19 July, 2024


A System Change

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

It was the principle slogan of the Aragalaya that there was a need for a System Change. The dominant theme and cry was for “Political Change” from the prevailing one, which after 75 years of operation, has failed. What then is the kind of change that was wanted? There may be many examples of changes that may occur to any who ponder this issue. The strident cry was “Chase out all 225.” Nothing could be clearer than that. The political establishment reacted with brutality. First, from “Temple Trees” and then from the newly installed Presidency, barely hours after Mr Wickremasinghe took over.

Several institutions, conventions and practices demand critical review. Mere cosmetic changes will no longer suffice, and radical changes are emphatically needed. We describe ourselves as a “Democratic, Socialist Republic.” Are we so?


Abraham Lincoln’s definition of Democracy as the “Rule of the people, by the people for the people,” I regarded as the bedrock of democracy.

‘Representation’ and the ‘franchise’ naturally flow from this concept. In order to preserve the element of ‘choice,’ like-minded persons are grouped as ‘parties,’ who contest each other at elections, and thus to be regarded as truly representative of the majority view of the ‘electorate’.

People should be allowed to exercise their choice from a cluster of options. Each party should clearly and truthfully, state what they offer to their electors.

The best guide might be a “Manifesto”. It would be very rare for any voter to take such document seriously. If at all, they might be considered as merely a ‘Wish List’ and nothing more. It would be akin to a catalogue that a used car dealer would use, as a declaration of virtues, which is palpably false.

It is more than likely that a common thread of empty promises, runs through most, (if not all) manifestos. Honesty, integrity, intolerance of bribery, corruption, undue influence, graft, commissions and so on.

Such lofty attributes are as rare as honest intent.

All will promise better health, education, housing, jobs, roads, transport, communications, security and all else that add up to our unreal “Utopia”.

The mirage of variety in this cluster of sameness, will be attributed to difference in that nonsensically empty word, “Policy.” “Policy” to most, would be of equal status as belief in Unicorns, mermaids, fairies and the “Lochness Monster.” Perhaps they do exist – it is just that none have seen them (yet).

There are many words- less sophisticated but more meaningful, that can substitute for “policy” with greater precision, depending on the context. Such would include Idea, aim, target, intent, plan and goal, along with dozens of other options. Even these have meaning only if the contest is between a hand-full of “Parties.”

How can one deal with this in a field of some eighty-odd supposed parties as registered with the Commissioner of Elections?  One pities the Commissioner, who has the unenviable task of finding enough symbols when the “Parties” number in the eighties.

Because of the difficulty confronting the C of E, of finding enough nouns as symbols, he is compelled to resort to (comical) ones including bicycles, helicopters, hands, telephones, betel leaves, chairs, compasses, houses, trees, cockerels, elephants and peacocks.   

The Polling process

The possible entry of a large number of contenders might result in a ballot paper the size of a small carpet. The “Proportional Representation system”, compelling a rating of preferences (as 1, 2 and 3), is a further, seemingly obscure complexity.

The voting is in two steps. The voter first chooses his preferred party and next, indicates the assigned number of his chosen candidate. If (as might often happen), his best choice of candidate is not in his preferred party, he in effect has disenfranchised himself to a theoretical extent of 50%. He is thus compelled to pick his “least worst” from outside his “party preference”. This is clearly far from the intent of a balloting process, seeking “democracy and freedom of choice” goals. This overlooks the perplexing difficulties that must also confront the “counting staff.”

Mercifully, the Presidential poll does not present such a dilemma.     

The product

One often hears complaints about the poor quality of Members of Parliament. Poor academic attainments ae most often blamed. The contrast with the House of Commons and Singapore Parliament are held up as examples of quality representatives. It is said that the Singapore Cabinet could rival the Faculty staff of a UK or US University

The very poor image of our Parliament is ascribed to this deficiency in academic content. This is alleged to reflect in the crudity of much that frequently plagues our Supreme legislature. This is not the only problem. There have been several examples of stellar performance by members with sparse academic credentials, and equal instances of abysmal failure on the part of those holders of outstanding scholarly excellence. This perhaps goes to show that “learning” and “wisdom” are not always inseparable twins.

Lack of quality oratorical talent is not all. Poor attendance, fiscal offences and improper, crude and vulgar conduct in the Assembly are also significant. Even a moderate cynic would see with hilarity, the  way in which “Doctorates” manifest, rather like toadstools after a shower of rain. This is not only futile as a way of achieving a better  average, but at the same time devalues the genuine holders of such prestigious titles, through intense effort and toil.

Over-riding all this, is a much more negative influence in the existence of the “Party Whip” and the denial of the “right of a secret ballot” or “Conscience vote”. Taking these features together, members are bound to comply with positions ordained by the party hierarchy, or be subject to the “Party Whip.”

Rebels will be exposed by “open voting.” Taking these two factors together, It means that in the exercising their vote, members are compelled to follow party dictates, as a foregone conclusion. This blind adherence to a restrictive convention (even if such exists), appears intensely archaic. If a member is thus constrained, and has only to put up his hand as commanded, then the only real disqualification for membership, should be for double amputees. What use then of quality members? Why have lengthy and obscenely expensive sittings? Tarzie Vittachchi once held that “Communication without Transformation, is only gossip”. If not possible, what then is the purpose of debate and voting? Indeed, by extension, what then is the need for Parliament?

By the above considerations, is not there need for reasoned, radical and bold review of all that is now uncritically followed? Is not such bold and radical consideration of the system, not what the “Aragalaya” meant in their cry for “System Change”? Let the competent decide.       

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 7

    System change is never complete without mentioning the voters who elect criminal, corrupt, con artists. Lankans prefer family kleptocracy / dynasty and hence elected Senanayakas, Bandas, uncle / nephew, Premas, Rajapaksas . . . . . . . Lankan definition of democrazy is ” rule of the wealthy / politicians, by the wealthy / politicians, for the wealthy / politicians. Now we have one third of country’s income going to wealthiest 1 % , mostly represented by families, friends and acolytes of those 225 law breakers, leaving less than 4 % to bottom 50 % population who are happy to elect such crooks. Socialism at it’s best.

  • 4

    No System is going to change the performance until there is an attitudinal change.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.