Safeguarding democracy

Tuesday, 12 July 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Following is the speech made by MP Mangala Samaraweera at the fifth conference of the Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians:

Mr. Chairperson, Hon. Speakers, fellow Parliamentarians, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentleman, in the latter part of the 20th century, there was a ‘fashionable’ school of political thought prevalent in some sections of our societies, which argued that democracy is not conducive for economic progress in developing countries. In the guise of wanting to achieve economic development, some countries moved towards oligarchy and autocracy with disastrous results for the countries concerned.

Fortunately, this view is rapidly losing all credibility as – to quote PM

Manmohan Singh from his inaugural speech yesterday – the winds of democracy are blowing – not only to all corners of South Asia, but also across the world. While our friends and neighbours from the region, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan, have also chosen parliamentary democracy as their model of governance, the ‘Arab Spring’ saw the stunning fall of some autocracies entrenched in power for several decades.

Part of the credit for this revival of confidence in democracy must be given to India because India has now convincingly proven to the world that democracy is not an obstacle for economic development but is in fact a sine qua non for progress and prosperity in the 21st century. Despite many challenges over the years, India has never veered away from its vigorous commitment to democratic principles. In spite of all the shortcomings and flaws of democracy, the world’s largest democracy must be commended for proving that there is no alternative to democracy if we are to deliver the future our people demand and to ensure the future they deserve.

As the Sri Lankan Speaker said in his speech yesterday, our commitment to democracy and the rule of law must be firmly established. However, democracy cannot be gauged merely by the icing on the cake or by the grandstanding of our politicians and leaders. The lofty rhetoric of our leaders must match the ground reality. As the Maldivian speaker said yesterday, power of democracy should be measured by the strength of its democratic institutions. As Hon. Yaswanth Singh said in the morning session, democracy must also reach the grass roots to be meaningful.

Now the challenge before us is to ensure that such democratic institutions are in place and irreversibly entrenched and democratic checks and balances are not tampered with. The executive, legislative and judicial arms of the government must be clearly defined and separation of powers guaranteed. The sovereignty of parliament must be jealously guarded by us never allowing it to become a mere rubber stamp in the hands of the executive.

If we are to win the trust and confidence of the people, accountability and transparency are also of pivotal importance. The Leader of the Opposition chairing the all-powerful Public Finance Committee in Pakistan – as pointed out by the Pakistani Speaker – is indeed commendable in this respect.

Truly independent elections commissions and independent police commissions should be put in place to win the trust of the people; a vibrantly independent media culture is essential and in countries like ours where corruption is a serious challenge, freedom of information is also essential. Civil society must also be allowed to play an active role in the process of governance.

In conclusion, let me say that democracy should never be taken for granted; eternal vigilance, as they say, is the price we have to pay for freedom. It is in this context, that I too would like to endorse the excellent proposal put forward by the Hon. Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan for the establishment of a regional parliament, which I believe could also act as a watchdog for democracy in our region.

Finally, let me thank our hosts, the Indian Government, for the warm hospitality extended to us during our visit to your beautiful city.