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People, power and democracy

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Power in a democracy is often created by the people. It is the masses who decide their leaders, what policies should be followed, and on what principles a country should be governed. This is all the more important in democracies that do not have strong institutions to protect rights, including inclusivity, transparency and accountability. People power is the heartbeat of good governance.

People power has been used from the earliest times in history to fight for people’s rights. During the time when monarchy was the most popular form of governance, revolutions levelled the playing field and gave people a chance to wrestle power away from the entrenched elites. Even though these power dynamics went back and forth, they eventually evolved into a system of governance that holds the interests of the people as a core principle. Over the centuries this has been demonstrated over and over again by people power movements that have fought against different types of injustices and pressed their rulers to crack down on corruption, wastage and discrimination. 

Political leaders have been swept into power on the shoulders of people power movements and they have been swept out by the same force. Knowing this, politicians are also savvy enough to tap into discontent, incumbency fatigue and difficult economic realities when it suits their agendas. People, who are frustrated by perceived disregard of governments, fuelled by organised political programs, and worried about the future, tend to be drawn to people power protests and rallies. These grassroots movements have at times used civil disobedience and staged public sit-ins, such as the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, and the prolonged suffragette campaign and the uprisings seen during the Arab Spring. 

People power, seen in this context, is an important tool for change, but it is also open to manipulation. In Sri Lanka, people power movements have been closely aligned with political change of different parties over many decades and gain greater importance when the inevitable election cycle draws near. This fusion between people power movements and political parties nonetheless forms an important conduit in governance and cannot be ignored. People power is also intrinsically dualistic because it can be political and anti-establishment at the same time. It can reinforce as well as breakdown entrenched ideas and systems and is valued by politicians on both sides of the divide for precisely this reason.    

On Wednesday, thousands of protestors poured into Colombo, disrupting daily life and traffic flow. The public, fearing transport disruptions, chose to mostly stay home, schools were let out early and those who had to be in office settled in for a long wait. Rally organisers outlined plans for participants to occupy key landmarks. Yet the true value of people power lies in how engaged the public is with the day-to-day issues of governance, the vigilance they display in ensuring the business of State is conducted properly and that policies are made in the best interests of the country. This ceaseless vigilance is the true role that people have to play in a democracy. It’s the endless battle to create more progressive regulations, implement reforms, fight for greater rights for marginalised communities, and carry out the rule of law that is the hallmark of true people power. People will always have power, but they also have a responsibility to use it for good. 


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