Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • November 2012
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US reelects President Obama as Sri Lanka impeaches Chief Justice Bandaranaike

Posted by harimpeiris on November 7, 2012

Earlier this week, two important events occurred in two very different worlds, in the United States, the American electorate after a long and grueling political campaign reelected President Barack Obama, their first African American President, to a second term in office. At the same time, in Sri Lanka, the Speaker of Parliament, Chamal Rajapakse, entertained a motion by more than half the MPs in Parliament to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka’s first woman Chief Justice, just hours after her Court had delivered yet another judicial setback for the government, ruling that certain provisions of the proposed Divineguma Bill violated the Constitution and would be required to be passed with a special two third majority in Parliament.

The US experience

The US presidential election campaign and process, is really America at its very best. An ethnic minority is elected to the highest political office, a vibrant public debate takes place on all the issues that matter in America, the candidates for the highest political office are relentless scrutinized, questioned and challenged. The candidates themselves debate each other and a primary election campaign before the national election ensures that internal party processes are democratic and representative.

President Obama was always going to be under huge pressure in a reelection campaign. In the USA, more than in most societies, economics and the state of the economy tend to be the dominant issues in a national election and not since President Franklin Roosevelt has a US president being reelected  in the midst of a recession. While the US economy is technically not in a recession, the weak job numbers, the soft housing market, the rating downgrades and a fragile global recovery were all making for a pessimistic economic outlook. The Republican Party’s presidential challenge was also helped in no small part by a recent US Supreme Court ruling, by the conservative majority on the Court, which essentially had the effect of opening the flood gates for big business through their super PACs to spend as much money as they wished to influence the outcome of the election and spend money they did. The US election probably saw at least US Dollars two billion being spent on the campaign and the supporters for the Republican challenger, former governor Mitt Romney, actually outspend President Obama’s efforts, though ultimately to no avail. Changing demographics in the United States, which is becoming more diverse, with an increasing number of Latino voters, is making it harder for the Republicans with scant support among minorities to prevail in a national election. The US presidential election process though was a celebration of US democracy at its finest.

The Rajapakse Regime impeaches Chief Justice Bandaranaike

As US democracy was showcased by their presidential election, in stark contrast Sri Lankan democracy sunk to new lows in Sri Lanka, where a concerted campaign against the judiciary by the Rajapakse Administration, which began with the stoning of the Mannar Magistrate, a goon squad attack on Judge Manjula Tilakaratne, the secretary of the Judicial Service Commission and state media venom and vitriol against the superior courts saw its logical conclusion as the Government parliamentary group began going through the motions required to remove Chief Justice Bandaranaike from office, even as the Supreme Court repeatedly checked unconstitutional  government proposals and measures. From the Regime’s land circular, to proposed changes in the Town and Country Planning Act, to the Penal Code and ultimately to rural development through the Divineguma Bill, the Court checked and ruled against the unconstitutional measures that were sought to be implemented by the government. Additionally, with an Attorney General’s department that has been moved from being under the Justice Ministry to being directly under the President’s office as an appendage of the presidency, with no modicum of independence, the Rajapakse Administration demonstrated that it cannot and will not tolerate any judicial restraint on its actions even if it is to ensure constitutional governance and the basic rule of law.

Now, Minister GL Peiris, who claims he has taught most of the judges on the bench today and indeed he might well have, would painfully make the case, supported by the media minister that the Government is following procedural due process in the impeachment of the Chief Justice. What the good professor should address his mind to is that substantive due process should also occur. One hopes he remembers what he learnt at St.Thomas College, that in life as in cricket when the umpire rules against you, you don’t assault him, but accept the verdict and let the game go on.

The General and the Chief Justice

General Fonseka and Chief Justice Bandaranaike, both have a couple of things in common. Both were outstanding in their own right. General Fonseka was the war winning general, doing what his predecessors had failed for decades and being labeled the “best Army Commander in the world” by the Rajapakse Administration, no less. Chief Justice Bandaranaike also became Sri Lanka’s first woman chief justice, a landmark in a country that gave the world its first woman prime minister in Sirimavo Bandaranaike and one its few elected women presidents in Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. (The United States for instance has still not even, ever nominated a woman for President from the two major parties or had a woman vice president). But both the best army commander and the first woman chief justice of Sri Lanka fell afoul of the ruling Rajapakase’s and are now out in the cold. Down, if not completely out.

However, the Rajapakse regime should well consider that its track record and practice of fighting with friends and falling out with those in the higher echelons of the state structure is not conducive to either good governance or the long term political interests of the Administration itself. Constitutional government, the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions and practices are a far better way to govern and lead the country to reap the full promise and benefits of the post war era in Sri Lanka.

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