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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Sri Lanka: The incumbent dispensation with a two-thirds majority is acting like a monkey with a razor

Watch disaster happen – Editorial, The Island

In what could be described as a political muscle-flexing, the government in the run-up to the impeachment of Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake passed its Divineguma Bill with a two-thirds majority in Parliament on Tuesday. Others who opposed the bill tooth and nail could muster only 53 votes as opposed to the government’s 160 in a 225-member House. In Parliament or at any other forum, it is numbers that matter where the passage of resolutions is concerned. This is the stark reality whether we like it or not.
The ratification of the controversial Bill has given a foretaste of what is to be expected when the scheduled vote on the impeachment motion against the CJ is taken tomorrow.

The present government has, like its predecessors, demonstrated its readiness to use, misuse and grossly abuse its steamroller parliamentary majority to further its interests heedless of the consequences of its action. Giving politicians power and money is said to be like giving teenagers whiskey and car keys! The SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77) blatantly abused its two-thirds majority to extend its term by two years arbitrarily. The UNP government which dislodged it in 1977 secured a five-sixths majority and unflinchingly granted itself another term with its majority in tact by means of a referendum. The incumbent dispensation with a two-thirds majority is acting like a monkey with a razor, so to speak. It has already done away with the presidential term limit and enabled the Executive President to usurp the powers of other institutions through the 18th Amendment. Nobody knows what else is up its sleeve!

The main criticism of the Divineguma Bill has been that it undermines the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as some of the devolved powers and functions have been taken away from the Provincial Councils and vested in the government. This is the reason why the proponents of the 13-A within the ranks of the ruling coalition took exception to the Bill. However, it was a case of Hobson’s choice for the dissidents as they could not break ranks with the government on that score for obvious reasons. They fell in line on Tuesday.

Interestingly, the government politicians defending the Provincial Council system find themselves in a huge contradiction; they have conveniently forgotten that the 13-A is a creature of a parliament which they condemned as ‘illegal and illegitimate’ because its term was controversially, if not undemocratically, extended by means of a heavily rigged referendum (1982), the outcome of which the SLFP and its socialist coalition partners refused to accept. They dubbed it JRJ’s kalagedi-laampu sellama as the symbols used were the Pot (for ‘No’) and the Lamp (for ‘Yes’). It will be interesting to see what they have got to say to this.

Decades of abuse of power by successive governments and flaws in the Constitution full of gaping holes through which governments continue to drive coaches and horses have, over the years, brought the country to such a pass that it now faces the danger of a systemic failure with its vital institutions resisting each other. Democracy is in peril and must be protected. But, the question is who guards the guards. The people who are said to be sovereign have been left with no one to turn to. Lawmakers are abusing the Constitution to advance their interests and members of the judiciary stand accused of interpreting laws on the basis of expediency, not of principle. The Opposition does not know whether it is coming or going. It keeps contradicting itself and making U-turns.

All that the ordinary public could do is to watch disaster happen. 


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