The need for a stronger Parliament | Sunday Observer

The need for a stronger Parliament

26 June, 2022

The foundation of modern democracy was laid in Greece, where the ancient rulers decreed that the people, essentially men, too should have a voice in the affairs of the State. This was the birth of democracy as we know it. Since the population at that time was not large, it was possible for every citizen to have a vote on the issues of governance that came up in the cities. This is known as Direct Democracy.

As populations grew, the rulers realized that it was practically impossible for all the people in a given area to assemble in one place and discuss matters pertaining to the State. This gave rise to the concept of elections, whereby the people elect a limited number of representatives to speak on their behalf at a chosen venue. This venue came to be known as the Parliament, though it might have different avatars and names in different countries. But some countries still do practice some form of direct democracy, Switzerland being a prime example. It recently held such a direct referendum of organic farming.

Choosing representatives

Thus elections are held in all democratic (and even some non-democratic) countries to choose representatives to Parliament and other bodies such as Provincial Councils and Local Government Institutions. A General Election was most recently held in France, where the major parties are still struggling to form a stable Government. Israel is planning to hold another election soon.

Parliament, also known as the Legislature, is one of the three branches of Government, the others being the Executive (the President in countries such as Sri Lanka, US and France, also elected by the people) and the Judiciary. Given its importance to public life, the media is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Estate, indicating that it is the fourth in line. Some countries do not have an Executive Head of State as such and have a Westminster System of Government headed by a Prime Minister who regularly attends Parliament just like any other Member of Parliament.

Parliament is the place where existing and future laws of the country are discussed, debated and passed, though sometimes these have to be reaffirmed by the Judiciary and also by the people at a referendum. Parliament also has the power over Public Finance and a country’s financial plan for the next year is presented to Parliament in the form of a Budget. Parliament is thus the most important institution in a country’s governance structure.

Meeting people’s expectations

It is Parliament and its representatives who have to rise to the occasion when a country faces a crisis. In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, people are looking to their parliaments to respond with actions that will lead to a better future. Involving the community in decision-making through effective public engagement can help ensure that parliaments respond in ways that meet people’s expectations and aspirations.

Simply put, better parliamentary engagement further nurtures public trust in governance, and thus stems the rise of authoritarianism.

In 2022, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and its Member Parliaments will mark the International Day of Parliamentarism on June 30 under the theme of public engagement. This follows the recent launch of the Global Parliamentary Report on Public engagement in the work of parliament.

The International Day of Parliamentarism is celebrated every year on 30 June, the date in 1889 on which the IPU was founded. The Day was established in 2018 through a United Nations General Assembly Resolution.

Instituting an international day for parliaments is particularly important at this critical time for parliamentary democracy, when people are losing trust in political institutions and democracy itself is facing challenges from populist and nationalist movements. If democracy is to thrive, then parliaments, as the cornerstone of functioning democracies, need to be strong, transparent, accountable and representative.

The International Day of Parliamentarism is a time to review the progress that parliaments have made in achieving some key goals to be more representative and move with the times, including carrying out self-assessments, working to include more women and young MPs, and adapting to new technologies.

Robust democracies

Sri Lanka has been one of the most robust democracies in Asia well before its Independence along with neighbouring India. In fact, Sri Lankans have been enjoying Universal Franchise – one vote each for every man and woman aged 18 and over – since 1931. Nearly all other countries in the region have seen the power of Parliament being trampled by military dictatorships and other such unlawful arrangements. In Sri Lanka, Parliamentary democracy has never been challenged in this manner, except for an unsuccessful coup in 1962 and a grenade attack in 1987, in which an MP lost his life.

Sri Lankan Parliaments have successfully faced many challenges, including the 30-year-old battle against terrorism, the JVP insurrections of 1971 and 1988-89 and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. On all of these occasions, our people’s representatives closed ranks to defend and protect democracy and the people. But now, Sri Lanka is facing perhaps the most unprecedented crisis ever in its history, resulting in a severe shortage of essentials including fuel and a possible food shortage. Yet, our Parliamentarians have not been able to forge any unity on this issue in order to resolve the multitude of problems faced by the people. Unfortunately, some MPs have totally forgotten these issues, focusing instead on the damage caused to their houses in the events of May 9. This is simply unacceptable, when the people are demanding swift answers to their woes.

Part of the blame should go to political parties for nominating mostly uneducated persons and also thieves, thugs, rapists, illicit brewers and drug lords for the General and other elections. These MPs cannot make a positive contribution to any debate in the House. Instead, they hurl insults at each other, sometimes in utter filth. Moreover, only a few women are in our Parliament. It is imperative that new laws be brought in to compel political parties to nominate professionally qualified young men and women to Parliament as well as other governing bodies. The people should also reject any unsavoury elements nominated by political parties. That is the only way to put the House in order, literally.