Editorial | Sunday Observer

Editorial

Let the People choose

What many had feared was developing into an unseemly contestation over power, has now been swiftly diverted to the best possible recourse: a call for the people to vote and decide on their national government. While some might blame him for the rapidity with which he acted, President Maithripala Sirisena has thought fit to call early general elections as the best means to smooth over the current ‘fight’ over the reins of national government.

It is clear that the President has dissolved Parliament in anticipation of a possible worsening of political tensions following his hurried moves to resolve the governance crisis arising from the sudden collapse of the National Unity coalition government. With the splintering of that historic coalition between Sri Lanka’s two traditionally rival mainstream liberal political parties – a coalition that he had personally built and led to power at much risk to life and career – President Sirisena had chosen to offer the opportunity to govern to the next largest group in Parliament, the UPFA.

But the storm raised by the displaced UNP, its allies and its network of sympathetic civil society lobbies, clouded the process of negotiations by the UPFA in its attempt to build a new governing coalition. The furore was inevitable given the suddenness of these shock political developments on the one hand and, on the other, the opaqueness of constitutional provisions pertaining to governmental appointments and presidential responsibility. Sadly, with interested foreign powers diplomatically intervening, the furore has taken on an added dimension.

Our constantly revised state constitution has been buttressed by recent numerous provisions and amendments that attempt to resolve some of the underlying contradictions of our national basic law. Readers will recall that this constitution was originally put together via a steamroller single party majority with the short term objective (at the time) to ensure centralised power and unhindered executive decision-making. Today, the constitution is pitted with hurriedly formulated amendments, some to further centralise power and, others to undo authoritarian elements and undemocratic insertions.

For the President, it has been an endeavour to resolve the governance imbroglio as quickly and smoothly as possible, the primary compulsion being protecting the relative stability of a fragile economy and gradual post-war recovery.

The swiftness with which the President first sought to rearrange the governmental dispensation following the collapse of the coalition he had nurtured, gave the impression to some quarters that things were happening regardless of the niceties of constitutional order. As the tumult mounted along with impressions of instability created overseas, the President has clearly concluded that, in the interest of democracy overall, the next best thing was to dissolve Parliament.

When confronted with appeals for political advice, the Buddha promptly emphasised the need for popular consultation and sober deliberation. Pointing to the political practices of the Lichchavi and Vajji tribal federations as examples, the Buddha insisted that the process of inclusive consultation – one that is broad-based and accommodates the widest social constituency – was best. His emphasis was on the avoidance of confrontation and conflict.

While this advice by the Enlightened One is surely in good stead for us in our times, we must also ensure that such consultation of the people is done in accordance with our constitutional framework for elected, representative, governance. If there is confusion over the procedure of parliamentary dissolution and the holding of general elections, then the Supreme Court is there to be consulted to clear the air.

At this moment of national political controversy, the world community will do well not to rush to intervene – even with good intentions. The spectre of foreign intervention is one that has haunted imperially colonised countries such as Sri Lanka at many moments of history. Even today, the sight of foreign diplomats scurrying to meet key bureaucrats and officers in sensitive institutional positions, can only serve to remind citizens of previous external interventions in our body politic – interventions that stirred the political pot further and was sometimes the cause of historic tragedy.

Sri Lanka does not need to bend either eastwards or westwards but must weather all storms and not be buffeted off its feet.

Our country may not be the ‘five-star democracy’ that some people like to pretend that it is, but certainly, compared with the state systems in our region and across the world, we are fortunate to enjoy some of the political and social rights as much as we do. Indeed, our democracy is not so much due to ‘good fortune’ as to the endeavours of leaders and personalities, as well as to the firm resistance, sometimes in blood and sweat, by the citizenry in the face of challenges to our cherished freedoms and rights.

It’s time, once again, for the citizens to declare their will. 

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