Of that trial balloon, Editorial, The Island
The present government’s attitude towards unbridled powers provided for by the JRJ Constitution is similar to that of a hypocritical clergyman towards sex, which he enjoys in private and condemns in public. The self-righteous SLFP politicians never miss an opportunity to bash and demonise JRJ even posthumously and frown on the draconian methods he employed to achieve self-aggrandizement, but there is nary a provision in his Constitution which they themselves have not made use of to retain and abuse power.
Nay, they have overtaken JRJ if the controversial 18th Amendment is anything to go by. JRJ toyed with the idea of running for President for a third time but could not abolish the constitutionally prescribed presidential term limit owing to resistance from within rather than from without. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has achieved that feat without much effort.
Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena has set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that a referendum be held in lieu of the next general election due in 2016. The Opposition has promptly condemned it—quite rightly so—as a move being contemplated by the government to retain its ‘unethically mustered’ two-thirds majority in Parliament. A senior UNP parliamentarian has gone on record as saying that Minister Abeygunawardena’s speeches are full of inanities and his utterances are not to be taken seriously. But, we reckon, there is a method in government politicians’ madness. The JVP has called Abeygunawardena’s suggestion a trial balloon. Yes, it has all the trappings of a ballon d’essai. Although the government has not made its position known on the issue it is believed to be dipping its toes.
The 1982 referendum with which President Jayewardene avoided a parliamentary election and retained his five-sixth majority which he abused to the fullest, set in motion a disastrous process which culminated in chaos and bloodletting. That farcical referendum which came to be dubbed the kalagedi–laampu sellama (pot-lamp game) was blatantly rigged. The JRJ government won it hands down, but subsequently, troubled by its aftermath which gave the JVP’s anti-establishment campaign a turbo boost and provided the SLFP-led Opposition a rallying point, chose to proscribe the JVP by wrongly blaming it for engineering the 1983 ethnic violence. The outfit went underground and staged a bloody uprising four years later. JRJ abused his illegitimately retained parliamentary majority even to amend the Constitution according to his whims and fancies. The rest is history.
A referendum is no substitute for an election and the constitutional provision which the JRJ government introduced to circumvent elections poses a grave threat to democracy. The only way to neutralise it is to abolish that provision forthwith. Giving politicians power and money is said to be like giving a teenager whiskey and car keys. There is no guarantee that the current dispensation will not take a leaf out of JRJ’s book in a bid to keep its two-thirds majority intact. In fact, an SLFP-led government extended its term by two years in 1975 arbitrarily; old habits die hard. Now that one of its ministers has called for a referendum, it behoves the government to explain its position without further delay.
Our experience with JRJ’s referendum has been so shocking that we shudder at the thought of having another one. The UNP’s accusations of abuse of power and opposition to the government’s alleged move are hypocritical—it has been as guilty. But, sadly and ironically, in trying to halt the country’s slide into a political abyss people are left with no alternative but to depend on former deerstalkers to tackle errant gamekeepers.