Can the ‘Right to Recall’ empower Lankan Voters?

By the time you read this, Sri Lanka’s new Parliament would have been elected at the general election held on 17 August 2015

The new 225 Members of Parliament (MPs) – both first-timers and re-elected – can look forward to a six-year term, unless the Parliament is dissolved sooner by the President.

How clean and competent are these MPs? Only time can tell. One thing is clear, however: our role as citizens and voters does not end with casting our ballot.

The election was preceded by a high level of civil society advocacy urging all politi-
cal parties to ensure that nominations were given only to those who were not tainted by criminal convictions, corruption charges and other anti-social involvements. This public sentiment was captured by the March 12 Declaration that led to the March 12 Movement.

There is also the possibility that initially clean and promising politicians can go astray after being elected. Right now there is noth- ing voters can do about them – until the next election.

But this can change with the Right to Recall (RTR) being adopted in a growing number of democracies. It grants power for citizens to ‘sack’ elected officials before their term of office is over, if the latter do not perform duties well or are found guilty of misusing power.

‘Recall’ enhances political accountability, and is more participatory than other removal options like impeachment. It also provides a democratic ‘safety valve’ for  letting out public angst over specific officials before it builds up to reach a point of street protests.

Origins and spread

● Recall is more a political instrument than a strict legal one (even though legal provisions are needed for it to happen). Through it, voters in a par- ticular electoral area can express their dissatisfaction with a specific official. The justification can include (but not be limited to) corruption, incompetence and criminality.

Recall is not exactly a new idea. It was pioneered in Switzerland in the late 19th century and in the United States shortly afterwards. As one global study in 2008 noted, recall of individual legislators seems to be more in line with an electoral system of single-member constituencies rather than with a system of proportional representation.

In the US, recall began in 1903 in the municipality of Los Angeles. In 1908, Michigan and Oregon became the first US states to adopt recall proce- dures for state officials. Today, 19 states and the District of Columbia permit the recall of state level officials, and 34 states allow for recall of local elected officials. The US Constitution does not provide for recall of any federally elected official.

Recall is more a political instrument than a strict legal one (even though legal provisions are needed for it to happen)

According to statistical analyses, recall in the US is used much more frequently — and more successfully — at the city council or school board levels. The grounds for initiating a recall campaign varies from state to state, and often, the reasons are political. Specific grounds for recall are required in only eight states. (Details: http://www.ncsl. org/research/elections-and-campaigns/ recall-of-state-officials.aspx)

In the late 20th century, the idea spread to the developing world, especially in Latin America. New constitu- tions adopted in several countries tried to combine representative democracy with participatory democracy. Some of these included recall power for citizens, mostly for local and regional authori- ties.

UK’s new law

● In the UK, the 2010 coalition agree- ment between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats included a pledge to introduce a ‘power of recall’ law. It came in the wake of the Par- liamentary expense scandal of 2009, which revealed widespread misuse of permitted allowances and expenses claimed by MPs across the party spectrum. Despite several resignations, public outrage over corrupt politicians reached an all-time high.

Introducing the Bill in September 2014, then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “The bill puts in place a recall mechanism for MPs, which is transparent, robust and fair. It strikes a fair balance between holding to account those who do not maintain certain standards of conduct, while giving MPs the freedom to do their job and make difficult decisions where necessary.”

Some critics called the draft bill a “watered-down version” of the system used in the US and other countries, and pointed out that “MPs can only be removed in the narrowest of circumstances”. The variously amended law, known as the Recall of MPs Act 2015, received royal assent on 26 March 2015. Now in effect, it allows MPs to be “recalled” and subjected to a public vote on their future in cases of serious misconduct.

The Act provides for a recall petition to be triggered if a Member is sentenced to a prison term or is suspended from the House for at least 10 sitting days. If either occurred, the Speaker would alert a petition officer, who in turn would inform voters in the constituency. A petition would then be open for public signing for eight weeks. If at least 10% of eligible voters sign the petition, the seat would be declared vacant and a by-election would follow. The dislodged MP may also contest again.

Indian advocacy

● In India, the world’s largest electoral democracy, some activists have cam- paigned for the right to recall as a way of cleansing the political process.

An Indian computer professional named Rahul Chimanbhai Mehta started the “Right to Recall” movement in 1998 when he returned to India from the United States. In his definition, it means having a clear procedure by which citizens (can) replace the Prime Minister, Supreme Court judges, chief ministers, MPs, MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly, the state level parliaments), Reserve Bank Governor or any official from PM downwards “if need be”.

Mehta believes that a RTR law will reduce corruption and give more power to citizens. He has been writing, speaking and publishing newspaper ad- vertisements on this proposal (http:// He also heads a non- registered political party named Right to Recall Group.

Not surprisingly, mainstream politi- cal parties have been slow to warm up to the idea. But the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or the Common Man’s Party), which emerged in 2012 from the India Against Corruption campaign, has formally endorsed RTR.

AAP’s website says: “Today we give our vote to a candidate, he or she wins the election, and then they disappear from our lives. Today, most elected representatives make no time to listen to the problems of their constituents. And in the current electoral system, the people have no choice but to suffer this candidate for five years. We want to create an alternative. We will enact a Right to Recall law wherein the common man does not have to wait for five years to remove a corrupt MLA or MP from office. People can complain to the election commission anytime to recall their representative and call for fresh elections.”

Recall in Sri Lanka?

● Can recall make Sri Lanka’s democ- racy more participatory? Some profes- sionals and activists think so.

In a November 2014 article, Charitha Ratwatte Sr., lawyer and a former Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, acknowledged that the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce had mooted the idea back in August 2006. Responding to a government call for public views on the ‘National Question,’ the Chamber had proposed a ‘Mechanism for Recall of Elected Representatives by Electors’.

In summary, it called for a law that would enable 20% or more of voters in a constituency to present a petition to the Election Commission, requesting the recall of their MP (after complet- ing a minimum of two years in office). Upon receiving it, the Commission is to hold a (local area) referendum that decides the MP’s future in office. If a majority rejects him/her, the next per- son on the party list is to be declared elected. This was to apply to elections at all levels — Parliament, Provincial Councils and local government bodies.

Can recall make Sri Lanka’s democracy more participatory? Some professionals and activists think so

Alas, the proposal – along with many others – went nowhere, but the idea remains alive.

During the run-up to the general election 2015, it was revived by the Campaign for Clean and Competent Candidates (CCCC) launched by the Swarajya Foundation, a non-profit group. They even contested in the Co- lombo District as Independent Group 9, and campaigned with a pledge to introduce the Power of Recall through a Constitutional amendment.

Upali Chandrasiri, a key member of CCCC, says, “The sovereignty of the people will be ensured by the Power of Recall” – he points out that it can tilt the balance of power to the voters where it rightfully belongs.

Siri Hettige, senior professor of sociology at the University of Co- lombo, favours the idea. “There are many political reforms needed to make democracy meaningful and useful. Firstly, the changes needed to make political leaders accountable and (right of ) recall is one way of doing it,” he said in a comment on Upali Chandra- siri’s Facebook page. Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Dr Asanga Welikala, a constitutional law specialist currently with the University of Edinburgh Law School, replied to one of my tweets saying, “I don’t think we have the civic culture needed (for recall)”.

To recall or not to recall – that is the question. We should at least debate this more widely to see whether and how we can configure a system that works best for Sri Lanka.

For details, see: When citizens can recall elected officials (2008): mocracy/upload/direct_democracy_ handbook_chapter5.pdf