Re-activating our commissions
I n the fabled never-never land, things could not have been stranger.
We have an Elections Comm-issioner who is not permitted to retire,
an Elections Commission that is not yet appointed, a Bribery and
Corruption Commission that has been inoperative for the past several
months, and a Constitutional Council which has manifestly failed
to live up to grandiose expectations since its inception not so
long ago. So, one may well ask, along with the best of us, where
do we go from here? Nowhere but speedily into the darkness, one
may hazard to answer.
In the first
instance, the request made by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to
the Constitutional Council, (and apparently acceded to by the government),
to change the selection procedures in respect of their recommendations
of Commissioners under the 17th Amendment underscores an eminently
sensible point. President Kumara-tunga, writing to the Speaker of
Parliament who is the Chairman of the Council last week, points
out that "the various personal and financial details sought
by the Council when a person is recommended to post of Commissioner
are irrelevant and unnecessary to decide on his (or her) suitability
to the post."
This is, of
course, quite part from the fact that the very requirement of presenting
oneself for a formal interview before a body which consists in part,
(for all its intellectual aura), of politicians, may be enough to
deter a great many people. In the result, that the Council has found
itself at a loss in the recommending of individuals to high posts
comes as no great surprise. The most evident casualty in this respect
has been the Bribery and Corruption Comm-ission, which ceased to
be legally constituted following the death of one of its Commissioners
early this year and remains unable to find a successor.
On the other
hand, it is the President herself who is responsible for the delay
in the constitution of the Elections Commission, citing reasons
relating to the recommendation of a former highly respected Supreme
Court judge that are patently absurd as they are unreasonable, key
among which is that the latter served on past elections monitoring
bodies. So, we have an entertaining tit for tat process, which would
be distinctly comic if the context was not so serious. While the
Bribery and Corruption Commission has been in existence, though
in not a palpably distinguished manner for the past several years,
riven as it has been by internal conflicts and a problematic record
of work, the appointment of the Elections Commission has an equally
urgent logic to it.
We have already
witnessed the manner in which the electoral burden cast on the Elections
Commissioner has proved to be, on occasion, far too great for him
to withstand, given what passes for elections in this country. And
previous attempts at forging a non partisan consensus at managing
our elections and the inevitable violence that accompanies these
events, have been wholly unsuccessful.
unfortunate example was that once eulogised multi party elections
Monitoring Committee. When it was first formed under the direction
of President Chandrika Kumaranatunga, a wearied public welcomed
it as a much needed multi-partisan consensus. So much so that at
that time, a lobby group of top business leaders in the country
decided that their coming together to agitate for free and fair
polls, following the Wayamba elections, was no longer needed in
the face of the all-party initiative.
time did not pass before the initiative petered out. The committee
became an "eating and drinking forum" at which representatives
of the various political parties could blow hot air about the problems
besetting their workings. While it may be unkind to say that the
17th Amendment has not brought about any visible change in this
situation since then, this may also be the most truthful statement
Even in its
fully operational state, we have seen how deeply flawed the 17th
Amendment is, particularly in relation to the lack of enforcement
powers of the Commission of Elections, (exercised during the 2001
December general elections by the Commissioner), where there is
misuse of state resources. When additionally, the Commission itself
is not appointed despite the lapse of time since the Council made
the recommendations, the impact it has on public perceptions of
governance becomes extremely grave.
Hence the Commissio-ner's
plea to free him from sole responsibility for the fracas that takes
place for elections in this country which is singular indeed in
the electoral history of this country and perhaps, unfortunately
for this country, in the world itself. His plea was dismissed by
the Supreme Court this week on the basis that the Commissioner was
a victim of a constitutional aberration and perforce had to stay
until the Commission was appointed.
We have therefore
two alternatives. Firstly that President Kumaratunga will make up
her mind to abide by the recommendations made by the Constitutional
Council or that the latter will compromise on their choices.
consequences following upon the second alternative need no elaboration.
The real tragedy is, of course, that such delay on the part of the
appointing authority could have been acquiesced in by the body constitutionally
mandated to make the recommendations without apparent demur for
so long or indeed, that there has been no consistently strong protest
regarding the same by our civil society leaders. But then, what
else is new in Sri Lanka?