Burning down a parliament

Island Editorial

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Guy Fawkes must be spinning, nay doing backflips, in his grave. He made an abortive attempt to destroy the Parliament of England in 1605. He got hanged and quartered, and his body parts were dispatched to the four corners of the kingdom for his role in the Gunpowder Plot as a warning to others of his ilk. A little over four centuries on, Paraguayans have emulated him successfully albeit without gunpowder and a religious agenda; they set their parliament on fire the other day to ‘save democracy’!

What provoked Paraguayans into taking to the streets in their thousands and carrying out that arson attack was an attempt by their incumbent president to change the country’s Constitution to lift the presidential term limit. Paraguay has wisely banned the heads of state seeking re-election after serving a five-year term. Once bitten twice shy, as they say. This constitutional restriction has been in force since 1992, when that country managed to restore democracy after a 40-year military rule, to prevent the emergence of dictatorships. Current President Horacio Cartes sought to run for President again and had a constitutional amendment to that effect approved by the Senate. And, all hell broke loose on Saturday.

In a sharp contrast to the Paraguayans’ reaction to their leader’s attempt at self-aggrandisement, the introduction of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution here to do away with the presidential term limit did not trigger any protests as such. Even the present-day, big-mouthed champions of good governance meekly voted for it in Parliament, enabling its passage with a two-thirds majority. Not even the Supreme Court, then headed by Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, who became a heroine after falling from grace and being ousted, took exception to that seriously flawed constitutional amendment, which would later prove to be President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s undoing. The rest is history.

President Cartes apparently took a leaf out of Rajapaksa’s book, but the intrepid Paraguayans aborted his plan. However, the fact remains that they took their protest to an extreme. The controversial bill, which was to be passed by the Congress on Saturday has been put on hold indefinitely in view of violent protests which have left a couple of persons dead and many others injured. It is not likely to see the light of day, according to political observers.

The second terms of all presidents have been disasters in this country. Perhaps, Sri Lanka should follow the Paraguayan example and bar presidents from seeking re-election. What the situation would have been if President Rajapaksa had succeeded in his attempt to secure a third term is not difficult to imagine; given the high incidence of corruption, arrogance of power, cronyism, nepotism, abuse of public property and the culture of impunity which became manifestly evident during his second term, people would have taken to the streets, to bring about a regime change. Perhaps, that was why incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, upon being inducted in 2015, publicly declared that he would not seek re-election though his hangers-on now tell us he is the best candidate the SLFP can think of fielding at the next presidential election.

Likewise, it is a mistake for any political party or a coalition to be allowed to serve two or more terms consecutively in a country like ours. The biggest ever financial crime was committed within the first few weeks of the present government coming to power. There have been endless probes into the Treasury bond scams and nobody has been arrested so far. One way of making rogues in the garb of parliamentarians, provincial councillors and local government members behave is to instil into them the fear of being defeated at the next election and made to face the consequences of their actions.

Meanwhile, let the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government be warned that denying people their right to exercise their franchise and elect their representative is to invite disaster. It was the replacement of a general election with a heavily rigged referendum in 1982 that plunged the country into a bloodbath and several years of near anarchy. The JVP tapped public resentment to fuel its macabre project and wreak havoc.

The yahapalana government had better overcome its ‘pollsphobia’ and hold the local government elections without further delay. Its efforts to avoid an electoral defeat by postponing mini polls are as futile as an attempt to ‘control dysentery with a loincloth’ as a local saying goes.