Wijith DeChickera watches with growing dismay as two of three arms of government – a dastardly  ‘two-thirds majority’ – trashes parliamentary tradition and other norms

South Asia’s oldest democracy is alive and well… but barely so. Ironically, it is little thanks to the institutions in the republic charged with safeguarding the national interest. Rather, it is due to the indomitable spirit of a minority in our island race. Some kudos also to the Supreme Court.

In the Sinhala idiom, there is a saying that captures the events of the past month and a week before that. Loosely translated, it says: ‘It’s like the fence and the farmyard security ate the fruit.’ That’s a good image to reflect how Sri Lanka’s democratically elected leaders opted to privilege their respective partisan agendas over the people’s will. A majority of them at least!

From a has-been president trying to return to power through the backdoor to a would-be second term head of state blatantly contravening the very constitution he was meant to vouchsafe, it has been clear that power tends to corrupt – and executive power corrupts absolutely. The one key player in the equation who has never tasted that power may have also been culpable – by dint of intent or virtue of ignorance, he et al. left a legal loophole open for manipulation.

There are lessons of and for a lifetime in the recent Sturm und Drang. Some of these concern the danger of entrusting the delicate task of postwar nation building to a fragile coalition of principally diverse political parties.

Other oversights include the vitality of a literate society critically engaging its elected governments in the crucial task of meaningful national reconciliation over and above lip service. One sharp slap on the public’s wrist was how little common or garden citizens are aware of the provisions and pitfalls of the land’s supreme law.

And if learning the hard lessons of recent history is to be any safeguard against an egregious repeat of underlying sociopolitical realities in future, the discerning reader in our nation state has to grow far more savvy virtually overnight.

But such a stepping up to the plate in terms of ‘governance by citizens’ (the media included) is going to take a good deal more than incisive analyses or candlelit vigils.

True, these are necessary in a democracy that’s alive and not so well these days. However, to be truly healthy takes a whole lot more. Therefore, let us suggest some ways in which the state of the nation must undergo a sea change.

POLITICAL CULTURE A salutary development has been the dawning awareness in many quarters that there is no such thing as a bipartisan or tri force check and balance. It is increasingly evident that there’s a political superclass exploiting the people, and usurping our democratic mandate and civic rights to boot.

The only time when the battle lines drawn correspond to any objective political reality is when an election is around the corner. Even then the picture painted is deceptive. There is every likelihood your MP will baldly cross the floor of the house later.

PUBLIC CONCERN So the public must be aware that the law of the land permits parliamentarians to arbitrarily switch sides with impunity. Since this is the lamentable realpolitik we inherited as the result of a shortsighted yet self-serving ruling of an erstwhile supreme court, there is little we can do.

But that little is vital to do. And doing it diligently and with due discernment could lead to voters being able to pressure political parties and leaders. One of these must be to have parliamentary whips enforce the good conduct of MPs.

PARLIAMENTARY CONDUCT In addition to monitoring the performance of our elected representatives through public interest mechanisms such as the online ‘parliamentary prefect’, there are some other salient factors to be employed in keeping our house clean.

One is to dispense with our traditional party biases and elect more principled candidates even if they belong to a party we’d ordinarily never vote for. Another is to demand through diverse ways and means that our parties of choice field only proven candidates with probity etc.

CIVILISING PRESSURES In the light of the most recent shenanigans in the ‘august’ assembly – perhaps so-called because it is a ‘fall’ month – it seems unlikely that the old political culture is likely to change anytime soon.

The party leaders paying lip service to the sovereignty of the people were guilty (or at least culpable) of egregious behaviour that disrespected the house and its speaker. If fellow MPs are pelted with chilli, and the speaker’s chair sat on and drenched with water, what price the lives of ordinary folks?

CONSTITUTIONAL PRECEPTS So it seems only the courts – of the three arms of government – are supreme, independent and capable of acting with integrity. There is also the free media, which now more than ever must champion an end to political chicanery, legislative hooliganism, power hungry corruption and the like.

And business? Like Olympian prime ministers, will it opt to sit and watch these dismal events unfold?

Sri Lanka is at a civilisational crossroads. It needs every good man, woman and child it can get to reform the state of politics, and thereby the nation.