A Way Out of Today’s Constitutional Impasse and The Way Forward

Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan and SCC Elankovan | 16 May 2022
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The citizens right to recall their elected representatives :

After 30 days of sustained peaceful agitation led by youth and supported by thousands of ordinary citizens all over the country Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa finally resigned after many weeks of turmoil and back and forth efforts to retain his position. The Cabinet of Ministers had resigned twice earlier. The resignation came close on the heels of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence where he addressed SLPP party supporters after which they descended on the un-armed and peaceful protestors, mercilessly attacking them, not sparing even the women and old people, burning and breaking everything they could get their hands on, while the security forces looked on. Despite the strong-arm tactics, curfew, emergency regulations and the threat of legal action, the protests continue calling for the resignation of the President who, on the strength of the 20th Amendment, has absolute power.The people of this country are asking for accountability. This, in effect, is an exercise of the Right of Recall by the Voters, the people exercising their Right to recall their representatives where they have acted against their interests, mismanaged and brought the country to a state of economic collapse after allegedly being involved in rampant corruption and nepotism.

This protest campaign is giving rise to debate and discussion not just among academics but on the streets and in homes, as to what are the citizens’ democratic rights where their elected representatives do not act in their interests but in an arbitrary and authoritarian way, causing loss and deprivation to the citizens even to the extent as happened recently of inciting violence causing injury to person and property. The other point at issue is how can the impasse be resolved where the citizens demand that the President and the government go and the President and government refuse to depart. It is in this context that we put forward the right of recall as a way to resolve the situation and as being one which the people themselves are voicing through their actions.

“Citizens right to recall the representatives they elected”.This right is premised on the principle of the peoples ‘sovereignty. The Constitution of Sri Lanka, Article 2 states ‘Sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable’.The Right of Recall is an instrument to enhance accountability among elected representatives and gives the electors a method of asserting their sovereignty without having to wait for the elapse of the period till the next election. It is argued that the representatives of the people, holding public office, are answerable to the people and expected to work for the people. If they act contrary to the peoples’ interests and continue in Office against the wishes of the people they could, on the basis of this principle, be recalled.The process of a Recall is a political one and different from the impeachment process which is legal and predicated on certain grounds being proven as well as the support of two-thirds of the members of Parliament for such resolution, (see Article 38 of the Constitution). As things stand, it is virtually impossible to impeach the President. As the majority of people in the Country wish to do away with this President and his government in whom they have lost confidence and the President refuses to step down there is a Constitutional impasse. Hence, we have to consider alternate methods for removing him and I would submit that in the present circumstances prevailing in the Country after the collapse of the economy and now governance, we should consider the Right of Recall as an option.

Sri Lanka, is one of the oldest democracies in South Asia. But today it is a travesty of democracy. The Government, headed by a President who wields unrestricted and wide ranging powers, has ruined and bankrupted the country, which is in the throes of an economic crisis where even the basic necessities are now in short supply and people have to queue up for food, fuel and even medicine, with electricity cuts affecting the output of factories and even small businesses and hence livelihoods. In spite of the non-violent demonstrations and agitation of citizens from every walk of life and every community and religion, and where the entire country has lost confidence in the President, extending even to the whole parliamentary system, the President refuses to step down because he maintains that he was elected by a majority of electors for a specific term. This is indeed a mockery of Democracy.

It must be noted that apart from the mismanagement, corruption and subversion of the judicial processes that marked this regime the autocratic methods of policy making and political culture of authoritarianism have contributed to the resulting economic down turn. This too requires systemic and structural changes. It is now being proposed by the BASL, and some political parties, that the solution lies in doing away with the 20th Amendment under which excessive powers were conferred upon the Executive Presidency under the fallacy that a strong presidency would guard the Country against the security lapses that happened during the Easter Sunday terrorist attack and drive quick economic development. The provisions of the 19th Amendment, under which checks and balances were provided, will be re-enacted as the draft 21st Amendment with some modification or changes where needed and could be passed by the present Parliament as the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. It is submitted that the citizens Right to Recall their Representatives should also be included in this enactment

Indian Experience

The Right of Recall has come to be accepted in India at a local government or municipal level. The Right of Recall has been a part of the political discourse in neighbouring India, and was even discussed at the Constituent Assembly during the Constitution drafting process 1946-1949. It was argued that it would help in the political education of the people and encourage voters to think, but on the other side it was contended that it would be improper to provide this right at the infancy of Indian democracy and could lead to political rivalry and render the Constitution a battle ground. For these reasons Dr. Ambedkar did not accept this amendment. Sardar Vallabai Patel also discussed this proposed amendment. In 1974 a constitutional amendment bill on voters’ right to recall elected representatives was brought in the Lok Sabha by CK Chandrappan and Atul Bihari Vajpayee the BJP leader had supported it, but the Bill did not pass. The former speaker of the Indian Parliament Somnath Chatterjee had also sought to introduce the Right to Recall to ensure accountability. However, the Election Commission of India was not in favour.

Most recently, in 2016, the Representation of the People Amendment Bill was introduced by Varun Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, to recall Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs), but was unsuccessful. However, it has been implemented at the panchayat level in the Grama Sabha and also at the municipal level in a number of states, including UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and in Punjab. In a country, such as India, with its large population introducing this principle at the level of the State legislative Assemblies and the Lok Sabha (Union Parliament) would pose many logistic and other problems, besides which the rural voters are not so politically educated and literacy levels, especially among older people, is still low. Hence it is not practicable to introduce this right at the higher levels.

In other countries

The right of recall has come to be accepted in many countries. We would like to draw attention to the UK (United Kingdom), Recall of MPS Act passed in March 2016. This Act makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their MP and call a by-election. Other countries like the US, Germany, Ecuador, Japan, Canada, etc., have this provision but generally at the local government or municipal level. A few state legislatures in the US have this provision, for example the State of Wisconsin. In Canada the only Province or territory with Recall election law currently in force is British Columbia. The law requires 40% of the voters to sign the petition and thereafter the petition has to be validated by the Election Commission. In Germany provisions for Recall of members of the State Parliaments of Germany, exist in five of the federal states. All these states allow for the recall of the entire legislature by triggering a new election. .

That this principle has been a matter of political discourse over a long period of time is shown in a letter by George Washington to his nephew in 1787, quoted in Edward Fallone’s book on this subject, which states as follows: “The power will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a limited period to representatives of their own choosing, whenever it is executed contrary to their interest or not agreeable to their wishes their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled”.

In Sri Lanka, with its small and politically educated population of 22 million and high literacy level, the right to recall principle could be introduced without much difficulty and would help to enhance the quality of Sri Lanka’s representative government as members of Parliament would be more mindful of their parliamentary duties when they know they can be “recalled”. The actions of citizens stepping in, recognising that the only way to save the country was for them to act and demand the resignation of the President and the government they elected is an example of the exercising of the right to recall. In fact, the electoral system in Sri Lanka permits the sitting member to be replaced by the next person on the list so it would not be necessary to go for an expensive election either. In the case of the President, if we were to follow this procedure where a certain percentage of the persons who voted for him submit a petition to the Election Commission to have him recalled, the question would arise as to who would take his place or what procedure should be followed in doing so. If it involves another election this may not be possible in the present conditions and the financial straits in which the country finds itself, but I trust this is a matter which can be studied and resolved satisfactorily through for example a Parliament being given the task of electing the new President.

The report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform 2016 noted that citizens throughout the country demanded that the right to recall and modalities for implementing the same be included in a new Constitution. Now, we could argue that our fellow citizens have demonstrated and actually made this “Right to Recall” functional in deposing the government and that it is therefore the moment for legislators to acknowledge the citizens’ action by including this right as part of the envisaged 21st Amendment.

We would caution that the right to recall is but one of the wide-ranging changes that should be made to introduce a system of governance to increase the level of accountability of public representatives. Further, changes which take cognizance of the principle of subsidiarity and give due place to local government and Provincial Councils are also equally important. This will make for a more participatory democracy in which the minority communities and other layers of society who remain structurally disempowered can share power, too. This could be incorporated into the 21st Amendment or be the subject of a separate Amendment, but brought in parallel. The abolition of the Executive Presidency per se, is also an urgent requirement but might also require a referendum.

Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan is a distinguished academic and law professor, who has been involved in the constitutional process to resolve the national question for several years. She has specialised in international law, particularly in the areas of the law of the sea, international humanitarian ( laws of war), human rights, and refugee law.

Mr. Elankovan has worked in the NGO sector for the last 23 years, 16 of which have been spent in Sri Lanka working for INGO’S such as ZOA and Oxfam. He has also worked in varied capacities with the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement

This article was originally published on The Island.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.