Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As a foreboding New Year by way of the Gregorian calendar dawns for Sri Lankans, the choices before us (at least, politically) are not felicitous by any stretch of the imagination.
Atavistic demons conjured up by opportunists
A cynic may question, ‘when were the choices ever felicitous during the past five decades or more?’ That query has a sting of truth to it. Even so, what faces this country in 2019 portends a special tinge of darkness, touched with fears of rampant racism.
Increasingly we hear politicians closely associated with the political camp of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa chanting ‘open sesame’ to seething primal hatreds. These are atavistic demons, never satiated but always thirsting for more blood, conjured up from time to time by opportunists when the democratic cards are stacked against them.
Some of this ugliness came out in the open following the surreal October turbulence when Sri Lanka had (initially) two contenders for the post of Prime Minister and then, for a period, no Prime Minister at all and when the Speaker was besieged in the House by parliamentary ruffians. As the challengers retreated, nursing their wounds with little good grace following reprimands by the Supreme Court for the constitutional trespass committed, they resorted to open communalistic rhetoric which bodes ill for Sri Lanka.
So while one battle may have been won, this is not the end of it. True, civic minded citizens resisted the extra-constitutional attempt to capture power as a result of profoundly unwise machinations of an abominable coterie of men surrounding President Maithripala Sirisena. We may heave a sigh of relief as the Courts (from the highest to the lowest) demonstrated their independence.
Indeed, the breathing of new life into moribund institutions, most crucially, the judiciary, may be the signal achievement of this doomed ‘yahapalanaya’ marriage of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP).
Will the crisis take a different course?
In fact, the events of the past few weeks must propel long pending reform (even if not, the abolition of the Executive Presidency) in regard to mandating severe consequences for members of Parliament who cross the floor for pecuniary gain. Though the reinstated Government has been promising that it will tackle the ill effects of judicial adventurism in this regard (propounded in a very different era), concrete proposals are still not forthcoming.
This will be, of course, quite distinct from the acknowledgement that a parliamentarian who dissents with his or her party on a matter of principle should not be penalized for that. Though it has now become almost idiotic to think that Sri Lankan parliamentarians act on conscience in any given situation, that principle must not be lost sight of, nevertheless.
That said however, the very real fear is that the crisis bubbling under a seeming normalcy may take an entirely different course as old, atavistic demons take shape, reform and return to the attack. And what makes the reawakening of these tensions particularly dangerous this time around is a weariness with repeated failures of mainstream political parties coupled with undeniably difficult economic times that lie ahead. In one way, the fact that no significant public concern was evidenced even though Sri Lanka lacked a functional Government just over a month ago underscores that massive breakdown in legitimacy.
Returning after a few days overseas during that time, I was engaged in a conversation with a cheery immigration officer at the virtually deserted Katunayake International Airport who shrugged the fracas off by saying, ‘well, the country goes on as normal despite having no ‘Government’; it is just these useless politicians behaving terribly as usual.’
That ebullience is remarkable. Nevertheless, this also shows the sheer contempt with which the populace regards those on both sides of the political divide.
Championing transparency rather than skulduggery
So where does this leave Sri Lankans, justifiably apprehensive of what the year may bring them? Do we risk a political vacuum, coupled with the fact that communal weapons may be wielded with impunity by interested parties in a rapidly worsening economic climate. There is little reassurance even as the political turbulence subsides on the surface.
While the SLFP is a spent force politically, the UNP and its top tier leadership appears to have learnt few lessons from the stunning political upheavals that took place since October 26th. Its Cabinet, as constituted recently, includes old tarnished faces. Necessarily this has evoked public scorn from the very voices who stoutly championed the cause of democracy not so long ago.
Some may try to justify this inclusion on the basis of political expediency but that is a slippery slope. That same argument may be used in respect of President Sirisena’s much critiqued bringing in of politicians rejected by the people through the National List in 2015. After all, political expediency is a peculiarly bitter sauce which, if tolerated for the gander, must equally be so for the goose.
One disconcerting feature of law-making under the ‘yahapalanaya’ aegis was quite antithetical to that very concept in that drafts such as the Counter-Terror Act was attended by such mystery that rumour-mongers delighted in causing mischief. Therefore it is vital that reforms of the constitutional text are engaged in by those with requisite skill and conducted with a measure of transparency rather than skulduggery. Such exercises involve the construction of text that can, by the slip of one careless word or sentence, hold the country to ransom as was excruciatingly experienced recently.
Salutary reminders for the future
It is well and good that the Supreme Court interpreted (as surely it should have) Article 33 (2) (c) of the 19th Amendment as confined to the general manner in which the President is entitled to exercise the power of summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament. Consequentially that provision was ruled to yield to the specific delineation of the power of dissolution in Article 70(1) through the issuance of a Proclamation. This meant that the Presidential dissolution of Parliament before the expiry of four and a half years of its term and absent a resolution passed by not less than two thirds of the Members of Parliament, including those not present, was unconstitutional.
But the question remains as to why that provision (Article 33 (2) (c)) was brought in at all into the constitutional text through the 19th Amendment, creating a fig-leaf which deviously manipulative legal minds used to justify precipitating the country into a crisis. The confusion that can arise was presumably why the adroit framers of the 1978 Constitution tactically refrained from insertion of such a ‘general power.’ Such absurdities must be avoided surely, at least in the future. For the next time around that judges are called upon to resolve constitutional redundancies, a Court may not be as bold or as sagacious.
That is a salutary reminder to be kept in mind.