By Eran Wickramaratne
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) is an association of Parliamentarians who are bound by their shared interests, respect for the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms, and the pursuit of the positive ideals of parliamentary democracy. The Association’s mission is to promote the advancement of parliamentary democracy by enhancing knowledge and understanding of democratic governance. The CPA consists of the Parliamentarians of the 54 states of the Commonwealth and many other smaller territories. The CPA has its roots in the Empire Parliamentary Association that was formed in 1911 which became the CPA in 1948 where all members share responsibility in the Association’s management.
It is to the CPA’s credit that their annual conference is currently being held in Sri Lanka, despite the country’s drift to an authoritarian style of governance. Many countries have drifted in and out of democratic governance over the past six decades. Some countries have been expelled from the Commonwealth and others have had their membership suspended for many reasons which include conflict, genocide, fraudulent elections and the undermining of democracy.
The CPA’s declared mission is to advance parliamentary democracy by enhancing knowledge and understanding of democratic governance. Even though the degree of democracy in a state is a highly debatable and contentious issue, the Commonwealth has often been able to censure countries which have deviated from its ideals. No global association including the United Nations would be of any use unless the common values of humanity are upheld over the narrow objectives of a nation state. The CPA’s overarching objective is to strengthen parliamentary democracy rather than legitimize government behaviour.
Sri Lanka evolved into a parliamentary democracy at Independence in 1948, while it had practised universal adult suffrage since 1933. Multi-party elections, shared Cabinet responsibility and constitutional protection for minorities were the hallmark of Sri Lankan democracy. With the adoption of the Republican Constitution of 1978 and a powerful presidential system of governance, the balance of power between the Executive President and Parliament tilted in favour of the President. It was the beginning of the erosion of parliamentary democracy. In the Chamber of 225 members, there is less than a handful attending on a regular basis. While Parliamentarians cannot be excused for negligence of duty, the overriding reason for such neglect is the fact that parliament’s supremacy over the legislative process, as a check on executive power and public finance has diminished. Even though the Constitution gives Parliament control over finance, in practice, Parliament exercises little control. The weak oversight committees, the lack of a Parliamentary Budget Office, the inability to track expenditure by line and insufficient disclosure of financial information has made a mockery of the constitutional powers of Parliament over finance. The lack of a Right to Information Bill also leaves the public disempowered from obtaining financial information.
Despite the shift in power to the Executive President, there were a couple of significant checks and balances in the Constitution on the unbridled power of the President, who is immune from lawsuit in his private and public capacity. One such check on power was a two term limit on the Presidency. In democracies where there is an Executive Presidential System, there are term limits. A term is normally 4 to 5 years and an Executive President is limited to two terms. Countries that have no term limits are normally one-party states or dictatorships. Some of the countries without term limits are Azerbaijan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, Belarus, Algeria and Burkina Faso. Egypt and Libya also had no term limits for decades.
Sri Lanka had two terms of 6 years each. In 2010, a new amendment to the Constitution known as the 18th Amendment abolished the term limits which were the last check on the powerful executive Presidency. President Rajapaksa in the attempt to get Parliament to approve the amendment artificially created a two third majority in the legislature by encouraging crossovers from the opposition political parties to the government. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was rushed through as an urgent bill with no public debate. Legislators had access to the proposed 18th Amendment on the morning of the debate where it was adopted into law. The Sri Lanka Constitution does not permit post legislative review. The above stated sequence of events does not speak for the best traditions of democratic parliamentary governance. Sri Lanka has a democratic system of governance with diminished democracy.
The 18th Amendment also eliminated a Constitutional Council which was instituted to provide diverse parliamentary representation. The Constitutional Council then appointed the independent commissions for elections, public service, police, finance, anti-bribery and corruption amongst others. The Constitutional amendment gave the President ultimate power to make appointments to these commissions with the concession of consulting a parliamentary committee. As recent as last week elections were held without Election Commissioners being appointed to the weakened Election Commission.
In a recent lecture delivered in Colombo at the Bakeer Markar Commemoration, Wadah Khanfar, the former Director General of the Al Jazeera Network stated that the Arab Spring was a revolt against authoritarianism of rulers who often ruled in the guise of democracy co-opting the opposition in the process of its governance. The result was the suppression of people who for long years were duped with economic crumbs and the trappings of democracy. What has begun to sweep the Arab world is the indomitable spirit of democracy.
The Government-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC) has widely documented the erosion of the democratic space and made recommendations for rectification. The opposition has pledged its support to implement the recommendations contained in the LLRC report. The government and opposition work together to make CPA objectives a success. Therefore, we must work together to make Sri Lanka a vibrant parliamentary democracy. Let us rise to our common calling - the advancement of parliamentary democracy.