejecting the aforesaid compact so that the government leaders will have to back it or be exposed for their hypocrisy. After all, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has declared that he protested against the proposed MCC deal while he was a member of the yahapalana Cabinet and is opposed to it. He should get cracking.

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