Towards a stronger Parliament | Sunday Observer

Towards a stronger Parliament

The August 5 General Election is just over one week away and parties and candidates have shifted their campaigns into high gear within the constraints imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic caused the postponement of the poll on two previous occasions, but the August 5 date looks a certainty, though the Kandakadu Covid cluster gave everyone a scare. That has now been fully controlled according to the health authorities.

The bottom line is that the people will get the opportunity to elect Members of their choice to the next Parliament on August 5. In this context, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appealed to the voters to elect a strong Parliament that can fulfil the aspirations of the public.

Many have interpreted this statement as a call for a two-thirds majority for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna which is helmed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The President has on many occasions explained that an overwhelming majority for the SLPP will enable him to rule with an even stronger mandate and seek certain Constitutional amendments that stand in the way of fulfilling the wishes of the people. Many, including the very architects of the 19th Amendment, have since pointed out its shortcomings and impediments to governance. If such obstacles can be removed, it will be easier for the President to realise his vision for the country, as encapsulated in the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour Policy Statement, which is incidentally being used as the SLPP manifesto.

Governance will also be easier if the President and the Prime Minister are from the same party. Sri Lankans witnessed the adverse effects of the President and the Prime Minister coming from two different parties with vastly different agendas and policies during the nearly five years of the Yahapalana Government. They tended to pull the country in different directions, with the dire result that even national security was compromised. There are many who say that the Easter attacks could have been prevented if there was unity at the country’s political head table. Thus in the President’s view, the voters will get the chance of rectifying this mistake on January 5. It is much better to have two leaders who share the same vision and mission.

But the President’s call must not be seen in a purely political light. He has implicitly called for more educated and erudite men and women in Parliament, having bemoaned the level to which parliamentary politics had sunk in recent times. This is a timely call, for Parliament must once again become a ground for healthy debate and intellectual discourse. Moreover, much of the work of Parliament happens behind closed doors in Consultative Committees, where the participants must have a degree of intellectual capacity.

There were more than a dozen MPs in the previous Parliament who had not spoken even one word on any topic. The voters must make sure that such misfits are rejected outright. Moreover, any candidate from any party who is known to be even remotely connected to narcotics, underworld, thuggery and other vices must not be entertained. This poll must be considered as a rare opportunity to create a 100 percent ‘clean’ Parliament.

The President’s call can also be interpreted as a message to the voters to send in an Opposition that will offer constructive criticism instead of continuous opposition. A strong Opposition is a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy. It can check any excesses of the Government in power and suggest corrective action. Again, the same criteria should apply for Opposition candidates as well - they should be educated individuals capable of coming to grips with the issues in hand.

This brings us to the vexed question of the National List, which is generally reserved for men and women of standing who might not be able to enter Parliament through the normal vote, since they generally lack popularity in the wider society. Unfortunately, almost all political parties had misused this facility to bring in their defeated candidates to Parliament through the backdoor. Even the JVP, which pontificates to other parties on the finer points of democracy, was guilty of this practice.

It is in this context that all right thinking citizens will laud President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for stressing that the National List will not be a refuge for candidates who are rejected by the masses at the hustings. We hope that the other party leaders will take a cue from this bold stand and send in only the original nominees in their respective National Lists. This way, Parliament will have 29 individuals who can make a collective difference to and in local politics.

The other major point that has been highlighted by many speakers on the campaign is the need to reject communal and extremist politics and ethnic-centric parties. As President’s Counsel Ali Sabry pointed out so eloquently recently, it is by keeping faith in the secular, mainstream parties that the minorities can hope to resolve their issues and grievances. Many of Sri Lanka’s best known minority leaders hailed from or worked with the mainstream political parties. Going forward, the election authorities must not allow the registration of any ethnic or religious oriented parties which can sow the seeds of discord and rancour. That is the last thing we need as we aim for peace and reconciliation following the end of the conflict and also the Easter attacks of last year. The August 5 election should thus serve to bring the country together instead of driving the communities further apart.