30 May, 2024


Choices: How Should We Govern Ourselves?

By Rohan Samarajiva

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

This central question of civilization has assumed greater salience in the aftermath of the Presidential Election of 8 January 2015. This article seeks to shed a little light upon it, with aid of illustrations from recent Constitutional-reform efforts.

Autocracy or democracy?

Two hundred years after the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom, we carry within us thinking from that decadent feudal time. We yearn for a benevolent king who will be decisive and fair, but do not grasp what is required to assure continued benevolence. We do not buy into the concept of checks and balances among clearly defined branches of government. The Kandyan political culture did not separate the executive and legislative functions and while some judicial functions were separate, the lines were porous.

Like the Kings of old, some of our leaders fail to distinguish between what belongs to the state and what belongs to them. They scheme to work around them what checks and balances that exist.

In January, the choice was made in favor of democracy and governance concepts that are alien to our inherited Kandyan political culture. We have been engaged with the modern world long enough for this to happen, but all signs in the past twenty years were against it. But the shift was not irreversible; the tension between the old feudal culture and modern democratic culture persists.

Decisive or messy?

Separation of powers, along with checks and balances, is messy. Outcomes cannot be predicted in advance. The President of the United States is seen as the most powerful person in the world today, but in many instances he is stymied either by the legislature, by the courts or even by lower-level state governments.

MaithripalaOur current President appears comfortable with the notion that he cannot determine the outcomes of all political events. He leaves room for the agency of other members of his coalition as well as his party. To many, this appears a lack of leadership. They cannot understand how the President could be deeply committed to electoral reform without specifying the exact outcome he desires.

The present time is an interregnum. A President who intended to retain untrammeled power for life and hand it over through primogeniture was dethroned. A legislature that was shaped to be in the service of the all-powerful Presidency continued and found itself at the center of political action, especially because the new President chose not to dissolve it and indeed to rely on it for Constitutional reforms. By voluntarily shortening his term and by announcing he will not run for a second term, the President deprived himself of the support of conventional politicians who do not see him as a stable platform for their ambitions. The messiness of decision-making is exacerbated under these conditions.

Well-considered versus hurried?

Some consider the recent Constitution-making to be too hurried. Let us take the case of the 20th Amendment, admittedly one of the most complex Constitutional reforms.

The first-past-the-post (FPP) system bequeathed by the British and still in use in the UK is the simplest of electoral systems; it can be explained in one sentence. It is also one of the most primitive. At the recent UK election, a party that gained 3.8 million votes obtained only one seat in Parliament while another which attracted 1.5 million votes obtained 56 seats.

The district-based proportional representation (PR) system introduced in 1978 and subsequently modified to accommodate a national list, a lower threshold for gaining a seat, and preferential voting was advanced. But it was complicated. It is testimony to the intelligence of our people that they managed to not only understand it, but also bend it to various purposes. Some of these unintended consequences were de facto immunity for election-law violations and internecine violence.

From 1996 or even earlier, there has been considerable discussion among political parties and experts on how these flaws could be remedied without going back to the FPP system or the original PR system adopted in 1978. But nineteen years of talking has not produced any result. Laws are flouted, violence rules and wrong people enter Parliament.

Electoral-system reforms are among the most difficult to enact. It is difficult to assuage the concerns, some real and some perceived, of all political parties. Its passage requires a two-thirds majority from among those who were elected under the old system and who, therefore, were beneficiaries of the old system. Not obtaining the consent of small parties would imperil the legitimacy of the reform.

That both principal candidates at the 2015 Presidential Election committed to electoral reform, in particular to end preferential voting, created a unique opportunity to implement the reforms. The self-imposed 100-day deadline of the victorious contender made the likelihood of enactment stronger.

If one focuses solely on the post-January period, it may appear that reforms are being rushed and that consultation is inadequate. But why ignore the plethora of workshops, hearings and consultations that occurred in the previous 19 years?

In an ideal world, laws will be enacted when all studies and consultative processes have been duly completed. But anyone who examines how major reforms get done would see that they occur within various “policy windows,” some which can be foreseen (such as the first 100 days of a new government) and some which cannot (such as a political or economic crisis). It is the responsibility of political leaders and well-meaning experts to keep developing a stock of policy, legislative or Constitutional options to be drawn upon when windows of opportunity open.

It is unrealistic to demand that all the details of the policy, legislative or Constitutional options be fully worked up starting with the opening of the window of opportunity. Those who so demand are either ignorant of how the political process works or are seeking to stall reforms. Slowing down the process will result in the failure of reforms because windows of opportunity do not remain open for ever. The present window should have closed on the 23rd of April. It was extended by the President who well understood electoral-system reforms are unlikely without time pressure.

Direct or representative democracy?

The 1978 Constitution included many surprisingly progressive elements including justiciable fundamental rights, some checks and balances, an advanced electoral system and even enshrinement of referendum provisions. The current demands for a referendum to ensure the participation of the people in electoral-system reforms illustrate well the pros and cons of direct democracy.

The argument is straightforward. Electoral-system reform necessarily affects the rights of the people. Those entitled to decide on the reforms should not be limited to political parties purporting to represent the people. The people themselves must participate in the reform because their sovereignty is exercised through elections and because political parties’ interests in this regard diverge from those of the people they represent.

But it also fundamentally misleading. From Sri Lanka’s own experience with referenda and from the experience of other countries, it is evident that a referendum is a highly constrained form of citizen participation. It is simply the giving of a yes or no answer to a question carefully negotiated by those in positions of political authority. It is more theater than democracy.

It is disingenuous to equate a referendum with genuine political participation. Few, if any, significant policy, legislative or Constitutional issues can be reduced to simple yes/no questions.

For example, what is best served by asking the people whether they want preferential voting or not. Does it specify what the alternative would be? Perhaps we could ask a more complex question such as “Should preferential voting be replaced by closed party-list nominations or by a hybrid system that allows for some electorate-based representation through FPP as well?” Can most voters understand this question? Does it not exclude the option of staying with the familiar preferential voting system? And even if this question was satisfactorily answered, would it not leave a whole host of details to be worked out outside the realm of direct democracy including the conditions that could be attached to closed party lists or the mechanics of combining FPP and PR?

If we are to follow the logic of direct democracy, we would need not one referendum, but a series of referenda culminating in a yes/no vote on the final worked-up text. Is this realistic? Do we, as citizens not have other demands on our time such as making a living and bringing up our children? Even if we were to participate in direct democracy ritualistically, they would be a considerable burden. But if we were to behave as dutiful citizens and make the effort to understand all the public-policy issues that we have to decide on, we would have no time left for anything else.

Representative democracy underpinned by a well-functioning bureaucracy and a robust public consultation process that would permit input by relevant, specialized interest groups is the best possible option. Churchill was right to say it is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Good points Prof.!

    Question is: why is President Sirisena talking with the corrupt and criminal Mahinda Jarapassa and his cronies, rather than ignore Jarapassa and the corrupt SLFP-UPFA that surround him.

    The best outcome of the general election would be for UNP to form a minority government with the Sirisena SLFP group, so that Ranil Wickramasinghe and his corrupt clowns, Ravi Karu could be kept in check and Arjuna Mahndran the corrupt head of CB fired.

    Civil society in Lanka seems to have gone to sleep now. Civil society needs to pressure both the UNP and SLFP and all parties to give nominations to 1. Women and YOUNGER GENERATION and clean non-corrupt invividuals 2. Carry out voter education campaign to tell voters to vote for women, young non corrupt representatives and clean out the filth old lot that now runs the Diyawenna Parliament of corrupt and uneducated criminals, morons, and clowns..

    • 0

      Dinuk, you are quite right. There are some things that we have to do.

      As for Maithripala talking to the Rajapaksas, that may be a strategic ploy. A politician has to be shrewd; if he is successful, we may later recognise statesmanship.

  • 0

    Dr. Samarajiva you are rather off the mark here. Even the most perfectly DESIGNED Democracy will not work in Sri Lanka because the POLITICAL CULTURE is rotten to the core with the current GENERATION OF POLITICIANS being the worst. They switch parties and cross the floor for the highest bidder and have NO principals. This cross over culture must be ENDED, and there needs to be a cap on election spending and all politicians contesting elections must be required to fully disclose their assets.

    This current generation of politicians who are epitomized and led by Mahinda Jarapassa and Ranil Wickramasinghe, care only about their own personal power and are morally and intellectually bankrupt and have rotted the political culture for generations to come. The SLFP is full of corrupt clowns and the majority of them are with Mahinda Jarapassa.

    Our generation, your and mine Rohan, need to step up and aside and lead the way to clean up the corrupt parliament and its politicians, and push for reforms that will clean up the rotten political culture in Sri Lanka.

    • 2

      Before they became politicians they were normal people, therefore it is the people of this country who are rotten to the core.

      • 0

        Tungsan Yu

        “Before they became politicians they were normal people, therefore it is the people of this country who are rotten to the core.”

        The average IQ of those who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa is 65.

        Do you see support for your hypothesis below?

        National IQ Scores – Country Rankings


        ——– Country
        ———————– %
        1 Singapore 108
        2 South Korea 106
        3 Japan 105

        28 Sri Lanka 79
        28 Zambia 79

    • 0

      Don Stanley

      You have mentioned many valid points, but in order to clean up the corrupt parliament and to get rid of corrupt politicians, we cannot do that from out side, we will have to get into parliament to do so.
      But that is where the catch 22 situation comes into play,
      Will the electorate vote for those who have that agenda in mind and vote for them?
      It is easily said than done.So the only alternative available is to educate the electorate about the reasons for their suffering is due to their voting for corrupt politicians who give false promises by resorting to racial and religious differences and side tracking important issues which are common to all, and that takes time.
      As the author of this article has rightly observed, we are only ritualistically participating in a sort of so called democracy we must be ready to deal with public policy issues directly and for that there has to be many referendums conducted and that is impractical. Which is why that it is essential fora truly representative democracy a robust public consultation process supported by a competent incorruptible bureaucracy and a free and untrammelled media is essential.

  • 0

    Electoral reforms are stuck because Sri Lanka parliament full of looters – corrupt political clowns who are the RULING CASTE of the Sinhala Modayas. This is result of independence in 1948 in country of Sinhala Moda Democracy!

  • 4

    Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

    RE: Choices: How Should We Govern Ourselves?

    Choices: How Should We Govern Ourselves When the average IQ of the Country is 79, and the average IQ of the 5.8 Million who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa is 65.

    So most of them fall into the Fools, Idiots, Morons and Imbecile group.

    There was one former minister, MP who claimed 2/2 =0, known as wimal Modawansa.

    So MaRa MaRa Chatu MaRa Amana MaRa has plenty to pick from and deceive..

  • 3

    President Sirisena has neither the political clout nor the political will necessary to clean the stable. Yet, he has his own ambition.

    His ambition is so ridiculous. He wants to leave his name, not a legacy, behind.

    That craze has overshadowed his good intentions. A name is gained only when a legacy is left behind.

    His successes are only partial. No proposal of his has been received in-toto.

    19A was a pruned version of the statute intended. The Legislative, the Executive, and the Judiciary branches of the govt. are still struggling to attain their separation of powers.

    ‘100 days’ had just turned out to be a slogan.

    Mahinda Rajapaksa is threatening with a comeback.

  • 1

    You see I have to mention these things below.
    Recently the University of Peradeniya graduates held an annual function in a city. Tamils graduates were not informed or invited.
    recently there was a RTA in which a Sri Lanka family was involved. a child died and the parents critically injured. They have no known friends or relatives in the city and no one to help them in their agony. some members of the majority community came to know about this case. Any how they passed the message to the minority community but they did not do more than this.
    What does this shows? How far Are we separated in minds and action? Are we amusing on each others’ suffering ? is this realistic as told by JRJ.
    So who is separating whom? As we are concerned to each other don’t we have human sympathy to each other community. Still base our concept and love on epic Gamunu and mahanama stories?

  • 1

    “How should we govern ourselves” Leave it to the people to decide for themselves how they should be governed. The Sinhalese would like to govern themselves, the Tamils wants to govern themselves and not being a second class citizens, Muslims, of course, like to be governed.

  • 1

    So called pundits may debate forever on how to hammer a nail into a wall with various theoretical arguments about angles, force, power, thickness of the wall, surface size of the nail head and tha hammer etc etc. but an experience carpenter who has no theoretical knowledge at all can do it in a New York minute.

    Our academics waste a lot of ink as well as time on pointless theoretical rhetoric that serves no purpose except to generates more pointless theoretical rubbish in the form of comments from equally clueless folks who harbor a need to show off their expertise on the subject too.

    What we need is not loads of theoretical arguments about the method of governing etc., but just a guy with demonstrated skills and ability to do the job of governing the country.

  • 0

    Direct democracy is not necessarily better. If the people cant exercise better judgment then how can we expect them to decide on complex issues of policy. The virtue of democracy is not that the people know better but that they know where the shoe pinches. So they should be given the power of veto- that and that alone is what the people are capable of and they should not be entrusted with any form of democracy. The Athenians who introduced to the world realized soon that democracy meant the selection of rabble rousers to govern them. So the Athenians exiled them.See the damage done in or democracy by rabble rousers since 1956. It is necessary to take some things out of the purview of politicians altogether as the Founding Fathers of American democracy did.

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