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Revival of Opposition necessary to strengthen democratic institutions

By Jehan Perera

(April 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The enthusiastic participation of the electorate in the electoral process is one indication of a country governed by democratic norms. Another indication is the presence of strong institutions, such as an independent Election Commission, police and public service, which are able to inspire confidence in the electorate that the elections will take place freely and fairly.On both these counts Sri Lanka has been reflecting a deteriorating trend. An effectively functioning democracy requires a strong Opposition with the capacity to be a check and balance on the power of the government. With every electoral defeat suffered by the Opposition, its campaign has got weaker which has enabled the government to obtain majorities hitherto not thought possible.

Not surprisingly, these successive electoral defeats and punitive actions have sent a discouraging message to many Opposition supporters that their participation in elections is to no effect, as the result is pre-determined. The recently concluded General Election did not evoke a large voter turnout although more than 7,000 candidates jostled for 225 seats in Parliament. Where victory is concerned it can also be seen that the government has not been leaving anything to chance. The government has taken necessary measures to win by as large a margin as possible. The stated motivation has been to achieve a two-thirds majority in Parliament that would enable the government to engage in constitutional change to its satisfaction.

On the other hand, there has also been the individual and personal motivation of every contesting government candidate to win by a huge margin and thereby obtain a satisfactory position within the government leadership. One of the disturbing features noted by independent election monitors was the high prevalence of intra party violence, where government candidates in particular fought each other for votes under the preferential voting system. This is not to detract from the prevalence of violence inflicted by goons on the campaigns of Opposition candidates, most notably in Nawalapitiya and Trincomalee where repolls are taking place.

Institutional decay

Measures taken by the government and its candidates to secure victory must be seen in tandem with the institutional decay that has affected institutions that once might have guaranteed free and fair elections. The breakdown of institutions of governance, and especially of norms of separation of powers, has been taking place over the years, and through successive governments. The misuse of the state media and other state resources, and the inaction of the law enforcement authorities, so pronounced at the recently concluded Presidential and General elections, are therefore not confined to the present government, but were witnessed in previous years as well, though not on the same scale. This has been commented upon by election monitors in their reports, where they have bemoaned that their recommendations have been ignored time and again. The problem is that the abuse is growing and with it the problem of institutional decay.

Governments in power at the time of the holding of elections have the opportunity to utilise the machinery of state for their election campaigns. This has put the Opposition parties at a tremendous disadvantage where they cannot compete for votes on equal terms. It is perhaps Bangladesh in the South Asian region, which has found the best answer to this perennial problem through the establishment of caretaker governments. These comprise non-partisan persons who are mandated to lead the government for three months prior to the holding of general elections. On the other hand, in Western countries where institutions of state are stronger and less susceptible to governmental misuse, it has proved to be possible to conduct free and fair elections while the government remains in power.

The way that Sri Lanka’s own political leadership chose to handle the problem of institutional decay was through the 17th Amendment, which was passed into law by a unanimous vote in Parliament in 2000. This law was implemented for a brief period and only partially. It had teething problems that could have been ironed out and the country might have enjoyed a non-partisan public administration, police force, Elections Commission, judiciary and Human Rights Commission. But the law posed too much of a challenge to the over-mighty executive power of the Presidency. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, refused to implement the 17th Amendment relying on the impunity of their presidential office from judicial sanctions. This simultaneously dealt a death blow to the prospects of free and fair elections.

Government’s role

Bearing in mind the prevailing institutional decay, there are several options that could be utilised to improve the situation pertaining to governance in the country. The most hopeful would be for the government to take the lead in rebuilding these institutions. President Rajapaksa has been speaking of making Sri Lanka a first world country. If the President means what he says this would mean strengthening the systems of checks and balances, and of institutional autonomy, which are a hallmark of first world democracies. The most important institutions that need to be rebuilt in Sri Lanka are precisely the ones marked out by the 17th Amendment, namely the public service, police, judiciary, Elections Commission and Human Rights Commission.

In his first term of office, President Rajapaksa and his colleagues in government were adamant that the 17th Amendment was a flawed piece of legislation that could not be implemented as it was. This led the government to appoint a Parliamentary Committee that met on several occasions to work out how to change the infirmities in the law and make it a practical one. However, there appeared to be no sense of urgency at that time and the exercise got lost in the hustle and bustle and further institutional decay that set in with the coming of election time. Now that the government is firmly ensconced in power and has nearly obtained a 2/3 majority, the time is opportune for the government to revisit the 17th Amendment or to devise a more appropriate alternative to it in consultation with the Opposition.

On the other hand, relying on the government leadership to voluntarily curtail their own powers by setting up systems of checks and balances may be unrealistic. Lord Acton’s dictum written in 1887 that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely was born of his observation of political life in England, which is often thought of as the modern mother of democracy. A strengthened Opposition would be a necessary supplement to relying on the government’s own sense of statesmanship and responsibility. Sri Lanka is a country that is still in the process of setting up institutions of state which are non-partisan and can act as a real check and a balance to the power of government. In this context, a vibrant Opposition that challenges and calls the government to account is an indispensable part of democracy.

Opposition’s role

Reviving the Opposition would be the primary though not sole responsibility of the UNP, as it is the main Opposition party. The UNP leadership has to come to terms with its failure to inspire hope and confidence in the mass electorate. Ranil Wicremesinghe, as the leader of the UNP, has retained the confidence of the urban electorate that has repeatedly returned him to Parliament with the largest amount of preferential votes obtained by any Opposition candidate. But his party’s repeated electoral defeats also show that these strengths are not sufficiently compelling to win national elections for his party. The rebuilding of the Opposition party machinery and the adoption of new campaign themes will be necessary if the Opposition is to play its role as an effective check and balance in Sri Lanka’s democracy.

One factor that emerged at the recent elections was the difference in voting patterns between the North and East which are primarily populated by the ethnic minorities and the rest of the country. Although government representation in Parliament from the North and East will be better this time, the circumstances under which that representation was obtained did no credit to free and fair elections. Election observers documented the plight of internally displaced persons put in buses that took them to wrong polling stations too far for them to return to the correct ones on time. They have also alleged that others were bused by government candidates to cast their votes twice over at polling stations in two separate locations. In other areas the climate of intimidation due to the presence of armed paramilitaries deterred opposition campaigning.

As a result of these undemocratic practices the actual representation of ethnic minority interests might be less than it ought to be and more subservient to government interests than it might have been. In addition, ethnic minority representation outside of the North and East has also fallen due to the failure of ethnic minority candidates to secure sufficient preferential votes to obtain election on the lists of the mainstream political parties for which they contested. Sri Lanka has only recently put behind it one of the worst ethnic-based civil wars in the world that arose from a sense of minority grievance at non-participation in governance. It will, therefore, be judicious for both the government and Opposition parties to consider increasing the representation of ethnic minority representatives on their national lists for Parliament. Stronger ethnic minority representation in Parliament would be another necessary check and balance for good governance in the country.

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