Colombo Telegraph

Are We A Dysfunctional Democracy?

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

The media and politicians regularly include “Democracy” in their speeches and writings. This is to be expected in a country that titles itself as a “Democratic Socialist Republic”. This is negated by a perceived dominance of undemocratic and anti-socialist actions and desires. In the popular perception, the words that spring to mind as symbols of democracy are “The Franchise” and “Political Parties”. Both are misleading as criteria of democracy. It has been said that in Democracy your vote counts, whereas in Feudalism your Count votes.   

Much has been written about the absurdities that manifest in the guise of democracy. Two stand out. “Democracy ensures the right of jackals to elect jackasses to Parliament” and “Democracy is based on the myth that the franchise would transform the ignorance of the many, into wisdom of a chosen few”. It is not hard to convince ourselves that democracy has terribly failed us. We have been comprehensively betrayed by almost all those who have (mis)-led us since Independence in 1948. There has been a progressive decline in quality and integrity of our representatives. Numbers however have increased and costs escalated dangerously. We could well be on the brink of becoming credit unworthy with tragic  consequences  for our country. The system has been designed to fail. Our democracy is bad but the alternative that threatens, is infinitely worse. Politicians, seriously deficient in morality, ability, sensitivity and education, strut menacingly in the corridors of Governance. With each successive election (of which we suffer a surfeit), standards plunge. Of all the Governments that we have had, The State Council was probably the best.  It had just 101 members and a Cabinet of some 14 Ministers. The country was held as a model for those recently liberated countries. By 1959 it had grown to 157 Members, then to 168 ( in 1976) and  which grew to the present abomination of 225. The Ministries, has grown from 14 to a number of more than a hundred-  a number that seems to expand by the week and we do not know  the number which may exist by tomorrow . To make matters worse, the white elephant of the Provincial Councils have only served as schools for scoundrels by grooming then for greater things to come. Hooliganism and profanities have taken the place of useful and civilized debate. Those who watch the News Bulletins would be appalled by the proceedings at these assemblies and the neglect of rural facilities which was one of the reasons for their creation. Nothing of the sort has happened. Yet another costly gimmick, typified by the Hoaxwagen fiasco. An alarming feature is that despite their redundancy, these  “Ussawas” must cost a fortune in travel costs and the inane  performances of dancing girls, lighting oil lamps and the distributing of appointments and promotion letters – that could easily be done by post.  Particularly amusing to me is the oft repeated “Janatha  Aithiyata Pawareema” , when the darned thing was paid for by the “Janathawa”  themselves!. 

The “Amathi saha manthriwaru Visala Gananak Pemina Sitiya” tells me that they must have very little time to spend doing what they are paid for and expected to do. Add the time spent on Overseas jaunts and it explains why Parliamentary proceedings are so poorly attended (especially after a sumptuous lunch at the tax-payer’s cost).

But I digress !    

The Franchise

When complaints are voiced about the performance of politicians we are told  “Well it is all your fault for voting in unsuitable persons”. This is grossly insulting when the mechanics of the process are examined. The nominations are usually in the hands of the leadership who pick those who will be most useful to them if elected.  Ability, education and integrity are rarely among the criteria. Small wonder that the products are far removed from what the voters desire .The elections are therefore a sham, and the voters have a limited choice of picking “the least worst” on offer. Then there is the matter of campaigning. Why should there be massive expenses by contestants? The accounts  are unknown, undisclosed and un-audited Only rarely (in the Sil Redi and Galvanised  roofing sheets, does the public hear). Cash, bus rides, tee shirts and caps, buth packets and booze are the stuff of our “democracy”. Others might call it “democracy” but in my book, it is naked bribery. Election expenses are therefore an investment for future pillage. Gone are days when service to the public was the goal. Today, very few decent and respected gentlemen are prepared to dive in to the cesspit that is our Parliament – despite its plush carpets, subsidized feasts, car permits, limitless jaunts and pensions, and many more aberrations. I therefore conclude that Franchise in practice is nothing more than a cruel hoax. Most distressing is the fact that the few who are exceptions do not do enough to stop this hooliganism.

The Party System 

  Our system claims to follow the UK and US. This is dominated by two political parties – Labour and Conservative in the UK and Republicans and Democrats in the US. The equivalents for us are the UNP and SLFP with smaller representation by frequently inconsistent and fluid numbers. This is through changing alignments and frequent cross-overs. The latter are very rare in the UK and USA and instead marked by resignations in the event of serious disagreement. In Sri Lanka, we indulge in Horse Trading instead.

It seems natural to ask the question whether parties are really necessary. The usual answer is that differences in “policy” requires this. Called upon to define what makes this “policy” leads to discomfiture. Since all parties promise to eliminate poverty, ensure growth, guarantee relief from unemployment, assist farmers, foster self- sufficiency in food, enhance trade,  health and education , ensure Law and Order, protect the environment and provide other goodies, one is at a loss to see a real need for “Parties” (in the political sense) of course.

After seventy years of operation, even the most committed must see that the system has failed. One needs only to watch TV News to see depressing instances where officialdom has failed. A much touted justification of the so-called “devolution” is not borne out by the facts.  

There is a disturbing likelihood that the peoples’ continuing frustration might well lead to self-destructive violence. The endless stream of strikes, go-slows and road blockages is worrying as precursors of impending trouble. The normally docile and patient rural sector is in apparent revolt. Several movements such as the “Gam Udawa” and “Gamperaliya” are attracting attention as alternatives to a negligent State sector. The President, the other day lamented that the media only dwell upon shortcomings while ignoring the achievements of the Government. But is it not the case in all democracies that the media is critical of governments? The rural voter is more concerned with water, fertilizer and markets for his produce and infrastructure than grand promises of Constitutional reform or “Belt and Road Initiatives”. He sees his Parliamentary representative as only a pre-election visitor. When the rarely seen MP makes his grand entry in the most extravagant and recent model of car, memories flash to the time when he was plainly one of them.

One of the gravest errors of the electorate is to think of the UNP and SLFP as the major political opponents, aided and abetted by a changing play of minor parties, offering their allegiance to the highest bidder. To me, it has always been clear that the real contending sides are Politicians (of all stripes) versus the People. All else is make- believe play acting. Every happening in the political arena is easily understandable within this paradigm. Think for a moment and survey the scene around, and this fundamental proposition will come into focus as a reality.

The Pohottuwa’s blinkered vision sees hope only in the Rajapaksas – if not Mahinda, Gotabaya? Why not Basil? There is also Chamal as an option – whoever to hold the fort until Namal emerges from political adolescence !

Meanwhile, the game continues. The well-worn technique, that has proven its utility, is to allow scandal to follow scandal – the layering ensuring that each will be covered in turn. Add to this the memory span, so astutely seen by Prabhakaran (a superlative villain) who estimated it as a fortnight, will ensure that history merely repeats itself ! 

It seems as if the political fraternity in our country is hell bent on a ghoulish project to grind the economy into the dust. The obscenity of the manner in which the country was plundered to satisfy an insatiable appetite as witnessed in the ridiculously inflated bonanzas of a myriad emoluments and allowances of every conceivable type was capped by an “electoral allowance” of Rs 100,000/= every month to 225 MP’s and the reckless grant of a blanket monthly increase of Rs 10,000/= to all of the million or more Public Servants. Would any government in its right mind endorse this kind of extravagance and profligacy? Why this apparent  anger against the exchequer and the hapless taxpayer? Is there an evil urge to drive our country into bankcruptcy? Or have we incurred some divine wrath to visit insanity upon us as a prelude to destruction ? 

No one to my knowledge has had the enterprise (and courage) to compile the “Cost of Politics”. A small indicator was the disclosure in Parliament that The President (MR) was costing thirty million per day (that is 30,000,000/=) .  This is only the direct voted cost. Add the indirect ones  – foreign travel, administrative mis-judgments, graft and profligacy, and it gets a lot worse. Such super costs demand superlative performance  which emphatically is not. It is probable that the situation can only get worse. 

The thinking public needs no persuasion to agree that the 70-year experiment with our brand of democracy has failed. It is clearly the time for change. The existing political establishment has so debased and devalued itself , that the populace more than ever before, may be ready for a bold experiment. There is a U-tube doing the rounds, of a retired Indian Superior Courts judge who recommends that the whole Lok Sabha be hanged ! This maybe going a bit too far – in our society which cannot agree that even unrepentant Drug Mafia Kingpins should suffer capital punishment.

But in our ocean of despair, I see the faint outlines of an island. We are finally zeroing in on the notion that “Politics is too important to be left in the hands of Politicians”. I just do not accept that we are lacking in talent. In fact, all our dispensations have shown a spectacular deficit. So, a clean sweep and no less is urgently needed. There are figures emerging that are unquestionably far and far removed from the present cesspool. Men (and women) who hold promise of excellence do abound. Unfortunately the obscene misuse of the Nominated Member provision, have kept such persons in the shadows. There has probably not been any more propitious time for them to emerge. 

The only argument with some semblance of validity, is that they lack “experience” in State-craft. This is palpably nonsensical on many grounds. I ask, what experience? – dishonesty, corruption, lack of principle, venality, nepotism, incompetence, inconsistency, bribery, dereliction of duty, waywardness, and much more? If only the talent that they have shown in their chosen fields can be moulded into different needs – there could be hope. I can think of examples of persons who could comfortably adorn every political office much more ably than any who have gone before. A Cabinet of a dozen for example, is there for the asking.

The only question is, will we dare. The futures of our nation and our successors are in dread jeopardy. We, as a Nation have no choice – try or perish.  

*Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda, former Ambassador to Italy

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