Democracy under House arrest

Monday, 5 November 2018 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

LAW OF THE LAND: While republicans playing realpolitik have undermined the people’s mandate, democracy under siege begs the question of who owns the House. The President has proven craven to summon Parliament and its Speaker has proceeded painfully pragmatically. They are all ‘honourable men’ as a poetic satire on another murderous coup had it. If only lawmakers weren’t such asses, a Parliament of fowls could have convened and partisan plotters across the political spectrum would have nothing demonstrable to crow about but their commodity as a constitutional crutch for lame-duck democrats.



At a recent launch of another of its public interest initiatives, Verité Research asked the provocative question: “Who owns the audience?” It was in relation to the media, and the Colombo-based think tank was seeking to keep the reading and viewing public informed about press ownership. In its exercise in educating a surprisingly naïve consumer in this internet-savvy age, the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) sought to show the nexus between who owns the media houses. And thereby commands the confidence of a majority of households – to borrow terminology from the dominant discourse making headlines these days.

Of course, MOM needs to nuance our understanding of media ethics and professionalism by factoring the journalistic prerogative into the equation. Ownership is not necessarily the only indicator of where a media house’s allegiances lie – be they simply economic or purely political. In both of these ‘disciplines’ (and I don’t use the word advisedly), things are rarely pure and never simple! 

And to the dichotomy of owner-consumer, one must add the dark horse of editorial prerogatives. Many media houses (e.g. Leader Publications) have foundered between the rock of proprietorial imperatives and the hard place of editorial impunity. A few newbies on the block – or perhaps they’re Trojan horses, or phoenix-like resurrections of previous incarnations of leading media houses under fresh banners or false colours – may prove the pundits wrong. It may be possible, after all, for a publisher to be blatantly partisan, yet for its editorial line to sail between the Scylla of ‘accuracy’ and the Charybdis of ‘complete truth’.

But I sense your impatience. And I, like wily Odysseus, am prone to get carried away. Because the far more interesting and arguably important question on everyone’s mind these days is: “Who owns the legislature?”

Who owns the House?

The incumbent President thinks he owns it. And he has demonstrated, in dismaying but no uncertain terms, a cavalier approach to democratic-republicanism. Of late, he has ignored the once-tangible majority of his embattled Prime Minister. He has prorogued a perfectly serviceable Parliament for personal, partisan and self-serving reasons, and has played ducks and drakes with the people’s will, by refusing to settle on an acceptable deadline to convene the House again so that the question of the day can be settled in a palpable way. 

The Honourable Speaker – and they are all ‘honourable men’, these occupants of that other ‘House by the lake’ – feels he could or should own it. He could own it, he feels, if only the Sangha would approve his immediate summoning of dismissed legislators, into an extraordinary but legal sitting. For the sad truth about our supposedly secular Republic is that democracy is too often exercised at the will and pleasure of prelates who don’t always pound the pulpit on Dhamma. But rather they bend to the will, or bend the wills, of politicos under their thumb – to protect populism, particularity and ethnic exceptionalism. The Buddha’s path may be the middle one. But those like the Honourable Speaker – who strive to stay in the middle of the road for the sake of pragmatism and survival, as much as perhaps opportunistic politics – may get run over. And more is the pity … because in a milieu where contesting parties have not sought the opinion and relief of the courts, the Speaker (a mute one) should have acted with greater despatch to speedily resolve the question du jour. 

Yes, Prime Minister (but also no)! 

A brace of Prime Ministers feel and think that they own Parliament without a shadow of a doubt. 

One asserts he still carries the mandate of the people, and that his ostensible ouster was both illegal and unconstitutional – shades of Democracy unfazed. The other asseverates that the law is an ass, that the mandate was botched, and that he must ride into the lists as the saviour of Mother Lanka yet again – the shade of Dutugemunu unflushable.

Both political party machines have worked overtime to convince themselves, and their respective stakeholders, that their Members of Parliament do, in fact, command a majority in the House. And the strident number-crunching of faithful supporters at the other/original ‘House by the Lake’ as well as in the ‘free media’ begs the question of “who owns the audience?”

Ladders for MP-monkeys

A cabal of questionable Parliamentarians also think and feel that they might stake a claim to owning the House. Some have not counted the cost and crossed over. Their consciences may be clarified by the unbearable lightness of being escorted to the bank, smiling beamingly all the way. 

Other posturing democrats of the moment have shouted ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ for all and sundry to hear. But to date, as at the time of writing this on Sunday afternoon, the Parliamentarian who alleged that he was bribed to the tune of $2.8 million has not named names. And I’ll eat my hat if he can be persuaded to apprise the Bribery Commission who his moral subverter is: per the law, which he should know, being something of a lawmaker himself.

Coup de main

A strongman knows he owns the House. And not by dint of being a member of it. But by virtue of his gallantry at war and generalship over matters military. So rather than leave the legislature and its agency to resolve the present political impasse, the former senior bureaucrat paid a brief but pointed visit to the beleaguered Prime Minister, perhaps seeking to beard the lion in his own den. (Well, its ownership is debatable?) 

To me, this is what’s rotten about Sri Lankan politics. On top of an unpopular President seeking to possibly extend his term through an execrable exercise in realpolitik, the unconstitutional coup does not hesitate to bring to bear what it suspects will be a big gun on a sitting-duck target. At the time of going to press, the ostensibly ‘ousted’ Premier was standing his ground. Or as the alternative press would have it, ducking the issue and going to ground like foxes have holes.

Which reminds me: there is a veritable fifth column in the venerable fourth estate. A sort of executive branch (it thinks or feels), which can or must legislate over the free media. In a pompous diktat that violates the ethics of professional reporting as much as the political coup undermines the fabric of democracy, these latter-day republicans have dared to lay down the law to those who would speak truth to power. Don’t be fooled, it booms: this is not a ‘power struggle’ but a ‘coup attempt’! Well, can’t it be both? As much as a former president can be both ‘strongman’ and ‘alleged war criminal’? Don’t be misled, it thunders: the incumbent PM was not ‘ousted’. Well, de facto he was – even though de jure he wasn’t. Be that as it may, let the free media stand clear and hold its own line, amid the patronising attempts of purportedly patriotic kaffeeklatsch cocktail-circuit campaigners to dictate terms to it.

Global plots

Yon international community thinks they own our sovereign legislature. Old-school Brits have thumped the tub of democracy. Nouveau-riche Americans will go with the populist majority, it seems. India may have none too subtly inveigled Rajapaksa, Bros. & Son, courtesy a photo op, twin saatakayas and all. China, in the long run, might prove to have the deepest pockets of them all. Still not sure if it was the Seychelles trip that sealed Sri Lanka’s fate and sovereignty – if you know what I mean …

Last but by no means least, a Parliament of fowls crows over their ownership of the House: we few, we happy few! Pity that these 225 MPs often can’t remember whose mandate placed their largely undignified fundaments in that august assembly, in the first place. Some disgusted democrats have resigned themselves to fate by suggesting we don’t vote at the next election – because there is no guarantee that the people’s will shall be done (by writ of law, since an ex-CJ determined that MPs could crossover mid-parliament, or by dint of conscience, since so many legislators are hardly law-abiding or halfway loyal to the electorates). Rage, I say, against the dying of that light! – be it at Liberty Roundabout Demonstrations or at social media barricades!

Coup de grace 

In all of this, in a reversal of Yeats’ maxim, the worst lack all conviction, while the best are full of passionate intensity. One of them observed, insistently: “Parliament is supreme! Let it decide!” Yes, but who owns the souls of those 225 MPs? Can we trust them to keep their mandates? Or will they act pragmatically, and perhaps cravenly, to ensure their pensions and secure positions, not safeguard a nation’s posterity? And just whose sovereignty is Parliament going to protect in these times when a seat in that once august assembly is such a saleable commodity?

An ardent democratic-republican who has set his face like flint against the coup told me: “I think I’d be fine for MR to be appointed PM if Parliament declared its confidence in him.” But I’m not sure if someone in the camp of the coup-plotters would be so sanguine if the House were to rule otherwise. And to judge by the choleric outbursts of its cronies, defenders of the democratic-republican persuasion cannot afford to be phlegmatic. Problem is, the best of them too are blatantly partisan. And their agitation on behalf of an ‘ousted’ Prime Minister (sorry, SriLankaCampaign) is in danger of returning a moral mandate to a man and a movement that has seemed little interested in the democratic project of late. It makes me melancholic enough to feel and think one gerontocratic gentleman is no better than the other plutocratic kleptocrat. (Ah, bet you can’t tell which is which!)

I, for one, have had it up to here with ‘strongmen’ (sorry again) as much as would-be ‘statesmen’. But the House is bought and owned in one way or another by their respective henchmen. So if Parliamentarians are enabled by supreme writ to change their minds midstream, we the people must be afforded the same courtesy – to withdraw our mandates we gave them at the last election. And the next, it seems, is too far away and too long to wait for.


(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)

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