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The middle path

A strong opposition is a sine qua non for good governance and in this context, reports last week of the government considering legislation to protect opposition members of local bodies who supported the government from losing their seats is most disquieting. It had even been suggested that a member should not be unseated except by the majority decision of the concerned local body! The mandate President Mahinda Rajapaksa received at the presidential election and the UPFA at the parliamentary election that followed was overwhelming. Even proportional representation could not prevent Rajapaksa from nearly breaching the magical two thirds majority that would enable constitutional amendments at will. This was the objective of both the president and his government and they came very close to achieving it. Having done so, is it appropriate that the bulldozer is used to further debilitate and already weak opposition? The answer to that question, we believe, should be an emphatic `No.’

The country has already reached a consensus on moving away from proportional representation (PR) to a mix of the previous Westminster first-past-the-post method of election and PR. The Dinesh Gunawardene Select Committee comprising representatives of all parties elected to the last parliament had reached that conclusion. It has not been however clearly stated whether the government plans to implement those proposals or not and sooner its intention is expressed and a national debate on the subject encouraged, the better it will be for democracy in this country. The district electorates, as opposed to the previous constituencies, have created a situation where the electors have no representative to go to with their complaints or suggestions. Nevertheless, the winner-takes-all basis on which the Westminster system is based has created the kind of distortion that led to Mr. Appapillai Amirthalingam of the TULF becoming the Leader of the Opposition in 1977 rather that the defeated Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike whose SLFP retained considerable support in the country despite its election rout. That was so because the TULF at that election won more seats than the SLFP.

That is why some kind of consensus has been reached on the need from a mix of the two systems. While PR would prevent gross distortion of the electors’ intent, Westminster would help ensure greater stability and provide a reference point between the voter and his MP. The German example has often been cited as the via media in this connection. When the J.R. Jayewardene constitution of 1978 introduced PR, there were protections against defections by MPs that have sadly not worked. The voter first chose the party he supported before he expressed the three candidate preferences from that party on his ballot paper. Defectors risked losing their seats because the voter had first chosen a party to govern the country and only thereafter indicate candidate preferences. But, as the country saw in recent years, not one defector lost his seat. Most MPs who defected did so for consideration. They were anointed with cabinet office and the country was treated to the ridiculous spectacle of even National List MPs from the UNP serving the Rajapaksa administration as ministers while still claiming membership of the green party! The courts, for reasons that at best seemed technical, held that their expulsion from the party from which they were elected was illegal and those concerned did not lose their seats. Thus the end result was a ridiculous distortion of the will of the elector and an obscenely large cabinet of over 100 members.

Reports that the government is toying with the idea of legislation ensuring that members of local bodies changing sides will be protected from losing their elected offices suggests that it sees a risk that what has held good up to now for parliament may not hold for local bodies. Whether such legislation, if presented, will or will not require a two thirds majority we do not know. An opposition bloodied by defections cannot be expected to go along with laws that would cause it further damage. So if the government should need the magical number, they will have to engineer a few, we repeat very few, more defections to achieve that target. Far better to look at accommodating the opposition viewpoint, supported by at least a significant section of public opinion, than using the bulldozer. But that, unfortunately, is not how governments of the past have acted when it possessed the necessary muscle. There is a village saying which goes ``because the stick is strong, you mustn’t beat (your rival) until it breaks.’’ The Sinhala original sounds much better – polla haiya nisa kadenakang gahanna honda ne.’’ But that is what powerful governments have done in the post-Independence era with injustices that included the disenfranchising voters of Indian descent upcountry in the first parliament to depriving Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights.

We do not see any movement towards a more consensual and less adversarial kind of government which will better help healing national wounds. The opposition requests that a good tradition of having the watchdog committees of parliament, like the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprise, chaired by an opposition MPs was a cry in the wilderness. Both these requests were rejected in short order and the government has appointed several ministers to these committees. Like President J.R. Jayewardene, with his five sixths majority in 1977 decided to try to finish off of the SLFP by depriving Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights, obviously to stave off a future challenge from that quarter, the name of the game continues to be ``kill your enemy before he kills you.’’

Given the current weakness of the opposition and the disarray of the UNP in particular, the temptation to strike while the iron is hot would undoubtedly be great. But it is useful to remember that the five sixths majority did not finish off the SLFP just as much as 1956 did not prove to be the ``last nail in the UNP coffin.’’ As a predominantly Buddhist country let us remember in this Vesak season that all things are impermanent – anicca vata sankara as the Buddha said. Moderation even on how a powerful government treats its opponents is the best way to achieving national tranquility. But, as in all spheres of human activity, kindness must never be misinterpreted as weakness.

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