Serving democracy or themselves?

by Namini Wijedasa
It is uncanny, really, how long it’s taking the government to set up those independent commissions.

Then again, maybe not. They do have a multitude of other concerns. Like handbags, briefcases and thingamabobs of that nature... quite apart from impeachments, dissolutions and enthused puttering with the constitution.

The possibility of further amendments to our hapless constitution is now becoming more certain. If last week’s media reports are anything to go by, the government is to propose two changes: one envisages curbing the president’s powers to dissolve parliament while the other is a bill which will enable parliamentarians to vote according to their conscience. (Whether or not they grasp the concept or even dictionary meaning of "conscience" won’t be debated on this occasion).

The proposed adjustments will, arithmetically speaking, be the eighteenth and nineteenth to a 24-year-old constitution. There have already been seventeen. On an average, that works out to an amendment every 1.4 years to a body of laws which is itself our third since independence. By contrast, the 226-year-old American constitution has been amended only 27 times. And there’s only ever been one.

It’s no wonder that jokes are being written about this ludicrous situation. A common one, for example: A man went into a London bookshop specialising in world constitutions and inquired after a copy of the Sri Lankan one. The shop assistant replied indignantly that they didn’t sell periodicals.

On a deeper level, though, this is no laughing matter. The government talks of modifying the constitution as if it were the homework assignment of petulant child. Clearly, the changes they now propose are aimed at strengthening or consolidating their own position and has bally little to do with democracy.

Every time the cohabitation agreement totters, constitutional amendments are threateningly waved in the air like a cane before a naughty child. Only this cane is nobody’s private property and the government might want to accept that.

We know that the president and government can’t get along. But the answer may not be to foist constitutional amendments on the nation every time these parties bicker over inconsequential and insanely petty issues which the public couldn’t give two hoots about. The last time we checked, constitutions were not being drawn up to save people’s rear ends everytime they got wedged in the mud.

In a statement last week, President Chandrika Kumaratunga rightly opposed random trifling with the constitution.

"Piecemeal tinkering with the constitution for party advantage was hypocritical and a mockery of democracy," said the press release from her office. "A country’s constitution is not to be tinkered with piecemeal for temporary partisan political advantage."

She said, too, that constitutional reform should be comprehensive and encompass the entirety of national issues including devolution of powers and the abolition of the executive presidency.

That’s right, re-write the whole thing. Let’s have a constitution every 15 years. Also, why not give CBK powers under transitional provisions (like last time) so that she could complete her present term and then have a bash at the prime ministry. Power hungry, anybody said?

Speaking of the seventeenth amendment, whatever is happening to those commissions? Sorry to go on, but the UNP had such spasms over it when in opposition that their current lack of enthusiasm is almost excruciating.

In fact, the government are now debating the possibility of holding another general election without uttering a blessed syllable about the independent elections commission (the same one they pledged to have in place BEFORE the recently-concluded local government elections).

There was a time we were made to believe that the president — with her dilly-dallying over some list of names or the other — was the only hitch in the otherwise straightforward process of setting up those four commissions. We also gained the impression that once her list was finalised, the independent bodies would become an instant reality. One tends to think that Prof. G.L. Peiris’ enthusiastic and emphatic (if somewhat repetitive) assertions at the time promoted this view.

Obviously, we got the whole thing wrong. The UNP were just fudging when they promised to set up the commissions quicker than ever. Silly us.

The People’s Alliance and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna continued talks last week to arrive at a no-contest pact if a snap election was held. President Kumaratunga chaired two of these meetings.

Rather chummy, aren’t they? For a rabid Marxist party preaching leftist principles, the JVP is getting beautifully friendly with the PA. Ironically, this union is being promoted by a woman widowed by a JVP assassin.

Bit disappointing for some, these developments. The JVP shot to power because they were against everyone else. Now, they are just the JVP(A).

On Friday, a seven-year-old child was run over and killed by the security vehicle of Central Region Development Minister Tissa Attanayake. The accident, which occurred at the Galewela junction in Matale, merits an overall probe into the behaviour of ministerial security vehicles on the road. Many of them tear around as if they have most crucial work, scattering pedestrians off roadsides. They also assume the attitude that their ministers are the only ones worth living. And if people — other people — get killed, too bad.

The good news last week was the government and LTTE agreed that peace talks will start in Bangkok between September 12 and 17. The decision came after deliberations in Norway between Minister Milinda Moragoda and LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham. Norwegian officials were also present. The announcement of a date was some achievement when considering that the LTTE had been hesitating. The Tigers, it appears, were concerned about political instability in the south and had said so in not so many words.

A government source closely connected with the peace process mentioned, too, that negotiating with the Tigers was easier than stopping the political war between Kumaratunga and the government.

President Kumaratunga and Commerce Minister Ravi Karunanayake have started a fresh fight. Bravo. This time, Kumaratunga alleges that Karunanayake is behind a disorderly and chaotic restructuring of the Co-operatives Wholesale Establishment. Karunanayake has responded to Kumaratunga saying that his moves were not aimed at helping his friends.

Incidentally, a three-wheeler driver said last week that his son got a job as a cashier at one of the Sathosa outlets because someone he knew was someone of Ravi K’s. Guess these places are not too over-staffed to accommodate one’s own men.

There is no knowing which direction the latest Kumaratunga-Karunanayake spat will take. We hope it won’t be in OUR faces for too long.

The subject of spats naturally takes us to parliament where Speaker Joseph Michael Perera is trying out a new trick to instil some discipline in the house. He told journalists that he has taken steps to install four cameras, instead of the present one, in the chamber in an effort to discourage parliamentarians from behaving like ruffians (as they usually do). It’s a worthy attempt but past experience proves that cameras only promote more hooliganism.

For instance, copies of the constitution were torn to bits and set on fire by the former UNP opposition in full view of television cameras. In fact, they were quite proud when that bit of work was aired nation-wide.

Nope, cameras may not work. The whip might.