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Tips on democracy from the opposition

world Updated: Feb 16, 2011 01:43 IST

For long-reigning opposition chief Ranil Wickremesinghe, the inaugural session of last week’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference was the perfect platform for airing a critique of the government without taking names.

The suave politician, who’s come under sharp criticism for not vacating the opposition chief’s chair despite losing innumerable elections, seemed at home among fellow parliamentarians from around the region including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives. Lok Sabha speaker, Meira Kumar, was the guest of honour.

In his speech, Wickremesinghe told delegates — including Prime Minister DM Jayaratne and speaker Chamal Rajapaksa — about what makes for a real parliamentary democracy. Whether he meant that these features were lacking in Lanka’s current system, which many say is the most centralised, unaccountable and powerful presidency in the world, I’ll never know.

Equal rights for all citizens, separation of powers, rule of law and the freedom of expression, he said, were some of the traditional hallmarks of democracy. Though he didn’t say it in as many words, I am sure Wickeremesinghe didn’t mean those benchmarks were not applicable to Sri Lanka.

“Denial of basic rights, covering government activities in a veil of secrecy and establishing a Constitutional dictatorship ... is also unacceptable. In fact, economic development becomes meaningful only when the people enjoy fundamental human rights,’’ he said, possibly talking about hapless North African nations.

India’s inevitably “vibrant’’ democracy came in for some expected praise. “India’s vibrant democracy and its economic development contradict the theory that a country can achieve economic development only through autocratic means.’’

Of course, he mentioned about the government-opposition stalemate in Indian Parliament and tough times Speakers often face in running the house. Meira Kumar however was quick to diplomatically answer back. She admitted that there were times “when the Parliament becomes turbulent. But our deep faith in the system and our strong desire to run it smoothly overcomes all problems. We are very optimistic,” she said, deviating from her prepared speech text.