We are a concerned group of academics fighting to ensure the opportunity of high quality public higher education for the Sri Lankan masses. This blog is intended as a bulletin board to share news and ideas relevant to the cause. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the FUTA. If you wish to post any interesting articles please e-mail them to uteachers.sl at gmail.com
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Vote to abolish presidency: A message for non-voters
By Chula Goonasekera, Professor of Anaesthesiology 2002-2013, University of Peradeniya
Most of our hardworking, honest, peace loving citizens of this country are frustrated with our system of governance, and would be considering going to the polls as a waste of time. However disgusted you are, abstaining from vote is not the solution. It has never worked in the world especially when greedy, cunning politicians were domineering. It’s a major opening for fraud. If we do not defeat this disguising democracy, it will eventually lead only to violence and deaths and anarchy. Egypt, Libya, Iraq are the most recent victims of this. We Sri Lankans need not re-invent this wheel.
The ‘Presidency’ in our country has turned a curse for us. Sadly, it is manipulated to be a position of virtual dictatorship by making all around the president dependent on him or her for their wellbeing. This is because,the president’s most favoured and obedient members of the parliament have all luxuries offered via the disguised ‘ministerial portfolios’, sometimes without a work place or a job description. These ministers cannot afford to utter a word against the president in fear of losing all luxury. This has made all ministers and even the opposition leader become a puppet in the parliament. As a consequence, the parliament has lost all principles of democracy and approves and endorses anything suggested or wanted by the president. The president lost any feedback as a consequence. This led to the inevitable abuse of presidential powers and exploitation of poor people in this country.
Governments need money to meet the expenses of its governing structure, to support public projects and welfare and of course to maintain its politicians. The amount of money that is going for the latter including the president himself is now unprecedented. These expenses seem to escalate day by day to keep politicians on the ruling side, and there is no sign of any slowing down. With financial control totally held by the president as the finance minister, no member of parliament is willing to shake the boat, purely for their own survival. So much so, nearly two thirds of the total budget, i.e. public money gets allocated to support the president and another 2-3 ministries held by the members of the family circle, leaving only less than 30 per cent for the rest of the country including the remaining ministerial portfolios.
Since there was nothing much left for public welfare after supporting the ministerial portfolios, the only way to bring more money was to tax the essential goods. For example, a man earning Rs. 1000 (per day) today wonders why he cannot feed his family even after spending it all for food. Since all food items were taxed directly or indirectly (via extraordinary taxes on fuel, electricity and gas), at least Rs. 600 was overtly claimed back to the government as taxes just leaving Rs. 400 for the poor worker and his family.
This meant that the poor man of this country was paying taxes through his nose and mouth sacrificing all his spare capacity to earn more for just survival. Poor farmers got the worst end of the stick, as the shrewd politicians manipulated the supply and demand balance through a yo-yo import tax policy, designed to enable favoured middlemen make huge profits. This made the food production very expensive but the harvest not saleable. It never occurred to the president why mothers committed suicide with their children? Simply, any wages they earned had no value to support even just basic food for the children. The government simply taxed poor people to death.
In addition, most of our rulers are corrupt, making governments spend more and more public money but achieve less and less public objectives. Our road construction, for example, costs more for a kilometre than in a developed country, and we wonder why this is when our labour costs are 1/10th of that of the West. To meet these exorbitant government expenses, it was essential that food items were taxed. Very soon, the water too will also come under the hammer, and we will be paying a license fee for using our own well to fetch water. The money is now needed to maintain the mega ministerial portfolios.
There seem to be no end to this spending spree, with endless, profitless mega projects, exhibitions, and parties. Sadly, these will only support the new rich. These mega projects did not bring any jobs or profits to the common man, but only an exhausting liability and misery. Instead of benefit, what we have accrued is a lifelong liability to repay the government’s expensive debts to countries that are well known to bribe politicians all over the world and bend them to buy their products, install them at borrower’s expense and use their own labour force and ultimately make the borrower pay back its value and more. The coal power plants were a complete waste, as we have already begun to learn. The world has already rejected these as main carbon emitting industries that has contributed to global warming. We have instead gradually moved to escalate natural disasters. Politicians and their supporters continue to bring down all forests and steal our national heritage. This burden will carry on well beyond the life times of our grandchildren and there is no hope that we will ever have a normal life.
Instead, we will be working like slaves to repay the costs incurred by the politicians.
This economic crunch is a curse for our country and it is designed to promote more racism, hatred, violence, and theft. In fact, the president has paved the way to escalate these unlawful activities, especially fuelled by the covert protection of culprits, mainly politicians. By politicizing all possible hierarchy, law and order of this country has crippled. This has shaken the basic foundation of a civilized society. The economic crunch created by the government is like fuel for fire for lawlessness, nationalism and hatred.
We need to abolish this presidency, to bring our derailed democracy back on track. This can only be done by you belonging to the 40 per cent of people who do not vote in this country. You must go to the polls this time to elect a reliable, honest, peaceful, mature person with no track record of false promises, and who can be trusted to give up power willingly to abolish the presidency. This way, we can, not only protect our unused vote being abused by the widely acclaimed computer gimmicks, but push up a loyal citizen of this country against all barriers and corruption to win.
Honour the promises
In recent times, most elected politicians were not committed to honour their pledge to a particular policy. Instead, they were more inclined to change their stand, offer various excuses, and join the bandwagon of the president to safeguard their own well -being, political life and financial gains. The worst were the political groups who claimed to represent a fraction of the oppressed communities or minorities in the country and switched sides to help the president gain extra power to manipulate the constitution for his gain. Some politicians had total disregard to public questioning or outcry. What is the point if members of the parliament elected to the opposition, go and join the winning president to strengthen his hand.
Their primary responsibility is to strengthen the public voice to maintain justice and democracy. Some MPs go further and publically punish or threaten the protesting or opposing members of the public. They label protesters as national outlaws, or terrorists. One perfect example is our protesting university students, who belonged to the best 3 per cent performers in our national education system. We saw how the education system was destroyed by two ministers over the years despite university teachers protesting in an unprecedented scale. They were made to drown in their own sweat. Some other members of parliament do not know how to respectfully argue an issue in the parliament. They resort to what they were used to, abuse and violence. Why do we need such hooligans in parliament consuming exorbitant amount of public money? On the other hand, of course, there was a fraction of the community who really flourished. They were really busy extracting what they could from the government being the middlemen who handled the public money. Often, such members were also the closest to the politicians in power. They were the contractors of the government who did shabby constructions, fuelled destruction and promoted defection and planted cut outs and put fire crackers on the road. Almost every cut-out you see on the road, and every noise made from a fire cracker, reflects your money, taken away from you as tax and pumped in to these wasteful activities that have no gain for the public.
The politicians in the parliament are public representatives and not individuals. There should be no provision for MPs to defect. In the recent weeks, three members of the UK ruling party defected to the opposition, just six months ahead of a general election. They immediately lost their seats in the parliament and by-elections were held within a couple of weeks in their constituents. Two of them were re-elected. This reflects how a parliament and parliamentarians should behave in a democratic society. In Sri Lanka, as many things, the democracy is interpreted exactly the opposite. The MPs are allowed to defect and they consider it as their democratic right whilst the people who elected them to the parliament had no right for questioning. This upside down interpretation has allowed many wrong doings including establishment of the so-called two thirds power in the parliament. This has to reverse if we are to have any chance of a truly democratic government. Our real enemies are within us, and not universally blamed NGOs or Western countries as widely claimed by our politicians.
Defecting MPs should be removed
Abolishing presidency alone is not going to re-establish a democratic government. We also need to ensure that members of parliament are committed to protect views of the public who elected them to power. Therefore, no room should be there for any MP to switch sides or defect at his own will. If any of the members of parliament wishes to defect, they will have to forego their seats and be re-elected like in other democratic countries. This is not sufficient. We also need a mechanism to remove badly behaving politicians from their positions before the end of their term. The people of his or her constituency should be able to demand removal of an elected MP, for example, if they are involved in criminal activities, corruption, and waste of public money and also for failing to declare their wealth. That would be the day, the criminals lose interest in becoming politicians and genuine politics will prevail. We also do not need politicians who have not honoured democracy in their constituents or parties. How can we trust them when they are in power to uphold democracy?
With the president/finance minister having no intention of curbing wasteful expenses of the government we have no hope of any recovery. The parliamentary budget is merely a ritual as we have already seen. Major financial decisions are taken outside the budget. A presidential election has been called for, two years ahead of its due date. This means that we now elect politicians to govern our future inhabitants of this country without their say. If we are a true democratic society, then we should now allow all 16 years old children voting rights as it is the president of their era being elected now.
Abolishing the presidency alone is not going to solve our problems. We need a true democracy. To achieve that we also need to ensure that;
1. Defecting members of parliament lose their seats and must re-contest to be re-elected.
2. Reduce the term of an elected parliament to four years. This is the norm accepted in most democracies of the world as its sets conditions for minimal corruption.
3. The elections should be held only after the tenure of the previous parliament has ended. This prevents exploitation and waste of public money and violence as we have witnessed over and over again.
There is a need for us, non-voting citizens to carefully think. Should we spend a few minutes now and cast our votes or face another eight years of misery?
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
All Sri Lankan political parties must respect the ’vote’, says Friday Forum
The Friday Forum, an informal and self-financed group dedicated to democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law, has urged all ‘parties’ to protect and uphold the franchise, which “we the people have enjoyed for over eight decades, and in the free and responsible exercise of which lies the hope for future generations”. In a statement this week, the Colombo-based group said that these suggestions are being made based on the priority the Forum places on good governance, maintenance of the rule of law, and other civil society expectations. Extracts of its statement:
- The Commissioner of Elections, officials of the Elections Department and all public officers concerned with the conduct of the election are urged to implement the election laws independently and impartially, and to take necessary action to prevent violations of the law especially the Constitution and the Presidential Elections Act.
- We call upon all of them to ensure that the conduct of the election,the counting process and the declaration of results are done with integrity and honesty, in a manner that the results and impartiality would not be called into question.
n The role of the Police has been called into question at many elections. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution has dealt a severe blow to the credibility and independence of the police. There has been a perception that the appointment of the present Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order has been effected to ensure the pliability of the police at election time. n We urge the Inspector General of Police and the police not to be deterred by political interference in carrying out their duty to the people, especially in carrying out election laws pertaining to the display of cut-outs and posters and bringing miscreants to book irrespective of political affiliations.
All contestants including the President
- We call upon the President, the Common Opposition Candidate and all other candidates at the election to comply with the law and to urge their supporters and agents likewise. - We strongly condemn the misuse of state property during the campaign and the use of any authority to commit corrupt acts tantamount to bribery or treating. - We call upon the candidates to publicly declare their Programmes of Action and commitments, with target dates, and to release their Declaration of Assets and Liabilities. - Above all, we stress the need for the contestants and political parties to ensure that harmony and co-existence amongst ethnic and religious groups are not imperilled in the election campaign. We urge them and their supporters to refrain from making unacceptably vituperative statements.
-We urge the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Independent Television Network (ITN), the Lake House Group of Newspapers and the private media to ensure that a balanced coverage is given to all parties at the election, that election coverage is done in an objective manner, and to refrain from giving publicity to defamatory and vituperative statements. - State Media should not be abused in favour of the candidate of the ruling party.
- We call upon the people, including civil society and grass-root leaders, to be mindful that the present election is perhaps the most crucial this nation has faced in many years, and that the public have a vital role.
We call upon all segments of the public to be vigilant to ensure the preservation of the rule of law and to be pro-active in combating violations of the electoral law.
n We also urge all voters to exercise their franchise and not to refrain from voting on election day, giving due consideration as to how each candidate’s campaign was conducted, to long term interests of the nation, to ensuring a governance structure that combats corrupt practices and upholds democracy, rule of law, human rights, equity, justice, media freedom, tolerance and harmony in our pluralist society.