Donald J. Trump, who became the 45th president of the United States, in his inaugural speech, said “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost”. As what is a said matter more than who said it, this political culture is only too familiar in Sri Lanka; where a small group in the establishment in Colombo protected itself and flourished, while people at large, in particular those living in rural areas of the country denied share in its wealth and time has come to put a stop to it.
As a nation Sri Lanka is preparing to celebrate its 69th independence day on 4th February 2017, its time to look back how past legislators have performed; for it is clear that victories of the legislators since independence have not been converted into the victories for the struggling people. Throughout the post-independence era the UNP and the SLFP had ruled the country in turns and both had failed to fulfill popular aspirations, which resulted in two uprisings in the south and a bloody civil war in the north and many died or fled the country. It was felt enough was enough and with the intervention of civil society, in 2015 people had a choice between conflict versus peace, an opportunity to clear the mess caused by the previous regime – accused of committing frauds. Majority of the people voted the regime out to reinstate rule of law in the land. With SLFP leader as President and UNP leader as Prime Minister, for the first time in the history of the legislature a coalition of SLFP and UNP with many small parties formed a the National Unity Government; while TNA, JVP and remaining small parties formed the opposition.
The new President repealed the 18th Amendment to the constitution that had removed presidential term limits from the constitution, that had enabled the former president to cement his grip on power by allowing him to run any number of terms; adopted the 19th Amendment to re-introduce the two-term limit and reduced the term of the Presidency from 6 to 5 years. It is worth considering extending this two-term limit to the legislature too. The government established a Constitutional Council, restored Independent Commissions, and recognized the Right to Information as a fundamental right; added Promotion of National Reconciliation and Integration as duties of the President. The power of parliament was strengthened, with oversight committees set up with opposition members chairing several key committees, enabled Sri Lanka to made considerable strides from authoritarianism towards consolidating a rights-based democracy. All helped the new government to re-establish Sri Lanka’s relations with outside world and restore credibility.
In the past two years, lot of effort has been directed to put the economy of the country back on track; Colombo international financial city; Hambanthota, Colombo East and Trincomalee ports; and Katunayake and Palali airports are all hives of activity. With a corrupt system of administration left behind by the previous regime, the government in preparing the land to sow the seeds of growth had to plough through many skeletons produced by the irrationality of the past decision makers that impacted numerous unfinished development projects. The Port City, Hambantoda Habour, Mattala Airport, Trinco Habour, Sampur Power Generation are a few examples of impacted projects, that took lot of time and effort of the present leadership. As that was not enough the Central Bank Bond issue swindle that enlarged into a large dragon, a warning sign of many similar scams in the past, that were then swept under the carpet, has tarnished the clean image of the National Unity Government very early in its life; with many in it accused of having a link to the rip-off, the matter is yet to be resolved is under investigation by a presidential commission.
On the positive side, the National Unity Government commenced work to resolve the biggest national problem the ethnic issue and unanimously adopted a resolution for the parliament to sit as a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new constitution; wide-ranging public consultations were conducted for the first time in Sri Lanka’s constitutional history; much study, reflection and negotiation undertaken to arrive at consensus at the six sub-committees set up and final negotiations on a draft constitution are to commence shortly. The progress is somewhat slow, and yet there is a long way to go to complete the mission; because the country is yet to break through the greatest obstacle since Independence – failure of the past rulers to accept and celebrate our diversity as a multi ethnic, multi-cultural and multi lingual society, by introducing Sinhala only and giving prominence to Buddhism, both of which would have prevailed following a simple democratic rule without any fuss. For this reason, it has not succeeded in addressing the grievances of the people at large, in particular those in north and east provinces that faced the full blunt of the civil war, which is emphasized time and time again by the representatives of these people both in the legislature and at the provinces; has left the risk of plunging the nation into conflict once again.
To the credit of National Unity Government, it has restored civilian administration in the North and the East of the country and has decreed legislation to set up an Office on Missing Persons, but the president has acknowledged much more needs to be and would be done to address all the grievances the people in those regions, enabling them to lead a good life like the rest in a united nation. A major tumbling block that is slowing government making any progress on this issue is due to a small group of legislators, who had in the past with the establishment in Colombo, protected and in the process flourished itself during period of civil war and negative peace years, while denying basic rights of the affected citizens. These sullen legislators that include the past president and some key players of the previous regime having been removed from power were re-elected to legislature, sat with the government. Later formed a fragment group calling themselves “joint opposition” (JO) and opted to sit in the opposition. They include few legislators who are directly or indirectly suspected of assisting corrupt and criminal activities. As investigations are progressing on many deceit activities of the past, they are burning many mid-night candles working overtime both in and out of the House to destabilize and unseat the government. In this endeavor these sullen legislators most of whom have served more than two terms in the legislature are ably assisted by more two term+ legislators from both sides of the house, who are not satisfied with the SLFP-UNP alliance, and extremists from all parts of the country.
In the recent past, the size of cabinet had grown larger in parliament and long serving parliamentarians have increasing power over the fate of development projects due to the seniority system, routinely campaign by stressing their ability to bring these projects to their home districts and/or get larger allocations of funds in preference to other junior members involved in the same project rather than by explaining their views on the important issues of the day. Term limits, by eliminating incentives for such determination; would curb re-election-oriented government spending which is targeted to particular districts but contributes little to the general welfare of the country. Each member in parliament, for instance, receives nearly a million rupees to pay for free mail, staff salaries, and office and travel expenses. While campaigning, incumbents continue to receive salaries and their staff does volunteer work during election campaign; they have every motivation to do so, since they are campaigning for preservation of their jobs. On official time, these political aides perform all sorts of jobs unrelated to legislation, but closely tied to re-election, such as soliciting media attention and doing favors for constituents and send thinly disguised re-election propaganda to every residence in his district. The cost of these is higher than the average challenger’s total campaign expenditures; so much so the legislators, who recognize the benefits of their long-term parliamentary incumbency, have of late even attempted to redraw election districts to maximize incumbents’ electoral chances. The electoral districts boundaries were drawn such that constituents have an opportunity to elect candidates they feel truly represent them; but in the past district boundaries were changed that enabled candidates biased to the ruling party to get elected in districts. Another non-democratic implementation of the last regime was to reduce the number of legislators representing the electorates in the north, following displacement of voters by the civil war. These gives them sizable electoral impact and when these benefits are added to such natural incumbent advantages as name recognition and media access, it is no wonder that challengers unseat incumbents so rarely and a remarkable number of incumbents continue to seek re-election.
In short, the best way to give a boost to government is to bring in legislators with fresh outlooks, new ideas, and better incentives. Term limits are the only realistic way to change the culture of legislative that undermines the public interest. The infusion of new perspectives would cause legislative positions to rotate so frequently that it would be difficult for any one legislator to hold onto power long enough to abuse it as seen in the parliament in the recent past. Moreover, the legislative experience will find numerous other outlets under term limits; those members who reach the end of permitted service can still work to improve people’s lives in think-tanks, or even in other branches of government. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which term limits would change legislature, would be opposed primarily by incumbent politicians and the special interest groups which depend on them. Term limits would improve many of Sri Lanka’s most serious political problems by counterbalancing incumbent advantages, ensuring congressional turnover, securing independent parliamentary judgment, and reducing election-related incentives for wasteful government spending. Perhaps most important, parliament would acquire more legitimacy as an institution by doing better work on fewer tasks.
To build the nation anew and to move forward, let all Sri Lankan resolve to restrict the legislators to two terms only; as the term limits phenomenon would create fundamental change to national politics, would give continual infusion of fresh blood into the legislature, which will be good for the country. Term limits, a vital political reform would bring new perspectives to parliament, mandate frequent legislative turnover, and diminish incentives for wasteful election-related spending that flourish currently in our balloting culture. Because term limits are a powerful political force the legislature may resort to various maneuvers in order to sidestep term limits. It can be expected there would legislative resistance to term limits in sharp contrast to ordinary citizens’ strong support for them. Therefore civil groups and other nationwide grassroots movements should canvass for this concept and obtain support among the significant majorities of diverse demographic groups in the country; then forcing a vote in the House of Representatives as a constitutional amendment and follow it up by extending it to the provincial councils and all other layers of power in the country.