Getting Back On Democratic Path

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The public, once every five years, select MPs to represent them in Parliament. Parliament sittings are held four days for a week during two weeks every month. However, the recent behaviour of MPs has come under criticism, as the people clearly witnessed their representatives continuously failing to address the concerns of the public. The public do not see genuine attempts to solve their problems and as a result they question whether these ‘people’s representatives’ are actually capable of rescuing the country from its dark economic abyss.

Not only that, the country is witnessing a severe medicinal drug shortage as well. People are searching for drugs by posting prescriptions on social media for several weeks. Parents cannot even find children’s Panadol syrup to treat fever. Doctors and medical professionals repeatedly warned about this situation. However, the authorities did not take enough action to resolve the crisis.

What did Parliament do to resolve crisis?

CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and CBSL officials were summoned before the Parliament watchdog, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) to discuss the Auditor General’s reports and economic progress in the country.

During the sitting, several shocking revelations as to why the country was forced into its present tragic plight were disclosed. This led COPE Chairman Dr. Charitha Herath to stress that wrong economic decisions made by a few had led the country into an economic abyss and this could be considered a criminal act.

Dr. Herath recommended appointing a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate the causes of the present economic crisis as well as officials who neglected their responsibilities in this regard.

When COPE queried about the root causes of the economic crisis, the CBSL Governor said by March, April 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had informed Sri Lanka in writing that it lacked Debt Sustainability. The then Finance Secretary and then CBSL Governor had been informed in writing that existing loans would have to be restructured to obtain credit facilities, Dr. Weerasinghe said.

Thus, after having relevant technical discussions under the Finance Act, the Monetary Board of CBSL provided relevant recommendations to the then Minister of Finance and other senior officials, Dr. Weerasinghe said, adding that relevant decisions are taken by the Cabinet including the Minister of Finance.

MP Dr. Harsha de Silva pointed out that the then Minister of Finance had never addressed Parliament and that Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who was speaking in Parliament on his behalf, had not informed Parliament of this fact.

He also pointed out that Sri Lanka’s debt was stable as of November 2019, according to the IMF report, and that, months after the Presidential Election, the IMF said Sri Lanka’s debt was declared unsustainable.

With the intervention of the then Secretary to the President, tax revenue was increased by Rs 600 billion, Dr. de Silva said, querying as to who made this decision when the IMF clearly instructed not to tread that path.

At this juncture, MP Sarath Weerasekara responded, the decision was taken to encourage entrepreneurs, he said.

The Committee inquired about the prevailing opinion in society about the loss of large sums of money due to the retention of the exchange rate in the recent past.

In response, Dr. Weerasinghe said the power to do so rests with the Monetary Board and the then member of the Monetary Board, Dr. Rani Jayamaha said she along with former Monetary Board member, Sanjeewa Jayawardena had strongly objected to the effort to keep the exchange rate at bay using Central Bank reserves.

It was revealed that the exchange rates were retained as per the wishes of three monetary board members and was done at the behest of the then Governor of the Central Bank, Prof. W.D. Lakshman, the then Treasury Secretary and appointed member, Samantha Kumarasinghe.

COPE emphasised the need to give the Central Bank the power to take decisions based on accurate technicalities without the influence of outside parties.

The CBSL Governor said although it was difficult to obtain the required foreign exchange for the next three to four months, he would try to overcome that challenge somehow while pursuing an agreement with the IMF.

The full recording of the committee proceedings was not disclosed to the Media.

From these revelations, it is crystal clear that although a colossal amount of public money is spent to maintain Parliament’s operations, Parliament could not do anything to prevent the economic crisis. Also, this prompts the question, if one minister and a bunch of bureaucrats can lead the country into an abyss, why could not Parliament take some action to stop them? If Parliament can do nothing in these situations even when the monetary power of the country is given to the House by the Constitution itself, what is the point in having a Parliament?

What is the point of having a Parliament?

This must be the most asked question of Sri Lankans at the moment. The public, who are forced to stay in long queues for hours, always ask this question like a mantra.

Following riots islandwide on 9 May in which nearly 70 MPs’ houses and property came under arson attacks, after ruling party supporters attacked peaceful protesters at MynaGoGama and GotaGoGama on the same day, an entire Parliamentary week was allocated for the MPs to express their concerns. As if that were not enough, newly-appointed Minister of Mass Media and Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena, used nearly 45 minutes of the Cabinet Media briefing to teach economics to the journalists who were covering the event and expressed his own concerns with regard to the damaged property of MPs on 9 May. This happened despite several reminders of the Director General of the Department of Government Information to limit the Media briefing to 45 minutes.

However, as a result of Cabinet Spokespersons deciding to express their personal political views, rather than briefing the public on the country’s situation and what they discussed at the Cabinet meeting on the previous day, additional time had to be allocated for the Media briefing.

When the floor was opened to the questions, many journalists expressed their disappointment over the ministers wasting their time like that.

One journalist stressed, “The MPs did not even discuss solutions for the people’s issues over the past few weeks. They used four Parliamentary Sittings just to express their personal views. They did not bother to discuss people’s problems.”

According to an analysis by Verité Research, the total time of the latest parliamentary week from 17-20 May was 27 hours and 46 minutes. Out of that, the MPs used 12 hours and 24 minutes to discuss the damage to the MPs’ properties. It is 45 per cent of the total time of Parliamentary Sittings in the week. Only 9 hours and 32 minutes had been spent to discuss the economic crisis in the country.

“It does not seem that the MPs care about our suffering at all. They waste our money in Parliament. How many fruitful discussions have they had so far? They are more interested in mudslinging and speaking about their own problems. No one speaks on behalf of us in that place. If they fail to do that, what is the point in having a Parliament?” a person in a petrol queue stressed.

Another person who was waiting to buy kerosene in Dematagoda impulsively asked, “The MPs are behaving like kindergarten kids while we are suffering like this. They have a responsibility to solve our problems. We ask them not to dare come to us ever again begging for our votes.”

It was in this backdrop that SLPP MP Sagara Kariyawasam said before passing the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, a conducive environment should be created for the MPs to hold discussions without fearing for their lives.

This statement shows the lack of empathy and understanding of the ground situation.   The MPs did not care about the mental well-being of the people before. Parents cannot work with a relaxed mind when the kids are dying due to lack of medicines, the youth are uneasy as their dreams are shattering before their very eyes due to the crises in the country, employees cannot work with a relaxed mind when their jobs are in danger and salaries are being cut. However, the MPs, who are supposed to be the people’s representatives, only care about their well-being and safety. That is what the whole world is witnessing at the moment.

Fed up with these theatrics, the public reject and loath the entire Parliament at the moment. They, specially the youth want a complete political system change where there is no corruption, nepotism, and racism that led the country into disasters for many decades. They do not want to be puppets of the so-called politicians anymore.

This political uncertainty in the country raises concerns regarding the Parliamentary democracy in the country. Sri Lanka is the oldest democracy in Asia. However, while other countries have gone forward, Sri Lanka is officially bankrupt and has become a case study for the world of how not to govern a country.

Then, has parliamentary democracy failed in Sri Lanka?

Parliament cannot resolve crisis – Prof. Uyangoda

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Senior Professor of Political Science Jayadeva Uyangoda said what the people demand is to get the parliamentary democracy onto the correct path.

“The public want the MPs to behave as responsible, true people’s representatives. The MPs need to perform their duty which is lawmaking. They have to behave with maturity. Unfortunately, the MPs do not think they are people’s representatives. They think as representatives of political parties from which they were elected to Parliament. They act according to the wishes of those who spent money for their election campaign and the Media institution owners who helped them to come to power,” Prof. Uyangoda said.

Highlighting that Parliamentary democracy has deteriorated at this juncture, he pointed out the present Parliament (9th Parliament) cannot resolve this crisis, as the ruling party MPs lacked a vision to make the country better.

Prof. Uyangoda suggested that new party leaders who have a clear vision and are dedicated to protect democracy should emerge. There should be positive changes in political parties. There are two leaders who are responsible for the present plight of the country. They are former Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Leaders unlike them should emerge, he said.

When queried whether the election system too is responsible for the present crisis, Prof. Uyangoda said the proportional voting system encourages corruption.

“To win an election under the present system, one needs a colossal sum of money. This encourages corruption. Also, electorates in the country are in a large demography. The electorates should be small, so the candidates will not have to spend a huge sum of money for an election,” he said.

(Pix by Amitha Tennakoon)

By Methmalie Dissanayake