Democracy in crisis: Current composition leading Sri Lanka to bankruptcy

Wednesday, 7 November 2018 00:42 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing – Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

The term of ‘democracy’ is derived from two Greek words – demos (people) and kratos (rule). In simple term, then, democracy is the rule of the people, by the people, for the people. 

There seems to be a broad agreement that democracy is a system of governance where power and civic responsibility are exercised directly by all citizens of the country. Unfortunately, in practice it is not the case. The ‘people’ typically exercise their power indirectly through elected representatives. Thus, according to Terry Karl, modern democracy “is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of the elected representatives”.

For Robert Dhal, it is the responsiveness of government to the preferences of citizens (who are, in theory, ‘political equals’ of the rulers), that is the key characteristic of democracy. The central mechanism to ensure people’s preferences are scrutinised and strategies and policies are established to implement them for the benefit of the people is the parliament where there is a key role played by the opposition or the alternate government.

Role of the Opposition

The democratic system is based on a strong opposition group in Parliament which acts as the watchdog against vested interests and ensures that laws are properly implemented in their constituency and all over the nation. They are the guiding ideals who argue against erroneous or defective legislation and show the right way when the ruling party fails. So that the role of opposition in any democracy is to ask right questions and mandate government to reply to those questions honestly when addressing issues relevant to welfare of its citizens. This is the basic pivot on which democracy runs. Democracy by design must ensure that all voices are heard, and government responds adequately and timely. 

In a democratic system, the second largest party becomes the opposition party since they represent the majority of the citizens next to the government and its leader enjoys the status of the leader of opposition, usually equivalent to a position Cabinet Minister. Out of the innumerable problems which call for solution in a state, the opposition is expected to select those which are comparatively urgent, study them, think out solutions and present them to the people and to the government. The opposition parties also warn the government if they think it is necessary. Thus, they try to keep the government aware of all the issues so that everything may be on the right path and a widespread development could be seen in the country. Many have forgotten that the opposition is the alternate government in waiting in any democracy and they have a significant role to play, because they are the representatives of the people to safeguard their interests. The most dominant role of the opposition in a democracy is that of a ‘watch dog’ of the system or to ‘keep the bastard honest’ as the leader of Democratic Party, the largest minor party, in Australian parliament once claimed. In a country where there is a two-party system, the opposition party forms a ‘shadow cabinet’ and remains vigilant over the performance of the government. 

The culture of democracy rests on the principles of majority rule, coupled with tolerance of dissenting views. Closer analysis suggests that role of opposition in Sri Lanka has become convoluted and irrelevant in light of the principles of parliamentary democracy. In reality, there are evidence in Sri Lankan environment to suggest that the opposition has transformed into a hidden arm of the government that try to foster its own concealed agendas or in some cases acting as an adversary criticising all government initiatives whether they will benefit the country or not. 

In the Sri Lankan setting the official opposition is not the largest party or group operating next to the government in the parliament. Even the roles played by opposition are ethnicity centric and do not adhere to the norms and the roles where they are answerable to the whole country in order to ensure peoples’ rights are protected and welfare is looked after. Whole effort of current opposition within the parliament and outside appears to be demanding unwarranted devolution of power while their constituency is experiencing many hardships in their day to day life and lobbying foreign governments as well as international agencies to hinder much needed assistance set aside for their own country rather than ensuring rights and welfare of the citizenry. 

The intricacy created by Joint Opposition, while commanding significantly higher number of members in the parliament than the official opposition, demanding the opposition leadership position recently demands clarity through an independent party such as the judiciary rather than the Speaker, aligned to a political party, ruling the outcome. 

In a spirit of democracy any member representing any corner of the country should be concerned in general affairs of whole country whether it is relevant to citizens of Point Pedro in the north or Dondra Head in the south. Because it is the interests and the welfare of the citizenry they should endeavour to enhance and prosper. 

A major shortcoming of the current official opposition in Sri Lanka is that it is not really the alternative government in waiting as this party or the group would never be able to command the majority of the elected membership of the parliament. Thus, current official opposition is not functioning within the framework of opposition under a democratic system. Citizenry, no matter what ethnic group they represent, will be the eventual victim because the government will use their power to steam roll their agenda without any hindrance or scrutiny deserved under a democratic system of governance.

Freedom to be elected representatives

Democracy has, at its heart, core defining values such as freedom of election and being elected; freedom of assembly and political participation; freedom of speech, expression and religious belief; rule of law; and other basic human rights. As we can see most important aspect of democracy is the right of a citizen to be elected as a member of a responsible body such as the parliament. 

In the Sri Lankan context it is easy to be said than done, since there are specific obstacles such as means to achieve these intents within the current system operating since the introduction of 1977 constitution. A candidate will have to campaign within an electoral district rather than in an electorate when the elections are in progress. As such there is a need for excessive resources including funds to meet campaign expenses. It is understood that the current norm is that any candidate requires over Rs. 50 million expense budget even to contest as a provincial council candidate. 

Is it possible for any decent person to spend such exorbitant amount of money just to fulfil their moral duty to provide a genuine service to the society? Ultimate casualty of such mammoth cost is the intellectuals that is essential in politics to steer the country on progressive path. Closer review of elected members to the current parliament demonstrates that most of them either the next generations of past politicians or people who have amassed wealth by any means or their children. Basically, abilities and skills of elected representatives should have to steer the country forward has become non-existent in Sri Lankan politics today. 

There are signs now that Sri Lanka has gone down the path of non-governable as the mandated functions of the main policy making bodies seem to be in disarray. Hardly any progressive step is taken or whatever steps taken in the past to please particular group of people resulting in detrimental blow to the country’s economy as a whole. No meaningful actions to address these issues were taken though we have been talking about electoral reforms for almost thirty years now. Most important attribute, as far as the country’s future is concerned, is the availability of capable people to run the country before it is too late to reverse the current trends. First, we should focus on requirement of huge sum of funds for electioneering so that the country can attract intellectuals and professionals to contest and be elected as members of parliament. 

We don’t have to go too far to find out how such a composition of elected representatives helped to enhance their economies to extraordinary levels basically from scratch. China appointed more engineers during last few decades to their major policy making body, the National People’s Congress, and we all have witnessed China’s remarkable success and becoming the second largest economic power in the world. 

Singapore is in a different basket after achieving significant economic growth and their latest strategy is to identify talented young people in secondary schools and develop and enhance their skills to become future leaders to run the country as politicians. What remarkable initiatives these countries have embarked on to transformation their countries’ future and thereby enhancing the living standards of its citizenry as a whole. 

Electoral reform

Our electoral system is totally at fault although our founding fathers are not to be blamed. They had never envisaged that even after seven decades, the condition of the common man would become worse than before, that our bureaucracy would be reduced to yes men, that our law and order machinery would be more amenable to political interferences, who were supposed to protect the society, and that a majority of the population would remain below the poverty level and do not even understand the meaning and functions of the parliament, leave alone the duties of an elected representatives. The present scenario where the electoral system eliminates the sincere, the good and honest and elect self-seekers to power just because of tolerance of unaccounted money power, has failed to impress.

Going back to electoral system is one and easy way to address this issue as candidates require only campaign within the boundaries of the electorate instead of a whole district. This will significantly reduce the expenses for candidates as well as the elected members are responsible to look after only the welfare of their electorate. In mature democracies, party candidates’ eligible propaganda expenses are met by the party and through fund raising initiatives. Further, political parties are reimbursed for their entitled election expenses based on a formula on the number of votes they received in the election. Such strategies will no doubt address financial hardships faced by candidates and remove rooms for existence of corruptions in the political system. 

There were many arguments against going back to electoral system when this strategy was proposed in the past using flimsy excuses such as disadvantages that can be experienced by minorities. There are many ways to address those concerns such as by allocating reserved number of parliamentary seats based on the number of votes minority parties received or creating upper chamber such as the senate based on the principles adopted by western democracies.

Current economic woes

First, we need to address major issues such as economic recovery that urgently required to be addressed by all of us as a country before trying to find answers to ethnicity centric issues as otherwise every citizen and future generations will have to bear the unintended and catastrophic consequences. The provincial councils have become white elephants and they drain enormous amount of scarce resources, that can be invest in life changing initiatives of the general public, to basically duplicate many tasks of governing the country. Leave alone the hefty loan repayment liability experienced by the country in each year. It is essential to keep in mind that there are other ways to address power devolution issues as explained above. 

What we need is the genuine commitment of all representatives or a party which can command a parliamentary majority to a common and workable agenda to put the county’s development first above all other concerns. We can’t have half-baked system if we need to operate within democratic system where majority view should be accepted and implemented. 

When the next parliamentary election is called each citizen should vote for the party which offers nation friendly policies as traditional party aligned voting in last seven decades failed to produce any benefits and led to current mess faced by all citizens in the country. Representation of capable and visionary people at the highest political levels in the country is mandatory for realising required reforms and economic recovery. 

Once we have achieved political stability through much needed reforms, the economic development will follow as investors will grab opportunities to participate in local ventures whereby country will be able to address current economic woes in an environment where there are no alternatives. Political stability in the country should be guaranteed before we embark on encouraging foreign as well as local investments in the country as otherwise such endeavours will be futile exercises. 

(Dr. Nimal Edirisinghe is a graduate from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura; as well as Sri Lanka Law College and completed his postgraduate studies in Australia and Canada. He is a visiting lecturer of the Master of Business Administration program at the Sydney Business School and currently working for the Australian Government. Dr. Edirisinghe can be contacted on 

[email protected])

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