The fixed term excuse, a fiction, when UNP can face polls | Sunday Observer

The fixed term excuse, a fiction, when UNP can face polls

Britain’s Fixed Term Parliament has decidedly become a Not So Fixed term Parliament. Tagged along with this fact, is an object lesson for Sri Lanka’s legislators, and indeed the voters, and those politically engaged others.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that received Royal Assent on September 15, 2011, introducing fixed-term elections to the Westminster Parliament for the first time. Elections must be held every five years under the terms of the Act, but could be held earlier if two thirds of the House of Commons calls for a general election, or a government loses a two thirds majority.

On April 18 2017, Theresa May, the British premier decided to call snap elections, despite the FTPA.

She easily obtained the two thirds majority that was required in the British House of Commons to hold the General Election, which she then proceeded to ‘lose’, by winning, though that’s another story altogether.

The point being made is that when Theresa May wanted a snap election despite the Fixed Term Law, she got one. ‘It was essentially May, not Parliament, who decided to dissolve the legislature. Thus, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as Professor of Comparative Politics Alan Renwick writes, “only changed the choreography, not the underlying pattern of power,’ noted Gareth Martin, a political scientist writing for a British weekly.

Snap poll again

These days, perhaps to the chagrin of some Anglophile Sri Lankan politicos, Britain looks to be poised for another snap general election.What a bad example, Mr. Wickremesinghe might say through gritted teeth.

An election (in UK) within the next 18 months is looking ever more likely, argues Rob Wilson in The Daily Telegraph. Political uncertainty is starting to “damage the economy, more so than Brexit”. Business leaders will be increasingly eager for someone to be given “a decisive mandate to lead the country – whatever the direction”. (Alan Partridge, Moneyweek.)

All of the above should assure anyone without a clue about British politics, that the Fixed Term Parliament Act does not mean anything absolute or in any way fixed, in the British political culture that encourages elections in times of instability.

‘The Liberal Democrats have told party activists to prepare for a snap general election in the next few months in the belief that Theresa May could be forced to go back to the country when her Brexit deal is voted down by MPs,’ writes columnist Adam Payne, for instance, in the Business Insider this week.

It is abundantly clear that in mature and functioning democracies, the only recipe out of deadlock, confusion, and political uncertainty, is a general election seeking a people’s mandate. It’s why the UK House of Commons already granted a two thirds super majority to the Prime Minister once, and would probably give another one soon, all within a span of two years, to call snap polls.

Divorced and living together?

As someone versed in the ways of coalition and cohabitation politics once quipped, there cannot be a state of ‘divorced folk living together.’

The original coalition of the UNP and President Maithripala Sirisena’s UPFA is no more. It means the original ‘mandate’ if there was one, lies in what’s best called ‘omni-shambles’. On top of that, the Wickremesinghe UNF lost a local government election in spectacular fashion.

‘They had very open disunity, and particularly, during the last month of the election campaign, the signal they sent was that this is a government of chaos,” Jayadeva Uyangoda told the New York Times in February. “Obviously, the people then want a strong government. And Rajapaksa is the candidate for a strong ruler, for the stability of governance.”

That was Jayadeva Uyangoda, soon after the local government elections earlier this year (!), speaking to the NYT, and the repetition of that fact is for emphasis ...

As the British parliament is ever so willing to do under trying conditions, the UNP should support a two thirds vote in the House for a general election.

The party’s leader Ranil Wickremasinghe and countless other UNP frontliners have stated repeatedly that the party leadership is not afraid of facing the people at the polls. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s lawyer Mr Kanag-Iswaran told the Supreme Court in a moment of candour that polls are fine except that ‘if you want to marry me darling, you have to come the proper way.’ (Yes, that’s the accurate quote from SC proceedings.)

What’s the proper way according to the Wickremesinghe UNP.?

Unlike the President, the UNP believes, there is only one path to elections under the current Constitution before the fixed four and a half year term ends, and that’s to obtain the consent of two thirds of Parliament to end its current term. If the UNP believes in the rhetoric of ‘not being afraid of elections,’ the UNP as a key player in the parliamentary stakes is obliged under current circumstances, to grant the consent for a poll, by contributing to a two thirds vote in Parliament for its early dissolution.

A further look at the post LG polls climate in early February is informative.

‘A bleak assessment about the future of the present administration is more than warranted. However, it is important to keep in mind that the prospects for deeper reform with the current government have been quite poor for some time, and that any result from this local poll was not going to change that,’ wrote Taylor Dibbert in the Diplomat, referring to the Wickremesinghe government in early 2018.

What’s pro democracy?

That says it all. If a bleak assessment of the coalition government was warranted in 2018 after the LG polls, obviously, a much bleaker assessment is warranted now, when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government is no more — following from the simple fact that the President pulled the UPFA out of the — until recently — governing coalition.

This cannot be the democracy that the pro democracy elites hanker after — a democracy that goes against the verdict of almost all international journalists and commentators who said the Wickremesinghe government is not tenable, after the Local Government defeat which even Taylor Dibbert acknowledges in The Diplomat’s article, was fought as a Referendum on the Government’s rule. Elections are an inevitable must under the circumstances explained above, and indeed the Wickremesinghe UNP could, even belatedly, claim the moral high ground today, by consenting for a two thirds vote to dissolve Parliament.

When the ink is dry on what has been written about this post LG 2018 period in Sri Lankan politics, the question historians would ask inevitably would be, ‘why didn’t the UNP vote to end the fixed term so-called, of this 2015 Parliament?’

A million dollars can be bet on the fact that history would not be kind in answering that. It would be said — as Dibbert offered, with ‘more than warranted reason,’ — that Wickremesinghe wanted to cling on to power and feared a general election that would relegate the UNP to the Opposition. That would be a bad verdict in history. It would be a terrible verdict,to be precise.

The Confucians in China had the ‘mandate from heaven.’ The doctrine theorized that as long as there was no mass resentment, the rulers have a ‘mandate from heaven’ to continue in power.

What gives some people the right to rule others? At least since John Locke’s time, the most common and seemingly compelling answer has been “the consent of the governed,’ wrote Robert Higgs, in fee.org (The Foundation for Economic Education, USA.)

The stand out argument in the current context, is that the UNP overwhelmingly lost the ‘consent to govern.’ It lost the mandate from heaven and earth too.

This ‘consent to govern’ is not reflected by cobbling together any kind of ‘numbers’ in Parliament through a coalition different from the one that launched the original UNF-UPFA Government in 2015. Obviously, that cannot be the case, when Uyangoda tells the New York Times, ‘the signal they (the government) sent was that this is a government of chaos. Obviously, the people then want a strong government. And Rajapaksa is the candidate for a strong ruler, for the stability of governance.”

Self-destruction

The consent to Govern is clearly not present at the current conjuncture for Wickremesinghe’s UNP Government of 2015. It blatantly defies reason, and educated opinion in international journals, as evidenced above, to state anything suggesting otherwise.

This calls for the UNP and any self respecting democracy advocate, either here in Sri Lanka or abroad, to consider the aforementioned issues in their proper perspective, and ask the UNP to vote for a two thirds majority in Parliament for the current, so called ‘fixed term Parliament,’ to self destruct early.

The Abraham Sumanthirans of the world need not worry that ‘Parliament may one day do it (dissolve itself) if it does not like a Prime Minister’s face.’

The UK Parliament did it, and is poised to do it again, so there!

As for Parliaments that do not have a fixed term rule, the thought of ‘don’t like your face’ does not remotely enter the equation. Denmark had a number of very short term parliaments in the 1970s and the 1980s. Prime Minister Poul Schlüter lead a series of coalition minority governments calling elections in 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1990. Likewise, his predecessors called elections in 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1981. For more than 40 years, no Danish Parliament has sat its full four-year term, in all cases the Prime Minister has called elections at an earlier date.

Yes, Prime Ministers can call for early elections, and in the history of parliaments around the world, they have done it more often than not.

It’s what the now former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe should have done, and could still do if he is the adherent of the principles of democratic good governance that he swears by, at every chance he gets. He could still consent to the two thirds from the opposition benches, and make an exit from the state of ‘government of chaos’ (Uyangoda’s words, not mine) in his time, by taking the available option of going before the people.

The JVP can do that too, and has said that it would indeed opt for a two thirds vote for Parliament in favour of fresh elections.

The JVP’s leadership would have been the laughing stock if it did not take that route, having marched in Colombo barely two months back ‘to send the UNP Government packing.’

But yet, the JVP too is suspect, or is at best paying mere lip service to democracy, in that the JVP is not asking the UNP to consent to a two thirds super majority in Parliament for its early dissolution.

All other ostensible pro democracy advocates who don’t call on the UNP to call for elections are suspect on this count too.

The President dissolved Parliament, and his relying on a section of the Constitution other than the ‘fixed term’ Clause for making that move may still be correct, but that decision at the moment lies with the Supreme Court. But no democracy advocate denies that Parliament can be dissolved early, with two thirds consent, despite any constitutional confusion. This writer would be forgiven for asking why none of the democracy advocates want this, or advocate this, and follow the JVP in approving a two thirds for early dissolution?

No democracy in a vacuum

Thiswriter would be forgiven for saying also emphatically that all such democracy advocates would be suspect.

They don’t see the obvious way out of the chaos that even their most favoured commentators (Uyangoda, Dibbert, Saravanamuttu, and many others) have readily pointed to as a cause for the outcome of the February LG polls. It’s strongly suspected that such advocates don’t see a two thirds vote in Parliament as a viable option, only because they want Ranil Wickremesinghe to be in power, no matter what. At least if it’s not Wickremesinghe they want, it’s suspect that they want the UNP to be in power irrespective of what else happens in the country.

If democracy advocates believed sincerely in their slogan, ‘it’s not for Ranil but for democracy’, they should advocate an early dissolution of Parliament with a contribution from the UNP to a two thirds majority that would enable it. If they are heard to say ‘it’s not our function to advocate that,’ they should not be advocating democracy, as democracy doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but is determined on the conditions prevalent and the best options available to the people, particularly, at a time of chaos and confusion.

To understand the rationale for a Fixed Term Parliaments Act, what better place to look at, than Britain.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) was presented in that country as a means of removing inappropriate discretion over election timing from the Prime Minister. Advocates of constitutional reform had long supported the idea of a change along these lines. (London School of Economics blog.)

The rationale for the FTPA was to prevent governments from calling for snap elections at a given time, in order to increase their majority. That’s what ‘inappropriate discretion in election timing’ means.

The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee gave the following as its primary reason for the FTPA:

The potential to ‘curtail’ the ability of prime ministers to trigger general elections at moments that suited them and their parties. Obviously then, that reason was not present for the Wickremesinghe government to call an early election. He couldn’t have been looking to increase his majority when he lost!

Therefore, an abuse of the Fixed Term Powers is not even being contemplated. The Fixed Term Act in its rationale never expected that the legislation would be a barrier in holding elections when political confusion and chaos is the order of the day.

A very strong moral imperative exists, therefore, for the UNP to support an early dissolution of Parliament in the interests of a general election as a means of an exit from the chaos and uncertainty that existed much before the events of October 26, when President Sirisena summarily ended the Wickremesinghe administration. 

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