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Will the parliamentary majority remain valid in steering the nation forward?

  • Nation building and Covid-19 pandemic control call for a more co-operative approach

BY Rohana Hettiarachchi

It is widely acknowledged that political stability is a critical factor impacting on the economic and social development of a country. However, the arguments put forward by some politicians that a two-thirds majority in Parliament and an Executive President with unlimited powers are essential prerequisites to bring about economic and social development have now collapsed completely.

A retrospective look at the past 73 years since Independence, and the analysis of the performance during the last four decades since 1977 when the open economy was introduced, will clearly prove it.

From 1978 to date (with a minor change during 2015-2019), the system of Executive Presidency functioned with unlimited powers vested in the President, the Head of State. Apart from that, in 1977, a single political party was able to secure a five-sixths majority in the Parliament, and thereafter on a number of occasions, a single political group was able to secure a clear parliamentary majority and the Executive Presidency.

If the majority power had helped develop the country, at least by now Sri Lanka should have entered on the right path to development. If all previous rulers have been able to orient the economy into a sustainable development path, then how is it possible that the country has  suddenly plunged into an economic recession during the period of the past one-and-a-half years, in which the country was plagued by the Covid-19 crisis? How many times has the country been governed by rulers who commanded a two-thirds majority in Parliament and Executive power since 1977?

Today, we are experiencing the adverse consequences of physical development carried out without a long-term vision, policy, or proper economic management with a system of politics bent on the outward exhibition of power. All the parties and leaders who have ruled the country since Independence are responsible for this situation.

Like many previous governments, the present Government also has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and an Executive President with unlimited powers. But, is the two-thirds majority in Parliament or the Executive Presidency a solution to the crisis we face as a country today?

Here are some questions to ponder:

  1. Has Parliament, which possesses a majority power, been able to find different options other than borrowing more and more, and the sale of valuable national resources to overcome the economic crisis that we face at the moment?
  2. How many Executive Presidents and how many Parliaments with a two-thirds majority have failed consistently to resolve the issue on teachers pay which had been dragged on for a period of over 25 years?
  3. Have the 225 Members of Parliament (MPs) who were entrusted with the financial control of the country and the ruling faction which has a two-thirds majority been able to control and arrest  the inflation in the country?
  4. What are the long-term policies formulated by successive governments (including MPs) that ruled the country during the last 73 years?
  5. How many members of both the ruling party and the Opposition have been able to engage in an intellectual dialogue in Parliament without resorting to the issues of power politics?
  6. How many times have MPs exercised their vote against their conscience?
  7. How many times have MPs raised their hands in Parliament expressing their consent for    Acts which were diametrically opposed from one another?
  8. How many constitutional amendments and amendments to different Acts of Parliament that are detrimental to the country have MPs supported knowingly?
  9. Have the 225 MPs been able to find a remedy for the Covid-19 pandemic? Or at least, have they been able to initiate an intellectual dialogue on this issue in the Legislature?
  10. Has the majority power succeeded in preventing the plunder of public money which is being pillaged by politicians through various means?
  11. Have the rulers been able to provide goods and services to the people according to an acceptable standard?

The confidence of the public in public representatives is rapidly eroding due to these reasons outlined above (this does not include all MPs or public representatives as there are exceptions).

It is becoming increasingly evident that the two-thirds majority in Parliament is no longer a decisive factor in addressing the economic, social, and health crisis facing the country at the moment. It should not be construed only as the incompetence of the present Government or the  parliamentary group. In practice, there was no discernible difference in all the political parties that have so far ruled the country. However, it will be extremely difficult to find a viable solution unless all of us think as a country and work hand in hand with the Government as a team at this moment.

In order to pave the way for such an initiative, the Government ought to have short-term and long-term plans, and the Government should adopt a flexible policy and remove obstacles to enable all groups that are desirous of joining hands with the Government to enter the process. The following points need to be taken into consideration to make it a reality:

  1. To set up a mechanism to provide accurate information to the public
  2. Conduct all government activities in a manner that builds public confidence
  3. Honesty and commitment: The Government and all politicians representing the Government should act in a manner that will prove practically that they work sincerely to build the country and are prepared to make necessary sacrifices for that
  4. Controversial amendments to the Constitution and other Acts should be suspended  temporarily
  5. Unnecessary expenditure by heads of the Government should be cut and limited to basic amenities only
  6. Arrogant and supercilious statements made by politicians should be stopped. Especially statements that cause unrest or disunity among professionals and provoke the public should be stopped
  7. A mature politician with discipline and restraint should be appointed as a spokesman to make statements on behalf of the Government
  8. All parties represented in Parliament, irrespective of the majority power held by the Government, should be convened to form an “all-party government” for a short period of time or an alternative mechanism for working collectively
  9. All derogatory political criticisms, except intellectual dialogues, must be stopped for a short time
  10. All trade unions that raise trade union issues should be convened and they should discuss their issues honestly, and we should request them to be patient for a reasonable time to resolve them (issues) and persuade them to agree to work to the best of their ability
  11. All civil forces should be gathered and co-ordinated and their support should be obtained
  12. A mechanism must be set up to mobilise local entrepreneurs who have the potential to boost the Sri Lankan economy and point out the importance and value of their contribution at the moment
  13. Win over people in this exercise by demonstrating the sincerity of the intentions and commitment of the Government. The people will certainly not hesitate to donate even their personal resources to the government if the Government is capable of convincing the public of its honesty
  14. In the meantime, the support of all parties represented in Parliament and experts should be sought to formulate the necessary policies for long-term amendments

Govt. and Opposition working in collaboration

In a national catastrophe, the Government and the Opposition should ignore all political differences, issues of the political power structure, or future goals of power politics and work in collaboration on a contingency plan. In order to achieve this objective, the Government should reach out to the Opposition. We have already seen many Opposition politicians making proposals to the Government in this regard. However, the Government does not seem to have taken any positive step so far. At the same time, the political leaders representing the Opposition must demonstrate in practice and example that they are prepared to extend their support to overcome the national catastrophe in good faith, regardless of parochial political motives.

It is important to refrain from subjective political criticisms at this juncture and focus attention on making a formal review of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis – the two major issues facing the country at the moment – and formulate a common plan so that the Government and the Opposition could implement it together.

The main responsibility of rescuing the country from this national catastrophe lies with the ruling party; yet, the Opposition cannot escape the responsibility. As citizens, we watch carefully the actions of the ruling party as well as the Opposition. It is up to the Government to decide whether or not to form an all-party government for this purpose. But forming an all-party government per se is not the only solution. What is actually needed is a suitable mechanism and a practical programme for discussing the views and suggestions of each party.

At the same time, various charges are being made against the National Operation Centre for Prevention of Covid-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) and the Presidential Task Force set up for the Suppression of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the service rendered by the Army Commander and other members of the security forces so far cannot be underestimated. They deserve the nation’s salute for that.

However, the main criticism raised by various parties is that the Presidential Task Force or the NOCPCO does not obtain the adequate support of the health sector experts in the decision-making process.

The decision-making process should be based on scientific data. However, we as citizens are not aware of how it works. But it is important that special attention is paid to these allegations, a formal review of the overall programme be conducted, and, if necessary, the mechanism be further expanded or amended so that public confidence is enhanced and maintained, which is extremely crucial.

The role of civilians

The responsibility of taking appropriate measures in facing the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has become a national catastrophe, lies equally with the citizens of the country just as much as with the Government, the politicians, the health sector, and the public servants.

Although the adoption of national policy decisions in a timely manner is crucial in controlling a catastrophe of this magnitude, it is essential that we as citizens do our utmost to ensure our safety.

The decisions taken by the Government and the health sector in this connection will be of no use in restraining the pandemic, if we citizens do not comply with them. Although certain decisions of the Government might lead to an increase in the spread of the disease, it should be understood that the disease is spreading through our actions.

Therefore, at this point, all of us must refrain from all activities that could lead to the spread of the disease. We will be able to control this situation if we could protect ourselves and prevent others from contracting it from us.

The citizens of Sri Lanka will be grateful to all those including the doctors, nurses, health staff, and all personnel of the security forces who have worked tirelessly in controlling the Covid-19 threat.

Finally, it should be emphasised that in a national catastrophe of this magnitude, what matters is not the structure of political power or the majority power in the Parliament, but a common agenda implemented on the consensus of all parties. The citizens of this country are sure to support such a plausible and credible programme, irrespective of political differences.

(The writer is the Executive Director of the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections [PAFFREL] polls monitoring organisation)