Midweek Review
The politics of referendum

by Nalin de Silva
The western style democracy has failed in this country. There is no point in trying to rescue "democracy" as we do not understand what is meant by democracy. I am not thinking of memorising some definitions of western democracy by western political scientists and politicians and quoting them in articles and so-called research papers by our academics. The Asian and African cultures have found it difficult to absorb western democracy into their political systems. Western democracy was evolved in Europe under certain historical conditions and it is foolish to think that it is the only form of "democracy" and that it could be adopted in any part of the world. Some would argue that even in the west, western democracy was established after decades of experimentation, and that we should give time to the Asian and African countries to adopt western style democracy. However, it is increasingly becoming clear that with time western style democracy is, in general, only deteriorating in these countries. Is western democracy in Sri Lanka in a better shape at present than it was in 1948?

The western style democracy has been imposed on us from the above by the British. It is not something that the people understood nor probably wanted. Nobody asked the people in 1947 through a referendum or by some other method whether we wanted a western style democratic system. It may be that some leaders who knew the definitions of western democracy went before the Soulbury commission and argued for a parliamentary system. But then they were educated by the British and probably had not heard of Mahasammathavadaya then as the Mahasammatha Bhumi Puthra Party was not in existence at that time. In any event western democracy with its political party system has been imposed on us in a very "undemocratic" way. There are many people who are of the opinion that the political parties have ruined the country. What many of us do not understand is that the concept of a western style political party is alien to us and that we have failed to absorb it into our culture. However, at present we have no alternative and have been forced to work with these "degenerated" political structures.

The government has prorogued the parliament and has called for a referendum to find out whether the people want a new constitution. These are all within the constitution and ironically the unconstitutional step was taken by the opposition when it requested the speaker to summon the parliament on the 16th of July. The speaker after much deliberation has rightly decided that he does not have the power to do so. The government can now claim that the opposition has resorted to "undemocratic" means and that they have no respect for the sovereignty of the people.

What has baffled the people is the announcement of a referendum. Following Mr. Premadasa who prorogued the parliament when an impeachment motion was brought in the parliament Ms. Kumaratunga has temporarily evaded the no confidence motion by proroguing the parliament. The people can understand her intentions though some may not approve the step taken by the government. But why call for a referendum? The PA government has been claiming since 1994 that they have a mandate from the people to adopt a new constitution. If they have a mandate what is the necessity for having a referendum to find out whether the people want a new constitution, spending millions of valuable rupees though considerably devalued at present. Has the government realised now that in 1994 they did not get a mandate from the people to change the constitution?

When western style democracy has failed it is meaningless to ask what has happened to the collective responsibility of the cabinet of ministers. There is no semblance of a collective responsibility and the ministers are free to express their opinions publicly. In that sense one may claim that there is complete democracy within or rather outside the cabinet meetings. Though neither the government nor the president has announced the reason for calling for a referendum number of ministers have given their views on it. At a recently held meeting of what is left of the left parties it is reported that Mr. Batty Weerakone had stated that the government would bring back the discarded "package" after the referendum. However he has also said subsequently that a new constitution would be adopted according to the procedure laid down in the constitution. But there are other minsters who have expressed from time to time that a new constitution would be adopted through a constituent assembly. As the government will not get a two third majority for a bill to amend the constitution in the parliament in the near future it is very likely that if the government gets a "yes" vote at the referendum, they will convert the present parliament to a constituent assembly and adopt the "package" even with a majority of one. At that stage the government would be acting unconstitutionally though some ministers may not accept that position. All the pronouncements by the president and some ministers on constitutional revolutions to replace the present constitution compel us to come to the above conclusion. However it will not be easy for the government as the nationalist forces would campaign against such a move and would even lead to a civil war situation, unless Ms. Kumaratunga becomes a second Dona Katherina either on her own or at the insistence of the nationalist forces, as a whole having become another Konappu Bandara.

The present crisis in politics, due to the failure of the SLFP to implement its policies, could lead to the above scenario. The SLFP is presently following the policies of the SLMP, a pink socialist party formed by Mr. Vijaya Kumaratunga. The SLFP as has been mentioned in these columns is the party of Sinhalathva and social justice, in the minds of thousands of the Sinhala people. Unfortunately the SLFP from the very beginning did not have a leadership that was interested in translating into action the wishes of the party members as well as those who voted for it. In fact very often the leaders formulated the policies of the SLFP only to satisfy the membership but not to implement them. This contradiction within the SLFP has grown with time specially after many "socialists" who did not see a future for them in the Marxist parties joined the SLFP.

Instead of identifying and defeating Tamil racism the SLFP in the recent past has been trying to satisfy the aspirations of the Tamil racists. However the SLFP comes to power on the vote of the Sinhalas and especially the Sinhala Buddhists. Thus the SLFP is not in a position to satisfy the aspirations of the Tamil racists alienating the Sinhala Buddhist electorate and over the last seven years or so the PA government has vacillated trying to satisfy the aspirations of the Tamil racists without alienating the Sinhala people. This course of action has come to an end and the SLFP is being forced to take a decision one way or the other.

The party leadership can either satisfy Tamil racism or keep the Sinhala electorate with them. The referendum is the last act of the leadership in trying to satisfy Tamil racism without alienating the Sinhala Buddhist electorate. The vagueness in the question that will be asked at the referendum stems from this policy of the leadership. As it is, almost everybody would say "yes, I want a new constitution provided that certain conditions are satisfied". These conditions would be different from person to person and there is no way that the voter could express them by giving a categorical yes or no (Aristotelian) answer at the referendum. However the PA wants to compel the voter to say either yes or no to a question that has no categorical answers.

Instead of asking the people whether they want a new constitution, the PA could have asked them whether the north and the east should be amalgamated permanently. As I understand the northern and the eastern provinces were amalgamated under emergency regulations and with the government allowing emergency to lapse the two provinces can now have two separate provincial councils. It is a good time to have a referendum on this issue where a question with categorical answers can be formulated. The amalgamation of the north and the east is going to be one of the most important issues in drafting a new constitution and further the nationalists and the non national forces would take different stands on this question. The mythical Tamil homeland concept is built on the amalgamation of these two provinces and it has led to the creation of Sri Lanka Muslim congress.

The PA government should realise that they cannot have the support of both the Tamil racists and the Sinhala nationalists for ever in forming governments and that in spite of the policies of the leadership they have no choice but to implement the policies of the SLFP rank and file. The non national forces including the western powers, the NGO’s, some Bishops who supported the PA earlier are no longer with them and the PA has only the Sinhala Buddhist electorate to turn to. They should realise that only the Sinhala Buddhists would come to their rescue. As far as the SLFP is concerned it is a case of Naththi me saranang annnang Buddha Mamaka me saranang warang. However the policies of the SLMP prevent the SLFP and the PA from turning towards the Sinhala people, especially the Buddhists and only the non national forces would gain from the course of action followed by the leadership. The SLFP cannot vacillate now and the leadership has to drop all the pink socialist policies together with the Marxists and others who have been misleading the party. Ms. Kumaratunga was brought back from her self exile in London in order to get the SLFP (and the PA) to abdicate power in the north and the east to the Tamil racists. She has failed and the non national forces have already turned towards the UNP to achieve their objective though she may not have realised that. It appears that, in spite of the non national forces aligning themselves with the UNP, she is still determined to go into the history books as the president who abdicated legislative power in the north and the east to the Tamil racists. She must realise that by taking steps in that direction she is only taking the country to a civil war situation. (The present operations against the fascist war criminal Prabhakaran and his gang should not be interpreted as a civil war). Now that the non national forces have turned away from her Ms. Kumaratunga could become a Dona Katherina consciously serving the Sinhala people unlike the original Katherina who was more or less forced to do so by Konappu Bandara.