Editorial/Opinion

Youth and the Parliament

Screen to Print by Dinouk Colombage

Sri Lanka’s Parliament is entering its final 12-month stretch, and with the 19th Amendment set to take full effect following the presidential election at the end of the year, the new Parliament will see itself the recipient of greater power and oversight over governance.

Since the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime in 2015, and the subsequent formation of the National Government following the August 2015 parliamentary election, the public’s attention has turned to the performance of the 225 parliamentarians. In the past four years, Sri Lanka’s members of Parliament have seen themselves thrust into the limelight on several different occasions.

In 2015, several months after the hotly contested presidential election, Parliament was given the responsibility of reducing the powers of the executive presidency, which, until then, was evolving into an autocratic position. Despite being divided along lines of loyalty to newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the MPs were able to put aside their differences and enact a vital piece of legislation.

The responsibility of parliamentarians did not end there. Following the swearing-in of the new Parliament, the Government presented to the House the Right to Information (RTI) Bill. This was a key law which has since provided the public with a greater oversight of the MPs and their control over public funds. Once again, the MPs were able to come together and ensure the passage of the Bill which increased accountability on their part.

However, the greatest sense of accomplishment by the Legislature was in November 2018 during the 51-day coup orchestrated by the President, following his sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The Prime Minister, since the introduction of the 19th Amendment, is appointed by the President, but is determined as the MP who commands the support of the majority in Parliament. In the case of Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe had commanded the confidence of the majority of the House since the victory of the UNP in the 2015 parliamentary election.

However, despite Rajapaksa failing to hold a majority support in Parliament, the President chose to illegally remove Wickremesinghe and appoint Rajapaksa in his stead.

With the country gripped by the coup, once again, the public and the ousted Government turned to the Legislative as a barrier against autocracy.

On 17 November 2018, Parliament met, and amidst the chaos of MPs loyal to Rajapaksa rioting in the chamber, a No-confidence Motion was passed against the newly appointed PM, signalling his removal from office.

However, it was a further several weeks until the President adhered to the wishes of Parliament and reappointed Wickremesinghe who had once again demonstrated that he commanded the support of the majority of the House.

While Sri Lanka’s parliamentarians have endured a turbulent few years, the public is fast running out of patience with the MPs. This past week, a parliamentarian monitoring website had published a statistic which highlighted that over 35% of MPs are over the age of 60, and 68% of MPs are over the age of 50. With a greater percentage of MPs being closer to retirement age, the public has begun to demand that younger politicos are voted in.

While youth certainly must be given the opportunity to prove themselves in the political spectrum, the public must look at the reasons why Parliament continues to be dominated by older-generation politicos.

Attracting high-calibre MPs

As a greater portion of the youth is career-driven professionals, the lure of politics has reduced. With the lack of financial stability or job security, the life of a politician is not an appealing one. According to the Parliament website, an MP draws a basic salary of Rs. 54,285 along with allowances amounting to a maximum of Rs. 34,500. In total, a MP is provided a final take-home salary of Rs. 88,785, slightly above the mid-level salary of a graduate in a state institution.

With the lack of financial appeal, the public would be hard-pressed to find educated, dedicated youth who would be willing to forgo a career in the corporate sector that promises stability and a future.

In August 2018, the Government attempted to present a bill to Parliament which would see an increase in the salaries of MPs. Public criticism was widespread, forcing the Government and the Speaker to back down from the proposed increase. When questioned over the proposed increase, the Government stated that if the public wished to attract more professionals and higher qualified individuals into the political sphere, they would need to present stronger incentives.

For an MP, unlike other professionals, public service is often a route that takes a greater period of an individual’s working years. It often does not pay dividends but is a career that cannot be put on hiatus. This means, very often, individuals that choose the MP career path, do so with ulterior motives in mind.

As the public prepares itself for a year of elections, questions must be raised as to why MPs of a higher calibre are not being attracted.