Democracy in the Island of Sri Lanka

By Oscar E V Fernando

Democracy has been defined as a form of government in which the people govern themselves or elect representatives to govern them.

Today in Sri Lanka one wonders as to who governs. Is it the president, president and parliament, the parliament, president and part of the government or the president and courtiers of close associates? Who decided on Mavil Aru war—it was certainly not the parliament in emergency session. How could it be parliament when the government is fishing for a clear majority? Can the country be run with a silent legislature?

Which way would the president turn to—is it to pull the government and the cart of the economy tied to a donkey and a bull, or will it be a carriage tied to two sturdy horses? Until this decision is made the country is drifting with an additional load of a war in a stagnant cart that is likely to be pulled in different directions by the donkey/bull duo.

A just government has disillusioned many political thinkers from Aristotle downwards, and this is why Winston Churchill said;

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one portends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

What has a half century of universal franchise and its implied democracy done to our country? Among all that was good has it not bequeathed to us;

A Constitution with it a plethora of confusions—a juxtaposed executive/ legislative power—an electoral system of proportional representation, seemed hastily enacted to the constitution–disgruntled communities—an economy in tatters (boasting only of exports of garments, now happening with former steam, and construction of buildings with excess money in banks, to talk of for the GDP)—bungling bureaucrats consequent upon its politicization—ludicrous ethnic religious and caste issues—a pampered vote bank.

All these in tight knots, have made a mockery of democracy, and an eye opener to all and sundry how we face naked beggary whilst several other similarly placed countries are far ahead. The pathos of it is that still we are very complaisant about what we do and intend to do. Some of us are hell bent on war with an over-borrowed kitty—and that very complaisantly too. What has democracy done?

Democracy for most of us is a matter of crossing against a noted number, come elections, and thereafter witnessing a numbers game in parliament—with crisscrossing members, in a strong vote bank markedly divided into two. Is democracy to be treated so callously?

It is democracy that enables us to elect a set of persons that we ‘consent’ to put forward to govern us, and then dispose of them if proved unworthy—a fact forgotten by those who lord it over in parliament. Democracy could be very meaningful to the extent that it has ingredients such as;

A Constitution that limits the powers and controls the people who govern—election of public officials conducted in a free and just manner—the right to vote and to stand for elections—freedom to express one’s thoughts—freedom of the print and electronic media and access to all information sources—freedom of association–equality before the law—education of citizens of their rights and civic responsibilities.

Do we genuinely have these? What is the position if;
A majority vote bank steam rolls a minority’s aspirations, identified internationally as tyranny of a majority, a matter taken up by the United Nations to have declared an article on humanitarian intervention. This is where a constitution guaranteeing rights of minorities, well discussed by civil society, not only by politicians in parliament, and should be implemented; it is lack of this that had led to the present ethnic war.

We Sri Lankans have the privilege of removing those found unworthy to govern, but at every turn we are stymied with the results, due to the PR system and that accompanying executive/legislative bungle. Elections have eventually turned out to be a gamble and a consequent numbers game in parliament: a fact that the president may well take into consideration for his own sake and for the sake of the country. The president must further take into consideration that;

In a democracy citizens are free to vote for candidates they ‘put forward’ (much can be rectified with civic consciousness), whereas in a communist regime that usually turns out to be a dictatorship, citizens are ‘free’ to vote for one of several candidates the politburo puts forward: would the president desire this for our country?

It will be interesting to see to what extent such a ‘twisted steamroller majority democracy’ prevails in our country and to what extent it has met with success to. Such a situation perhaps is extenuated due to tyranny of a minority in a past era-but two wrongs do not make a right. In today’s context where battles are not fought with tar and mortar, but are internationalized, unlike in the days of yore, this situation could well be and has proved to be an explosive danger to the extent;

That such a threat of coercive power has bred terrorism and is bound to spread further if a tyrannical majority persists in clawing their way to aspirations of other so-called minorities too.

There is nothing to prevent the rank and file of any tyrannized minority joining any terror group, or inviting other international terror groups into the country. It is also for this very reason that when a government intends to solve a majority minority issue, especially emotional and contentious, a little bit of that totalitarianism in a democracy is called for!

That we are facing problems of minority issues and that the problems are being extenuated further are not in doubt. The constitution must have safeguards such as introducing proportional representative electoral systems combined with other majoritarian systems. How could all this be corrected in the situation we are placed in?

We need a mandate from the people, but getting this mandate at the polls with the existing constitution is a gamble and borders on wishful thinking without amending the constitution-getting a mandate in parliament to do this can be described as one so close but yet so far, due purely to a personal conflict perhaps minimized to a handful or even less, and is in no way related to economic or political philosophies!

This is the dilemma for both the ethnic and economic issues and a fine poser as to which comes first-the chicken or the egg.

The best way out seems to be making something out of the omelets that is our parliament, without wishfully dreaming of that golden egg at a poll with the present constitution. And for this:

The parliamentarians will have to resort to humane thinking brought out in that concept called natural justice, the basis of which is to respect and recognize the dignity of all individuals.

Will an immediate general election solve our perpetuating problems? This is a point to be pondered by the voters and the members of the-present parliament considering that ‘undesirable but presently inevitable’ numbers game for the last time. Power sure could be shared by the two major parties that are close in more ways than one; a start with the peace process seems under way and this may commence from where it was stopped.

At any rate let democracy prevail in this world of sin and woe. With a change of this system, neither can be cast away.

The only way to minimize injustice is to lean heavily on natural justice and law. Any other system would only conceal both sin and woe and perpetuate it by coercive military force for a while!

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