Saturday, September 11, 2010

The fast track to the loss of democratic freedoms

By Shanie | The Island

"According to the theories propounded it does no matter what you do. People have no right to question you! They say ‘We have the right to decide what we want.’ The Hon Minister of Finance stood up there and said ‘We have been chosen for five years. You have no right to make this request for the next five years. You have no right to express protest in this House. The people must take our decision.’

This is the kind of democracy against which we have agitated and all Leftists have agitated. What is this democracy? You elect a person. He comes in here by hook or by crook, and for five years the electors have no right to express their point of view whatever damnable thing this particular member may do, however blatantly he may betray the promises given to the electorate. He is entitled to continue whatever happens. Is this the kind of democracy they are advocating?"

That was Dr N M Perera in September 1953 moving a vote of no confidence in Parliament against the ruling UNP government.

The Minister of Finance referred to was J R Jayewardene. It was less than a month after the August 12 Hartal called for by the parties of the Left and just a year after the UNP had been returned to power in a convincing victory at the country’s second General Election. Dr N M Perera concluded his speech with an appeal to all members of Parliament to vote on the no confidence according to their conscience. ‘I want them’, he said, ‘in all conscience to ponder seriously on this question and then decide. Let them not say the Government Party has already decided. The situation has gone beyond that. This was clearly demonstrated on the 12th. From every part of the country, people responded to the Hartal. It was because they felt from the bottom of their hearts that this Government had betrayed them. We must give the people an opportunity to face the facts and then decide once and for all. In a democracy the people are masters and they must really decide the issue. Therefore I ask Hon Members to leave aside bickering and treat this motion in its larger context, and decide to support it irrespective of the consequences to the UNP as such."

The 1953 was actively supported by all parties and leaders of the Left – Mr Philip Gunawardene, Dr N M Perera and Dr S A Wickremesinghe. Even Mr S W R D Bandaranaike from the SLFP lent his moral support and stated that he was in full sympathy with the Hartal, with the aims and objectives of the Hartal. The 1953 Hartal was perhaps the turning point in the political life of this country. For the first time, people’s power was mobilized against the then powerful and arrogant government machinery. Without a doubt, it was the catalyst that within three years was to bring about the landslide victory for the Bandaranaike led coalition n 1956.

The manner in which the Eighteenth Amendment has been rushed through Parliament and the totally unprincipled methods used to obtain the votes of 161 parliamentarians was reminiscent of the arrogance of the UNP government in 1953 – an arrogance that brought about its eventual downfall in a fast track way. What is more pathetic is that the 161 votes included that of the five Parliamentarians of the so-called Socialist Alliance, the heirs to the political legacy of the leaders of the 1953 Hartal. It was an act of betrayal rightly labeled as shameless opportunism by the politburo and central Committee members of their own parties. Unprincipled politics may provide short-term personal gain by way of perks and privileges but must lead invariably to the political wilderness in the longer term. It will take an enormous struggle for a new leadership to work on re-building their parties.

Only seventeen votes were cast against the Eighteenth Amendment and these votes came only from the TNA and DNA. It must be said to the credit of the TNA and DNA that they had the courage to stand up to he indecent heckling from the government benches and have their opposition to the Eighteenth Amendment recorded in Hansard. Butnot so the parliamentarians from the grand old party. They have shown their spinelessness and lack of strong leadership in the party and to the country. Unless the party changes itself, the country for the foreseeable future may be compelled to look to the DNA to provide the opposition at a national level.

Where do we go from here?

The Eighteenth Amendment is paving the way for an elected dictatorship. Near absolute power has been given to the Executive President. We have seen over the past four years how a President who enjoys legal immunity blatantly disregarded the Constitution by not appointing the Constitutional Council and, though it, the various independent Commissions. The public services, law enforcement and prosecutions were so politiicised that the public have lost confidence in the ability of any of the institutions responsible for these areas from acting in terms of the law and good governance.

The President is now vested with constitutional powers to make direct appointments to all these Commissions and institutions. The President will now, for instance, be solely responsible for appointments to the Elections Commission. But no chances have been taken. Some of the powers given to the Elections Commission to ensure a free and fair election have been removed by the Eighteenth Amendment. In the past, we have seen, despite those powers vested in the Elections Commissioner, the impotency of the Commissioner to enforce adherence to his instructions. Now even that facade of independence has been removed. Those who argue that the removal of the term limits means that a President who seeks re-election will have to obtain the people’s mandate will have to explain why this clause has been removed. So far in our history, no incumbent President who sought re-election has been defeated, with or without abuse of state and other resources.

The Eighteenth Amendment has been the first piece of legislation brought in by the government after re-election. It is now clear what their priorities are. J R Jayewardene after vesting himself with the powers under the 1978 Constitution once famously boasted that as the Executive President he could do anything except to change a person’s gender. Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone even beyond that. Since some of the checks and balances that existed have now been removed, civil society and religious leaders have to be extremely vigilant and provide leadership to the people. The political leadership, both in the government and the opposition, has failed us. J R Jayewardene deprived his main political opponent of her civic rights, with more than two-thirds of the then parliamentarians shamelessly agreeing. Today, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s principal opponent remains under custody with every prospect of more than two-thirds of our parliamentarians removing this thorn in their political life. Time was when the country looked to the judiciary as one of the checks on executive power. It was good to be reminded by the Civil Rights Movement of (Senator) Nadesan’s comment on the need for the Supreme Court to get it absolutely right when they are called upon to review so-called "urgent legislation."

It was heartening that in the run-up to the vote on the Eighteenth Amendment, so many leading citizens from civil society and the religious came into the open to voice their opposition. Theirs was not a cry in the wilderness. It has awakened the people to the dangers of untrammeled power, beyond judicial review, being vested in the executive. It is this momentum that needs to be maintained to ensure that our country returns to the path of democracy and people’s rights. The Civil Rights Movement in a statement issued in 1978 following "urgent legislation" being introduced by the J R Jayewardene government in the process of depriving Mrs Bandaranaike of her civic rights, stated: "Democracy does not mean that people are permitted to exercise their vote once every so many years but are expected to keep quiet in between. True democracy requires that the people are enabled to participate in the decision making process of government at every stage practicable, and an opportunity to consider, debate and make representations on proposed legislation is crucial to this."

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having stated: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

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