No substitute for a strong OppositionJanuary 28, 2013, 8:07 pm
By Jehan Perera
The appearance of a national crisis over the impeachment is fast beginning to recede and become like another episode in the past. Most of those who opposed the impeachment of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake appear to have given up their resistance. Even today a small group of lawyers in the Lawyers Collective continue to object to the outcome of the impeachment. They rose up for a national cause in which there was an asymmetry of power. But even they have been restricted to issuing statements. They are now on the run, figuratively if not also literally. The brief period of public protest is at an end. Their leaders have faced death threats and some have been compelled to approach President Mahinda Rajapaksa to ensure their safety.
Newer issues are taking the centre stage, such as the threat by Muslim political parties associated with the government to decide on a course of action if the government does not rein in the anti Muslim campaign by some allied Buddhist groups. Another is the passage of a law that increases the time given to the police to hold suspects without producing them before the judiciary to 48 hours, up from 24 hours. The strengthening of the political and extra legal arms of government over the judiciary and rights of citizens alike is also seen by the news that a government minister who has an arrest warrant against him has been seen fraternizing with his government colleagues in public and safe from the arms of the law. Members of the higher judiciary and many lawyers were present at the ceremonial welcome accorded to the new Chief Justice Mohan Peiris.
At its height, the impeachment of the former Chief Justice was fiercely opposed by virtually the entire legal profession. As lawyers are a powerful group, who are represented in the corridors of power including Parliament there was a belief that the government had got itself into a confrontation that could lead to its defeat, at least on the issue of the impeachment. The higher judiciary ruled that the impeachment procedure was a nullity in law. The Bar Association summoned a meeting attended by more than two thousand lawyers, who resolved to request the President that the impeachment process be reconsidered and that they would not welcome any new Chief Justice who was appointed under the prevailing circumstances. The lower judiciary in turn resolved that they would follow the position taken by the Bar Association.
However, even at its height the agitation against the impeachment did not take on a mass character as occurred in Pakistan in 2007 when the Chief Justice was sacked. The public protests against the impeachment were, by and large, confined to the precincts of the superior courts complex. What was special was the participation of a large number of lawyers who are not seen as social activists and as engaging in public protests. But this was not on the scale of the Pakistan protests which were a demonstration of people’s power that went beyond the lawyers associations. In Pakistan, the political opposition mobilized their supporters to back the lawyers’ protests. This was similar to the civic uprising in Nepal in 2006 that overthrew the Monarchy. There, too, civil society activists were in the forefront. But it was the support by opposition political parties that brought the masses of people to join the protests.
Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has sought to explain the end of the anti-impeachment campaign by saying that neither the courts nor the media could topple the government and it could only be done through a people’s uprising. On the one hand, the lawyers could not expand their public protest campaign to involve the masses of people. On the other hand, the government used the state controlled media to launch a powerful propaganda campaign. Even in Colombo, which contains the largest number of media outlets by far, the general public’s view appeared to have been influenced by the government’s propaganda machine. Most people I spoke to on the street appeared to echo the government propaganda. One view was that the Chief Justice had behaved out of order as she had been appointed by the President and therefore should not oppose him. Another view was that the Chief Justice had been shown to be guilty of the charges against her.
These partial views reflected the lack of countervailing information and analysis, particularly in the Sinhala language media, which caters to the majority of the population. It appears that the privately owned Sinhala language media has either been co-opted or intimidated so that they failed to counter the government propaganda machine or even provide an alternative view. Therefore the Opposition leader’s statement that neither the judiciary nor media was effective was in conformity with the situation that prevailed during the impeachment. Both the lawyers and media were unable to educate the masses of people regarding the government’s violation of the Rule of Law in the course of the impeachment. This was indeed the task of the opposition political parties, who have networks of party workers that reach to the community level. A fractured and weak opposition failed to make use of the bridgehead made available by the struggle of the lawyers to uphold the Rule of Law.
There has been a strong sense of disenchantment amongst lawyers and those who spearheaded the protest campaign against the impeachment that the opposition political parties did not give them adequate support. This has also reinforced the negative perception in the international community about the lack of strength of the opposition. From their perspective a strong opposition will be one that puts more pressure on the government rather than seeks to rely on the international community to do the needful. They would like to see an opposition leadership that is presenting the masses of people in Sri Lanka with a vision of how they intend to solve the problems of the country. The problem facing those who want to see change in Sri Lanka is that the opposition is currently no alternative to the government.
The lack of effective action by the opposition parties has led to high hopes among sections of society and the opposition that international pressures will compel the government to uphold the Rule of Law and act in a more democratic manner. Some of the statements emanating from the international community have been extremely critical of the government, such as those by the International Commission of Jurists and by the US government. However, international pressure is unlikely to be able to compel the government to do what the people of Sri Lanka themselves are not pressuring the government to do. So long as the government can show that it enjoys the support of the majority of the people it will be able to defy international pressures imposed on it regarding issues of good governance and human rights.
At the present time, those institutions that have traditionally played a role in checking and balancing the abuses of government have been subordinated to the enormous power of the Presidency and the Parliamentary supermajority. Civil society organizations are being subjected to greater governmental scrutiny and the space for their free functioning appears to be closing. In a context in which the government is unwilling to change, and the judiciary and media have failed to be countervailing institutions that could keep the government in check, it falls upon the opposition political parties to take on the role of being the campaigners for democracy and Rule of Law. The clarity of analysis that the Opposition leader has demonstrated now needs to be backed up by actions that unify the opposition political parties to face up to the juggernaut of government.