Emerging modes of participatory democracy in the Parliament of Sri Lanka

Posted by on June 30, 2023  /  0 Comments

In this article,  Senior Research Fellow, Sujata Gamage explores the question of how civil society can make use of opportunities for deeper engagement in policy-making.

The protests that erupted in 2022 in Sri Lanka, popularly known as the Aragalaya, were an expression of a deep public discontent with all levels of government, especially with the increasing authoritarianism and irresponsible governance by former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa that culminated in disastrous economic decisions leading to a rapid and drastic decline in living standards in the country.

In recent months, Sri Lanka has made progress on the economic front, having secured an initial commitment of USD 2.9 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to begin the process of economic recovery. Yet the political environment is far from satisfactory. Civil society joins the Opposition to claim that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took over in July 2022 following the resignation of President Rajapaksa, is using a heavy hand in curtailing new protests and restricting freedom of expression. The latest incident is the arrest of comedian Nathasha on charges of insulting the Buddha. The government’s counter claim is that extremist groups are trying to stir up communal or religious strife to sabotage the economic recovery process.

Lost in the headlines are emerging opportunities for citizen engagement in policymaking in Parliament.

As a seasoned parliamentarian, President Wickremesinghe has taken steps to reinstate or introduce new institutions and processes that increase the accountability of the state at every level through deliberative or participatory processes.

While civil society should continue to protest against excesses by the Executive, they should not overlook opportunities for a deeper engagement in policy-making.

These participatory initiatives by the government are, to some degree, a response to the demands of the 2022 protesters for a more open and accountable government.

As a first step, the Wickremasinghe government reinstated the Parliamentary Constitutional Council (PCC) through the 20th amendment to the Constitution. The PCC comprises members of the Parliament (MPs) representing the government, the opposition, and other minor parties, as well as three civil society representatives. The PCC appoints members of six critical independent commissions including the Election Commission, the Human Rights Commission, and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. The Constitutional Council is not a place for continuing participation by civil society in the Parliament. Once the three civil society leaders are selected, they become a permanent fixture in oversight mechanisms of the Parliament.

Secondly, the Wickremesinghe government proposed to the Parliament the establishment of Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committees (PSOCs). According to the Hansard, dated February 21, 2023,[1] all 17 proposed PSOCs are in place, including the PSOCs on Reconciliation and National Unity, Open and Accountable Government, and Just and Law-Abiding Society. Based on the experience with PSOCs during the 2015-2022 Parliament, the PSOCs comprise MPs representing all the parliamentary political parties. They monitor the work of the ministries and independent agencies in the respective sector and make recommendations to the government and the Parliament on laws, policies, and programs that could affect the respective sector. The PSOCs conduct policy research on the issues that they focus on, meet regularly to discuss key policies in the respective areas, and hold public hearings with interested groups. By convention half of the chairs of the PSOCs are opposition MPs.[2]

Importantly, the standing orders for the SOCS allow for the participation of youth in this committees as non-voting members.

Thirdly, the government has set up Jana Sabha Secretariat to establish Citizen Assemblies or Jana Sabhas at the Grama Nildhari Division (GND) level, the smallest administrative divisions in Sri Lanka. The 14,042 GNDs are a part of the central administration which extends from the central government to 25 District Secretariats to 330+ divisional secretariat divisions (DSDs). The Jana Sabhas are to be organised and maintained by the DSDs under the direction of a Jana Sabha Secretariat at the central government level. The Jana Sabhas are expected to be independent, apolitical organisations focused on local issues, but mechanisms are to be included in the Jana Sabha Act to link them to local and central government authorities—so that some of issues that cannot be resolved at the local level can be addressed at the central government level. The newly established Jana Sabha Secretariat is preparing the enabling legislation.

Fourthly, the Ministry of Provincial Councils and Local Government has prepared amendments to local government ordinances for municipal, urban, semi-rural, and rural (or pradeshiya) levels to mandate: (i) Standing Committees with Citizen Participation in all of them; and (ii) the establishment of Ward Committees, chaired by the ward’s political representative and members comprising representatives nominated by Jana Sabhas, to link them to the local government authorities (LGAs).

The reforms outlined above are critical for transforming Sri Lankan polity into a more deliberative and participatory democracy that can protect human rights, reduce corruption, and ensure fundamental freedoms for all Sri Lankans. But two major challenges persist: 1) there is lack of trust in the government’s initiatives; and 2) civil society is largely unaware of, and thus not fully prepared to take advantage of these emerging or emergent participatory mechanisms.

An example to the first point is the present dispute between the government and the Elections Commission about the availability of funds for carrying out local elections.[3] This has made the public lose trust in the independence of the Election Commission. Furthermore, societal distrust of the Executive and the Parliament persists, as the current government has taken a hard line in implementing the reforms necessary to address the severe economic crisis facing the country, while citizens are concerned about the government ability and/or commitment to protect human rights and democratic institutions and reduce corruption.

However, irrespective of the politics of the government in power, civil society organisations (CSOs) and their networks have a key role to play in taking advantage of every opportunity to participate in dialogue on key reforms at all levels of the government; serving as the interlocutor between society and decision-makers; and contributing to making public institutions more transparent, responsive, and accountable, as well as instruments for protecting human rights and practicing good governance. In fulfilling this role, Sri Lanka’s CSOs can build upon their strong tradition and rich experience in pushing for reforms that advance peace, human rights, and good governance in the country.

[1] See: https://parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1678342522089231.pdf

[2] See: https://www.parliament.lk/en/component/committees/categories?id=6&Itemid=106

[3] See: https://anfrel.org/tag/2023-sri-lankan-local-government-elections

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