Parliament and the question of sovereignty



By Uditha Devapriya

Conversations lay down the foundation for consensus, they provoke discussion and enable debate. One Text Initiative’s (OTI) session on strengthening parliamentary fiscal sovereignty through the Committee System, held last Thursday, October 16, at Water’s Edge, opened such a debate and discussion. While it’s still hard to think of consensus over matters like fiscal sovereignty, the issue remains relevant enough. At its core is whether Parliament should take up responsibility for the country’s economy and resist capture by the Executive. The Committee system is one of many systems if not the main such through which one can enhance Parliamentary autonomy. Indeed, it may be the best.

Debates over Executive accountability and Parliamentary sovereignty rest on the concept of separation of powers. Formulated by Montesquieu, but practised in some form long before his theorisation, it lies at the heart of political debates in Sri Lanka. To what extent in Sri Lanka’s Legislature sovereign and to what extent has it been captured by the Executive? Are binaries between these two arms arbitrary or valid? The OTI session asked these questions, and though it didn’t answer all of them, it left much room for reflection.

Given that we are in the middle of an economic crunch, I think it behoves us to look at the issue from not one or two but as many perspectives as possible. This is especially so since the Legislature represents a midway point between the other two arms of the State: unlike the Judiciary, it is an elected body, and unlike the Executive, it does not concentrate power or confer it on a select group of people. Depending on who is in power, the Parliament can epitomise the best or worst of both worlds. Its barometer is the confidence of the public. If it loses that, it loses its raison d’etre. And there is no greater gauge of public confidence than the economy. This is why fiscal sovereignty is so important.

The One Text Initiative session began with a presentation by Dr Nishan de Mel. Citing the Constitution, Dr de Mel observed, correctly, that Parliament has outsourced its powers, particularly over financial matters, to third parties. He traced this issue to three distinct but interrelated problems: an informational (lack of awareness among parliamentarians and, by extension, the public), a behavioural (subverted incentives stemming from Executive capture of Parliament), and a structural (lack of ability and knowledge, expertise, and experience) one. These three problems have made it possible for external players to not just subvert but also take over the Parliament’s functions.

De Mel’s concerns are valid, and I believe they have a profound bearing on the current IMF programme. Though I remain a critic of IMF policies and prescription, I do admit that long before other think-tanks, de Mel pointed out that Sri Lanka should draw up its own reform programme before going to the IMF. At a forum organised by the Chamber of Commerce in December 2021 – a month or two before the economic crisis hit the country – he bluntly observed that “You do not get the credit officer to write the plan.” At the heart of this issue is a lack or crisis of credibility – a potential fourth pillar de Mel could have included in his presentation – both in terms of the public’s perception of the Legislature and in terms of the international community’s dealings with that not-so august body.

Yet instead of forcing Parliament to become more accountable to the people in economic matters, this lack of credibility has actually fuelled its tendency to outsource or “farm out” – de Mel’s words – to external institutions. The whole point of parliamentary sovereignty is its accountability to the people. This is especially so given that the Legislature is the most representative body of the State, giving space to both the majority and minority. There is no point having a Parliament if economic matters are decided by other parties, particularly those outside the country. The Parliament itself has Committees which look into these matters, which probe them, which reinforce bipartisanship. But rather than strengthening them, we have become content in resorting to those other institutions.

We are confronted with two dilemmas here. On the one hand, the Parliament reflects a composition which has not changed since 2020. It no longer reflects the popular will it once indubitably had. Moreover, it has displayed gross incompetence in economic matters. I am not thinking only in terms of policy here, but also in terms of optics, a fitting example of which would be the recent fiasco involving Professor Ranjith Bandara.

That lack of credibility has fed into a crisis of confidence within the Legislature, which in turn has compelled the ruling party to rely on what third parties rather than the Opposition says on economic policy issues. On the other hand, the government is using its engagement with third parties, the IMF in particular, to justify its continued hold on power.

In that sense, it isn’t just Executive capture of the Legislature which we should talk about or be worried about, it’s also Legislative capture of the Executive. The nexus between these two institutions has grown over the last few decades, though recent developments, like the Supreme Court ruling on MP Naseer Ahamed, has gone some way in restoring accountability to Parliament. Yet we cannot deny that, in terms of financial matters and fiscal sovereignty, the Legislature’s own incompetence has made Executive overreach easy: a point that almost all MPs who spoke at the OTI session, including Harsha de Silva and Charitha Herath, noted. That raises a crucial question: if the Parliament of its own accord has become a handmaiden of the Executive, who else can we blame but the parliamentarians themselves?

My own take here is that civil society in Sri Lanka, in Colombo, is much too concerned with how the Executive has intruded into the Legislature to think about how the Legislature has ingratiated itself before the Executive and external parties. We should prevent too much overlap between these institutions, but we must also realise that overlaps of this sort are a two-way street. In that sense Harsha de Silva’s polite riposte to de Mel’s presentation – that there is a rift between theory and practice – seems apt, if not valid. Accordingly, if fiscal or economic sovereignty has eroded in here, it is not because powerful forces have usurped it from less powerful ones, but because the less powerful have ceded it to the more powerful. The fault, as Shakespeare once wrote, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.