“Pressure and intimidation aimed at the Speaker is disturbing”
The first institution under attack by this runaway executive is the institution of Parliament. It is true the public image of Parliament and parliamentarians is not very good but they do pass laws and do many other things that allow us to govern ourselves according to a set process. The procedure set for the removal of the Prime Minister is quite clear, Sinhala technicalities notwithstanding. But the most important point in a parliamentary democracy is that the prime minister must enjoy the confidence of a parliamentary majority. So even if the removal and appointment were legal, the next step would have been to go to Parliament and take a floor test as soon as possible to see who enjoys the confidence of the house. Instead Parliament was prorogued and dissolved leaving behind a Prime Minister and Cabinet that do not have the approval of Parliament. That is what is meant by autocratic rule. The fact that the SLPP is a willing partner in this even though it has a great deal of popularity in the country and would have probably won the next election is also disturbing.
“Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of the parliamentary majority “
What was equally as disturbing as the attack on Parliament was the pressure and intimidation aimed at the Speaker. Parliament is supposed to be a co-equal arm of government, a check to a willful executive. Parliamentary staff are expected to take their instructions from the Speaker who heads this co-equal arm. Instead officials of Parliament defied the Speaker and decided to follow the President, an institution they were supposed to check and balance. Such behaviour is a serious threat to Parliamentary democracy and one can only congratulate the Speaker for standing his ground. Protecting the powers, privileges and immunities of the Speaker is a must, if we are to remain a parliamentary democracy.
“The public image of Parliament and parliamentarians is not very good”
The second tradition that is being attacked by the runaway executive are long settled rules of legal interpretation. The arguments for dissolution that the government presented and will be tested in the Supreme Court are a case in point. The Constitution gives the President a general power to dissolve, as one of his many powers. Then in a specific provision it states that the President can only dissolve Parliament after four and-a-half years. It is one of the longest settled rules of legal interpretation that the specific trumps the general;specific provisions qualify the general power. This perversion of legal interpretation in this case will perplex any lawyer and leads us to seriously question the motives of those who make such a crude, instrumental use of the law.
When the President prorogued Parliament to try and get a parliamentary majority, I was astounded but found that most people were equivocal. I was interested by the comment average people made. It was along the lines of “It is a done deal they will buy them over”. There was very little moral outrage in this reaction but a cynical acceptance of what politics was like in this day and age. The fact that my Member of Parliament can be bought over for any amount of money without any reaction made me realize the depth of despair in this country with regard to our politics.
Speaking of minorities, the scenes at Rupavahini, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the release of the man supposedly responsible for the Digana anti-Muslim riots instead of re-remanding him as they did in the past, began to raise the threshold of fear – the fear of unruly mobs let lose by politicians. The fear has not gone away. One must commend the Army Commander and the armed services for staying away from this very political contest and one must acknowledge that whatever else he did, the President did not call out the military. Nevertheless there are ominous signs, pockets of violence, pockets of thuggery and an neasy peace.
In recent years we had become accustomed to a diversity of media voices. Today, even though pockets of diversity remain there seems to be a concerted effort to convey only one voice, one truth. Much of it is sheer spin. Foreign envoys, local political parties and other individuals would recount how they would meet the President on his request and they would speak their mind but the discussions were used as a photo opportunity to make out to the public that everyone was extending their support. There is so much spin that one does not know what is truth and what is reality. One young person told me that she watches the news but her instincts tell her it is all wrong. As a result everyone goes back to their social media bubble and perhaps the international press to discern what is happening. A country that loses touch with reality and the-truth, especially a small country such as ours, is on a spiral towards disaster nationally and internationally.
The international repercussions of what has happened will have huge implications especially in the near future. For the moment we are an internationally “suspect” country. Except for Burundi, I do not think anyone has recognized the new government and probably will not until January. I worked on the issue of the Rohingyas and Myanmar and understood the terrible consequences of being a cast out nation. Yes they survive but at what cost? Beating tribal drums, at war with the west while desiring their investment, and their people portrayed to the world as ugly and prejudiced. We became the number one destination of Lonely Planet, the most respected travel magazine, and like ‘evil eye’, within the week the constitutional crisis occurred. Now we are nowhere in the listings. When one was fighting a war, it must have been exhilarating to some to be fighting the imperialist west but in peacetime, the west, India and China are equally important as tourists, as buyers of our exports and as investors. Being a castaway nation even for a few months is just not worth the heated rhetoric.
“The Prime Minister was removed in the stealth of the night replaced by the arch-rival that the President was elected to depose, Parliament was prorogued and then dissolved and a huge cabinet appointed”
We are now experiencing a runaway executive, autocratic rule and promise of free elections under the rubric of that autocratic rule. One can hope the Supreme Court will stop the direction of this flow and that perhaps we can have general elections under a caretaker government. The first thing that any new government should do is to do away with or severely limit the powers of the executive president. Time and time again this institution has destroyed the fabric of Sri Lankan life. Ven. Sobitha Thera gave his life in struggling for its abolition. In his memory, we must keep up the effort to ensure that any executive under our Constitution cannot act on whims and fancies, only according to democratic traditions and the rule of law.