Months after the 18th Amendment: Is the Executive really more accountable to Parliament?


Image credit Sunday Leader

The 18th Amendment, we were told, would make the President more accountable to Parliament. The Editorial of the Sunday Observer noted back in the day,

By making it mandatory for the President to attend Parliament at least once in three months to answer questions by MPs, the 18th Amendment has not only made a vital link between the Executive and the Legislature, but has also made the President answerable to Parliament. Had President Rajapaksa given thought to dictatorship even in his wildest dreams, he would never have decided to attend Parliament once in three months. Despite being elected twice to the high office, President Rajapaksa strongly believes in parliamentary democracy and is keen to attend Parliament and follow proceedings whenever time permits. Isn’t this characteristic of a truly people’s leader who firmly believes in the power of the ballot?

Emphasis ours. But has the President in fact entertained any questions from MPs in Parliament since the 18th Amendment was passed in late 2010? And precisely when has he attended Parliament, and for what purpose?

Click here to view a larger version of this timeline, where you can also see it a list of events.

As far as we can find, before this week, the President last addressed Parliament in March 2011. There is no record that he entertained any questions. The timeline above reflects both the genesis of the heinous 18th Amendment and also the occasions mainstream press reported that the President attended / “visited” Parliament.

It was no easy task to compile this. Only a handful ordinary citizens would have the expertise to search for this information online, or elsewhere. There is no easy record retrieval of the President’s attendance in Parliament on its official website. But what is immediately obvious when the scattered media reports are taken as a whole is that the 18th Amendment has in no way at all contributed to a more accountable Executive. The incumbent for example possibly waltzes into Parliament ceremoniously to riotous greetings by those in government ranks, warms a special seat reserved for him as of November last year, possibly smiles benignly at government MPs, twitches a tad when the Leader of the Opposition speaks, twirls his moustache once or twice, adjusts his satakaya, winks and nods knowingly at his blood brothers and summarily leaves, to a standing ovation.

If this sounds like absurd caricature, the following report in the Daily News of the President’s last visit to Parliament is worth reading,

President Mahinda Rajapaksa paid a visit to Parliament yesterday evening, respecting the Constitution of Sri Lanka. According to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the President of the country has to attend the sittings of Parliament once in three months. President Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived in Parliament around 2.30 pm and occupied the seat allocated for him in the House next to the Prime Minister’s seat. When the President entered the House, government and opposition members rose and welcomed him thumping on their desks. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived, Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa was in the Chair and the condolence vote on Minister Nissanka Wijeratne was taken up. President Rajapaksa stayed in the House for a short while and left.

Even The Island coverage of this visit doesn’t include a single question the President had to face from MPs. Very much ‘visits’ to Parliament then, as the titles of the news articles suggest. What then of the MPs who staunchly supported the 18th Amendment saying that it would strengthen the accountability of the Executive? In a lofty speech for an essentially expedient end, the Rauff Hakeem, MP from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) noted,

“And, in helping President Mahinda Rajapaksa to secure an additional term of office, we hope that the enticement of a third term will compel him to seek the mantle of a sincere statesman rather than being remembered merely as a clever politician.”

Has Mr. Hakeem asked the President a single question even during his cameo appearances in Parliament? If not, why not? Where and how is the enhanced accountability of the Executive demonstrated in practice from September 2010 to June this year? Who in Parliament and amongst us can remember Basil Rajapaksa’s statement noting that attendance of the President in Parliament would be further strengthened by the 18th Amendment? And what of the government’s most loquacious apologist, Rajiva Wijesinha’s assertion during the 18th Amendment debates,

“I would have wished too Mr Speaker that this first step in ensuring greater accountability in the President, by making appearances in Parliament mandatory, had also specified that he would be required to answer questions relative to his executive functions. I believe this is intended, given that His Excellency the current President enjoys Parliamentary debate, but we may have in some distant future a less sociable President without communicative skills who might not fulfil this provision in the spirit in which it is intended.”

Emphasis ours. But it’s not just Messrs. Hakeem and Wijesinha. What about other MPs, the heaps of political commentators, senior Sri Lankan diplomats and the range of voices on this site itself who championed the 18th Amendment? Where are their voices of concern over what is quite demonstrably a farce?

Much of this was known well in advance. As Kalana Senaratne notes in the Sunday Leader back in September 2010, just days after the Amendment was passed,

“Firstly, the provision in the 18th Amendment which states that the President shall “attend Parliament once in every three months” does not essentially suggest that the President will be more accountable to Parliament or the people. One still does not know what the President ought to do after attending Parliament. It is said that he has the right to “address and send messages to Parliament.” But then, will he exercise that right? What if he decides to simply attend Parliament, and watch parliamentary proceedings where his message will be read out by the Prime Minister? If real accountability was to be ensured, he should actively engage in parliamentary proceedings and be involved in some form of active debate and discussion. The 18th Amendment does not do this.”

Kalana’s singular prescience aside, the larger question remains as to why the clarion voices who ostensibly supported the 18th amendment entirely out of principle and a love for democracy are, in the face of what is actually an on-going farce, completely silent. Therein lies a story that needs to be told.

  • wijayapala

    the larger question remains as to why the clarion voices who ostensibly supported the 18th amendment entirely out of principle and a love for democracy are, in the face of what is actually an on-going farce, completely silent.

    An even larger question is: why did Basil go along with this? Doesn’t the 18th Amendment make him the biggest loser out of everyone (since the opposition has no hope of winning any election anyway)?

  • dinu

    Why has the JVP or UNP not asked questions of MR when he “visits” parliament? Is Ranil W and the UNP brain dead? Sajith P of course agrees with all that Rajapakse does so he should join the UPFA rather than act like that he is entitled to be UNP leader simply because his father was. Time for the UNP to end dynastic politics and be a merit based party. RW and SP should move over and let other younger more capable, more intelligent UNP MPs like Rosy Senanayake, Senanasinghe etc take over.

    RW and Sajith should both be asked to quit the UNP and let the party find better leaders than these two JOKERS!

    • sabbe laban

      Instead, why not ditch the UNP itself?

  • Aney bung

    Thank you, Dinu, for that completely irrelevant observation. Whilst it might be a good topic for conversation on its own, where in which I might partly or wholly agree with you, it’s a bad idea to start a debate about UNP intra-party dynamics here, considering it might give some commenters here a good excuse to avoid the unanswerable question they’ve been asked to answer. Their attention spans have, in history, been demonstrated to be remarkably short.

    • policyminded

      I don’t think Dinu has completely missed the point. It is up to the opposition to test the 18th amendment by requesting the president to sit in on a question and answer session. or request the speaker to allocate a time for the president to answer questions in parliament once in three months.

      It’s not the presidnets fault that the opposition fails to use the tools within its grasp to hold the executive to account

      • sabbe laban

        Dinu

        Rosy Senanayaka! What an excellent choice!

      • Lankan Thinker

        The problem with Dinu’s argument that the onus of accountability lies with the opposition is that it assumes that they (the opposition) have any control over when the President actually comes to parliament. If you look at the timeline above, there is only one instance where there may have been an opportunity to ask questions (http://www.news.lk/home/17712-president-in-parliament) but even in this case, there is no indication that the speaker gave members an opportunity to ask questions after the President delivered his speech.

        I agree that the opposition has some responsibility in ensuring accountability of the executive, but in a system where the playing field seems to be so heavily skewed against them, it may be akin to spitting into the wind!

        There is another article on Groundviews about the need to deliberation in law making, and its conspicuous absence in the Sri Lankan context (http://groundviews.org/2011/06/09/deliberative-democracy-and-the-sri-lankan-parliamentary-committee-system/). The lack accountability highlighted in the above review of the President’s appearances in Parliament is an example of what happens when important bills are rushed through the house as ‘Emergency Bills’ with no real opportunity for reflection and amendment.

  • wijayapala

    Could someone explain what is the difference between a president who has unlimited terms and a prime minister with unlimited terms?

    • Asanga Welikala

      Take a look at Rohan Edrisinha & Aruni jayakody (Eds.) (2011) The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution: Substance and Process (Colombo: CPA): Ch.V.

    • Asanga Welikala

      Deja Vu?

      “At the head of this kingdom was the King, an absolute and supreme monarch, with the sole power of life and death; to make peace or war; and to legislate for his people. The acts of his government were presumed to be guided by the institutions and customs of his kingdom, and it was usual for him, before enacting important measures or ordering the execution of great works, to consult the principal chiefs, and frequently the principal priests, of the kingdom, and to be guided more or less by their opinion.

      His chief officers were, first, his prime ministers – the two Adikars. They were endowed with high honours and privileges, and possessed extensive judicial powers. The Police and Prisons, and the ferries near Kandy were their special care, and they possessed a general jurisdiction over all the Kandyan Provinces which were divided between them. Public communications to the King, and his general orders to the people, were for the most part delivered through them; and they were charged with the conduct of public festivals, the repair of temples, the capture of elephants near Kandy, the supervision of public works, the repair of the streets, and every work contributing to the beauty and cleanliness of the town. The appointment of all other chiefs and of high priests, grants of land and titles were usually made after consultation with them.”

      Extract from the introductory remarks on the constitution of the Kingdom of Kandy immediately prior to 1815, by Cecil LeMesurier, in C.J.R LeMesurier & T.B. Panabokke (1880) The Niti Nighanduwa or The Vocabulary of Law, as it existed in the last days of the Kandyan Kingdom (Colombo: Ceylon Government Printer).

      • sabbe laban

        Asanga

        The similarities may be numerous, but did you ever try to reason out why the people of Sri Lanka still vote the the current President in? Without such an understanding any comparison would be meaningless. I’ll reproduce what I have written elsewhere:

        “Sri Lankan people still happen to live in a semi-feudal world, psychologically. We wanted a strong leader i.e. a King, who would exercise his powers unreservedly. Our king was taken away prematurely by the British, wasn’t he? Ever since then the Sinhalese were looking for someone to show their obedience. We were waiting for the Great King Diyasena to unite the country, weren’t we? Ever heard this poem written by Kunkunawe Thero:

        Oh! Ants

        Even you have a king!
        We don’t….
        If we get a King..

        We will have a “perahera”
        and worship him with echos of “saadhu”..

        So we accept in our minds through our upbringing, that traitors are to be dealt with in this way(like Fonseka); the defeated terrorists should be punished with death. Though they took away our king(a Tamil king) in 1815, they(the British) couldn’t take that concept out of our minds. They fast-forwarded our political evolution by introducing democracy. So we didn’t have a chance to evolve naturally from a feudal to a capitalist society. And as a result most of us are trapped between two sets of values. The half-baked Western values which are still alien to our inner self and our yearning to be obedient to the authority; to show respect! Apart from some of the city dwellers who have apparently lost their touch with the mainstream psyche of rural Sri Lankans, and the expatriates, the majority Sinhalese still approve of the current Sri Lankan ruling family.

        Many can’t understand this dilemma and call it ‘ignorance of the masses’! This is due to the utter failure to comprehend the mainstream Sri Lankan mentality. We wanted this ‘strong leader’(this King) to show our allegience…to echo our “saadhu”s. We still respect some of the feudal families and their descendents; a commom phenomenon to other Asian countries as well.

        That’s why people still vote for the ruling party in Sr Lanka. It’s not their fault; it comes from within the dark abysses of our minds, quite subconsciously!

        And I’m sure they will continue to protect their leaders against any foreign intervention until they become so very bad!

        Who needs the Western type democracy? Are a handful of elites only, who have Western values in there heads? I tend to think so. The majority of the people don’t seem to have a problem with it;that’a why they continue vote for this party. Call them goats, eh? I explained why earlier!

      • SD

        Dear Saban,

        Let’s accept for the moment that your argument is correct.

        1. Does that not mean that the reason people are still stuck in this semi feudal mindset is because of a lack of education? (in other words, ignorance of the masses)

        2. Should we be happy with this status quo?

        3. Your wording seems to suggest that we must evolve out of it gradually. How do you propose it be done?

      • yapa

        Dear Asanga;

        You like the “King of Sri Lanka” or the “Queen of England”? Ha! Ha!!

        Thanks!

  • yapa

    There is a Sinhala strage drama named “Sihina Horu Aran”, which means dreams were stolen by thieves. This what has happened to the “Political Experts and Pandiths” of the oppositions, including the Groundviews and the critics. They are lamenting over their “stolen dreams”. Most pathetic thing is that these dreams really were not their own dreams but were created and gifted to them by the the very people at the point of present criticism for stealing the dreams .

    As I feel, the real reason for lamentation is that they were not capable enough or shrewd enough to create their own “realities” instead of depending on the “dream of accountability”, which they grabbed with greed. What were the reasons for these political experts to believe that those dream contained “accountability” as promised by the “cats” who always become themselves evidence for milk?

    These political Pandith critics who have scholarly qualifications with so many letters of the English alphabet in both cases of capital and simple, forgot a most basic political principle, when they were awarded the dreams. Why they believed the presence of the President in the parliament as something strengthen the democracy of the country, or why they had a dream it would strengthen the accountability of the executive, or at least it would have positive impact rather than a negative impact? Now they are crying over the split milk. Cats have already devoured the split milk and you have nothing to left to wet your mouth.

    All those political pandiths with so many letter after their names I don’t think have no some awareness about the “Three Arms of a Government” and the importance of their individual independence from others. The presence of the “Strong Executive”,in the parliament to think as an accountability measure, I cannot imagine how much these pandiths had to be senseless and idiotic.

    They should have opposed the government move on the principle of “Inalienable rights of the separate arms of the government to be free from others”, instead now repenting and lamenting loud in public.

    Do not cry any more over the split milk, petal broken flower will never be able to assemble to make the flower. What “interested parties” should do is to create their own dreams in the future, however not for them but for the benefit of the people. Then the interested parties also will be able to laugh along with the people of this country.

    Thanks!

    • yapa

      Oh!, Not split milk, spilled milk,

      Thanks!

  • sabbe laban

    Dear SD

    This is a quick response to your querries.

    1. Not necessarily. It’s intertwined with our culture as well. Therfore it is different from “ignorance”. You can’t term cultural traits as ignorance!

    2. Personally I’m not(because it gives our rulers an excuse to trample the masses). But, I not only understand the status quo, but also respect it!

    3. By natural social evolution, of course. Maybe it will never happen in the foreseeable future!

    • SD

      Dear Saban,

      1. What can’t you term cultural traits ignorance? If a tribal chief sacrifices a goat in expectation of rain, isn’t that ignorance? If someone subscribes to feudal rule, isn’t it basic ignorance of the centuries of debate on the pros and cons of that type of rule? When we go to some remote village in Afghanistan and still see people following a clan/chief model with honour killings and what not, wouldn’t you consider that ignorance?

      2. I don’t see why we should respect the status quo, even if we understand it.

      3. Sometimes, change is mandatory? And we must fight to bring that on? If a system is unjust, are we not obligated to fight against it?

      • sabbe laban

        Dear SD

        Some of the examples you sited look like that they are based on “ignorance”. But, on the other hand don’t we accept that ignorance as the culture of that particular group of people, unless it obviously harms another person? For example human sacrifice and sati pooja were practiced by certain cultures but we have done away with them(by and large) as they seem to be harming the lives of other persons. The same should be done about the honour killings etc. which are still continuing. In other words we have to take the various cultural traits on a case by case basis and we cannot generalize them.

        But don’t we take for granted some of the cultural practices which also look like basked in ignorance? They may or may not cause some degree of harm and it depends on the observer’s parameters.

        Apart from your examples, I see it ignorant to say that wiping your back after emptying your bowels-as done in the Western culture- is cleaner than washing the area. But, don’t the North American people understand this ignorance(according to me) and is that the reason for not having bidets in their washrooms? Similarly isn’t it ignorant to wear a jacket and a tie in the scorching heat in hot tropical countries rather than wearing a T-shirt or something for work? Isn’t it ignorant to use so many cutleries to eat your meal when you have your fingers to hold your food and water to wash?

        Should we launch vigorous campaigns to rid the above groups of their ignorant cultural practices or just keep quiet because it is their culture?

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