How our democracy has changed

October 2, 2013

The recent provincial election results show that the Government of President Rajapaksa cannot be shaken. Is it due to its popularity with the people and if so, what are the causes of the popularity? Are there other factors as well? The Northern Provincial Council of course showed that the methods employed in the south to win popularity do not work to win the votes of the Tamil people. What are these methods?

Electoral system Firstly the electoral system has been completely transformed. The rationale behind the Proportional Representation system is that it is based on lists submitted by the political parties. The names denoted a ranking as well, under the original system introduced by President J.R. Jayewardene. President Rana-singhe Prem-adasa changed it to determine the first three winners on popular preferences. But the winners under the PR system were debarred from

changing the party which nominated them and on which they were elected. If they did so they would lose their seat. This was logical and necessary since the people voted for the party and it was the party that nominated them for election. The entire rationale for the system as democratic depended on the prohibition of cross-over to any other party from the party ticket on which the candidate was appointed. The first erosion of the principle was the modification by the introduction of the preference vote. It looks democratic prima facie but it was not; for the principle of voting for the party rather than the candidate was undermined. Chief Justice Sarath Silva destroyed whatever was left of electoral democracy by permitting the crossing over of the winners to other parties. Lack of ideology Our political parties do not have any ideology unlike in the Western democracies. They are factions tied by family loyalties or class interests. Some families are traditionally SLFP supporters while others are UNP supporters. As for the ethnic minorities, the Tamils always stood apart and had their own parties although a few Tamils were co-opted to the major parties mainly by the offer of perks – a powerful incentive in Sri Lankan politics. The estate Tamils too had their own political party linked to the trade union of estate workers. The Muslims joined the two major parties among the Sinhalese. So did the Christians. With the introduction of the PR system, the way was open for the minorities to win seats on the basis of their ethnic or religious affiliation. So PR promoted ethnic and religious basis of affiliation to politics and political parties. It has probably also ensured permanent coalition governments. With the abolition of the cross-over provision, the stage was set for the winners to be wooed to join the party obtaining a majority at the polls. In the case of the presidential election of 2007 the LTTE banned Tamils from voting and thereby deprived the UNP of winning. The later election was distorted by the UNP supporting Sarath Fonseka as a common candidate. The future What of the future? The ethnic and religious minorities traditionally favoured the UNP rather than the SLFP which stood for the supremacy of Sinhala Buddhist majority over the other communities. I think with the abolition of the ban on cross-overs, the electoral process no longer reflects the people’s will. The wooing of Opposition party members who win the election by offering them perks such as posts of ministers and the power that

Members of Parliament have acquired after 1956 have made it easy to woo Opposition party MPs. The President can create any number of ministers irrespective of any need for them. The nature of our democracy has undergone a change after 1956. In Western democracy the backbench Member of Parliament is a legislator and has no role in the Executive functioning of the Government. After 1956 the MPs interfered in the district administration and sought to decide what should or should not be done in their electorates. Western model of democracy The Western model of democracy involves the uniform application of policies and executive actions to all people without any favouritism to those who voted for the ruling political party. It also envisages the equal treatment of citizens of all communities without favouring those who belong to the majority community or discriminating against others. The West achieved this objective by a clear separation of the Legislature and the Executive branches of the State, the establishment of a bureaucracy and by a further separation of the functions of the political Executive from the permanent Administration. The ministers were expected to confine their function to formulating policy and holding the bureaucracy accountable to them according to law and the canons of good administration. Influence peddling But after 1956, the bureaucracy was asked to reward and favour those of the ruling political party and their supporters. They were also to be treated as special persons and even the Police could not treat them in the same way as they would treat other citizens where they were offenders under the law. Influence peddling through the MPs has become the order of the day. So the MPs are fawned upon by the people who have also been corrupted by the offer of special favours if they had voted for the ruling party. Those who did not were discriminated against. During a survey carried out by the Sri Lanka Economic Association in Anuradhapura, the people of one village called Nallathudawa said they were deprived of the Samurdhi (the handout given to the poor by the Government) because the Grama Niladhari had said they voted for the Opposition party. Voters know that the right political contacts are needed to land Government contracts, a place in a popular Government school, a job for a child at a State institution, or even top posts at a university or hospital or a Ministry. So State employees too must woo

the politicians if they want to go places. This includes those in the highest posts in all branches of the State. So democracy has come to mean Government of those people who voted for the ruling party by them and for them only. Those who voted for the Opposition political parties are outside this democracy. The people have understood this well and being a dependent people (made dependent on the State by the politicians) they prefer to vote for the ruling political party. Those in power have understood this well and hence the staggered elections. The Opposition with or without the current leadership is unlikely to win as long as largesse or as the American say “pork” can be distributed by the ruling party and the voters are dependent on such pork. Politically-affiliated bureaucracy So the bureaucracy which was originally a meritocracy came to be replaced by a politically-affiliated bureaucracy much like that which prevailed under Communist rule where bureaucrats had to be members of the Communist Party which was the sole ruling party. Although elections were held regularly, they were a mere formality to enhance the claim that the governing members were in fact the choice of the people. There was no level playing field for the contesting political parties. Communists held power uninterruptedly for 70 years. Do we see any parallel between this system of democracy and that of the democracy of the Communist countries?

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful