On Friday, Parliament convened for the last time. In early March it completes four and a half years and is expected to be promptly dissolved by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, making way for a General Election which is likely to result in a significantly different Parliament post-April. However, the Parliament which won its mandate in August 2015 remains historic in many ways and while its achievements have been decidedly mixed, it was nonetheless a time when the importance of Parliament was brought to the forefront as never before.
Until the end of 2014, for several years Parliament was mostly seen as a rubber stamping body, largely due to the fact that the administration of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa commanded a two-thirds majority in the House and there was little Opposition parties could do, or indeed chose to do, to counter highly questionable measures taken by the then-Government. The passage of the 18th Amendment and the impeachment of the Chief Justice were two instances when Parliament was seen to be ineffectual in curbing moves that eroded the democracy of Sri Lanka.
However, much changed with the passage of the 19th Amendment in early 2015. The 19th Amendment brought back term limits for the President, set in place the Constitutional Council and empowered independent commissions that were tasked with empowering many arms of Government. The President was made accountable to Parliament and greater balance was restored to the powers shared between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.
Even though the 19th Amendment ended 2019 an orphan, with even former President Maithripala Sirisena disowning it as one of his key policy achievements, many pro-democracy stakeholders still see it as a progressive step. It was the 19th Amendment which essentially saved the day when Sirisena sacked then-sitting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, setting in motion a 52-day constitutional crisis. It prevented the President from arbitrarily dissolving Parliament and ensured that the people’s mandate was respected for close to a full term.
The scenes in Parliament during that time remain fresh in the minds of the public. This is possibly why Speaker Karu Jayasuriya remains one of the most respected lawmakers in Parliament and why his call for the protection of Parliament is so important. It is the people who are represented by Parliament and the rights of the entire population need to be protected by lawmakers. This is a mandate which goes beyond just pandering to constituents and party leaders.
As Speaker Jayasuriya has pointed out, the next Parliament needs to fight to maintain its importance in the democratic process. The biggest criticism levelled at this outgoing Parliament was that it performed dismally when it came to promoting good governance. Even though the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) was ably chaired by parliamentarians D.E.W. Gunasekera and later Sunil Handunnetti, many of their key reports were not acted upon. This was particularly true of the controversial bond investigation, which was a first in COPE history. Many other large-scale corruption cases such as SriLankan Airlines were glossed over and failed to see any legal action. If Sri Lanka is to manage its public finances better, large State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) need to be held accountable for their dismal decisions and politicians, who are usually an integral part of these issues, need to be held responsible.
The danger of a Parliament with a large majority for one party is that the excesses of party members can be ignored by Parliament. But members on both sides of the divide have a moral obligation to avoid such blind loyalty.