26 May, 2022


Constitution Making & Strengthening Horizontal Democracy – Part I

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

The force of free people resides in the municipality” – Alexis de Tocqueville

The move for making a New Constitution has opened up considerable opportunities to deepen democracy in the country, and the indications so far reveal that vibrant discussions are taking place at present, among civil society organizations and political activists, sponsored by the Public Representation Committee (PRC), on a range of issues dealing particularly with (1) the local government system, (2) the creation of possible village/local level organizations, and (3) on how to encourage people’s participation in decision making processes, among other matters.

To the credit of the PRC and the promoters of a New Constitution it should be stated that such broader discussions were not held, or could not be held, during the formulation of the First or the Second Republican Constitutions in 1972 and 1978, or the aborted draft constitution in 2000. Apart from the necessary constitutional requirement to have a national referendum to finally approve a New Constitution (Article 83), the nature of the political changes that took place last year (8 January and 17 August), and the democratic political forces behind them, seem to be the catalysts for what is going on in the form of broad political discussions.

This article argues that to deepen democracy in Sri Lanka, or any country for that matter, measures need to be taken both horizontally and vertically. If provincial councils could be the main mechanisms through which democracy could be expanded horizontally, local governments constitute the potential of strengthening democracy both horizontally and vertically.

The Concept

Horizontal democracy is conceptualized by political scientists and others in different ways at different times. It is usually considered as opposite or different to vertical democracy. ‘Different’ may be the case, but ‘opposite’ is an overstatement. There is no system completely vertical or completely horizontal. The right combination of both might be the best for any country.

In the evolution or development of democracy, there is a natural requirement to move away from a single (top down or bottom up) vertical structure towards more and more horizontal structures and practices. Representative democracy requires multiple formations and institutions created on the spatial scale. In the case of Sri Lanka, the provincial councils and local governments are the main formal institutions of horizontal democracy and from time to time the organizations or concepts such as ‘Gramodaya Mandala’ (village awakening councils), ‘Jana Sabha’ (people’s councils) and now ‘Grama Sabha’ have been mooted for the same purposes.

Vertical versus horizontal modularity in political science is largely analogous to the same debates in cognitive science (about the mind and its processes) as S. L. Hurley initially explained in 1999, writing to the “Journal of Political Philosophy.” The full title of the article is “Rationality, democracy and leaky boundaries: Vertical vs. horizontal modularity,” for the benefit of anyone interested in reading. For a long time, there was a strong belief that ‘rationality of mind’ is a product of vertical cognition. Likewise political philosophers believed that the only rational system of democracy is a vertically designed single structure of democracy. The British Utilitarianism (i.e. Jeremy Bentham) was a high point in this belief in political philosophy.

In an extreme version of this belief, even ‘checks and balances’ were rejected or discarded as irrational. In the case of Sri Lanka, the strongest reflection of this vertical thinking was embodied in the 1972 Constitution, and then continued in the 1978, until the 13th Amendment came in. In the 1972 Constitution, checks and balances were minimized and unicameral legislature with the concept of ‘supremacy of parliament’ was instituted. It was a unitary state par excellence. It was also the opposite of liberal constitutionalism.

In modern cognitive science, however, rationality of mind is not considered purely based on vertical modularity. It can depend on horizontal modularity as well. People may depend on lateral or parallel ways of reasoning to arrive at rational decisions and solutions to problems that they encounter. The concept of ‘lateral thinking’ developed by Edward de Bono has been a recognition of this understanding. It allows people to think ‘out of the box’ in finding solutions to their seemingly intractable problems.

In the same manner, there is the possibility of designing political structures to address complex social, economic, cultural and political problems through lateral or horizontal institutions. This means that within an overall ‘pyramid,’ installing smaller pyramids to countervail the authoritarian tendencies of otherwise a centralized structure. Any representative democracy takes the form of a pyramid. However, the smaller pyramids are much closer to the people; to their needs and aspirations. This has always been the case in history, although the strict Westphalian form of the state in the past period has kept a tight lid on the possibility until recently.

Some Roots

In political practice, the existence of horizontal structures or demand for them has always been the case even before the advent of modern democracy. The ancient political systems in many Asian countries including Sri Lanka were systems of ‘Mandala,’ which consisted of a ‘Manda’ (a Centre) and a ‘La’ (a Periphery). The ‘La’ was equally important as the ‘Manda.’ ‘Panchayath’ in India, and ‘Gam Sabha’ (village councils) in Sri Lanka were the local varieties under this system.

During the English revolutions in the 17th century, there were strong demands for horizontal democracy. ‘Levelers’ and ‘Diggers’ were the main advocates of these demands. Thereafter, the ‘Chartists’ carried forward these demands into the 19th century. The development of British ‘County Councils’ was greatly shaped by these movements and in turn influenced the local government system installed in Sri Lanka. What can be seen in the present system in Sri Lanka is the congruence between the ancient tradition and the British influence.

There were radical roots for the demand for more grassroots forms of horizontal democracy. Apart from the emergence of spontaneous people’s councils in the American, the French or the Russian revolutions, Hannah Ardent has conceptualized a ‘council system’ based particularly on the experiences of the democracy movements that emerged in the Eastern European countries against totalitarianism. She first developed the idea in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1958) and then elaborated the concept in her “On Revolution” (1963), particularly in the last chapter. This is what she said initially.

“In Hungary, we have seen the simultaneous setting-up of all kinds of councils, each of them corresponding to a previous existing group in which people habitually lived together or met regularly and knew each other. Thus the neighborhood councils emerged from sheer living together and grew into county and other territorial councils….”

Leslie Goonewardene of the LSSP was one who advocated such structures for Sri Lanka particularly in the late 1970s (i.e. “A New Road is Needed”).

There were/are more militant (or extremist) versions of the thinking however. In recent times in the international arena, the term ‘horizontal democracy’ has surfaced in another meaning, more of political than institutional. It has been a popular slogan in the recent waves of democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (the ‘Arab Springs’). For example, a leader of the Tunisian uprising, Yassine Brahim (now a Minister!), had said “We don’t need a charismatic leader. This is horizontal democracy. We are going to leverage social media to build horizontal democracy rather than a vertical democracy.” According to him, the social media is supposedly playing a role in horizontal democracy movements.

This sentiment has again and again resonated in other countries which took to the path of democratization or chaos. It could only be understood as reactive to a situation where the existing system was highly centralized and strictly vertical. Thus a more moderate view on horizontal democracy is necessary in my opinion.

Useful Principles

There are two main principles which are usually discussed and/or used in strengthening horizontal democracy. The first is devolution of power which we are familiar with. This means the relocation or transfer of (some) powers to a second tier of governmental institutions through the constitution. It can also go to a third tier. Depending on the amount of power allocation, degree of financial independence and more importantly the constitutional safeguards, the devolution of power can come closer even to federalism.

The second is the principle of subsidiarity which we are not very familiar with or often misunderstood. In its pure form, this is a radical principle which gives primacy to the lowest level of governing institutions i.e. local government. Tocqueville’s saying “the force of free people resides in the municipality” is often quoted as its explication. The principle says that ‘whatever the local government can handle should be left with the local government system.’ And only the rest should go to the provinces, and so on.

It may be true that within a context of constitutional making in Sri Lanka, at present, the subsidiarity principle might not be practical in its full sense. However, it can be kept in mind (or used) both in allocating powers to the provincial councils and local government institutions, however realistically assessing their capacities and other consequences.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Laksiri Fernando

    Please read “The Clause On Buddhism In The Constitution Should Not Be Changed – Lakshman Seneviratne By Camelia Nathaniel which was published in The Sunday Leader, 07/02/2016.

    Lakshman Seneviratne he is reported to have said that “the clause on Buddhism in the Constitution should not be changed adding that this is the only country for Sinhalese Buddhists.”

    I have been trying to understand the meaning of Sinhala Buddhists. Is it a religion (cult), is it a race, is it an economic community, is it an irrational minority, is it a community of fourth gender, is it a imagined community, is it a fantastically fine place to hide crooks, …. and why the state mostly controlled and run by a corrupted clique should be given the power to protect Buddha’s teaching?

    Isn’t it the people’s responsibility to preserve what they believe in and not the crooks and the kings who used Sinhala/Buddhism to benefit a small clique, including the caste ridden Sangha?

    Could you shed some light on or deconstruct “Sinhala Buddhists”.

    I say to Lakshman Seneviratne hands off Buddha’s teaching. If anything I would ask him to adhere to what Buddha taught and live by it, renounce power, retire from politics, be a good man, a good Buddhist and be a good Sinhalese.

    • 3


      It is ‘ Human Spongiform Encephalomalacia,- Mad Man Disease-, for which there is no cure! Dr.Rajasingham Narebdran

      • 2

        [Edited out]

      • 2

        Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

        did you hear what MR said recently about the Tamil anthem? He was surprised at first and said this move had created a problem where none existed.

        Please read excerpt:

        National Anthem sung in Tamil: MR expresses surprise

        Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed surprise about the National Anthem being sung in Tamil during the Independence Day celebrations on February 4.

        He said this was something no one had expected.

        Rajapaksa said that by doing so, those who decided on the move have created a problem where none existed. w

        Speaking at a public event in Polpithigama, Kurunegala, he said feelings of animosity could surface by forcing something on the people which they had never requested. He said several Tamil and Muslim politicians had called him and criticised the move describing it as one which could create unnecessary problems. Making a scathing attack on the government, Rajapaksa noted that the people who elected the present rulers were in a state of despair as they have failed to deliver in all fronts.

        He said development initiatives which were ushered during his tenure have now come to a halt.

        Rajapaksa also denied various charges of misconduct against him and his family and identified them as efforts of a continuing political witch-hunt.



        • 2


          Yes, I read it. These are rantings of a frustrated and cornered man. How can he accept something he himself connived to enforce? He is yet sane enough to make sure that he does not contradict himself! He is yet the megaphone for the rotters who brought him to where he is now.


    • 4


      It is ‘ Human Spongiform Encephalomalacia,- Mad Man Disease-, for which there is no cure!

      Dr.Rajasingham Narebdran

    • 3

      My view is that there is no hope for Sri Lanka if she were to retain the Buddhist clause in the constitution! People cannot be equal in real sense if this disparity is maintained.

      Making Sri Lanka a secular country should be the drive when designing the new constitution. If this issue is fudged somewhat, there will be no peace no matter how well it is embellished with attractive window dressings. I am concerned that the present government has not endeavoured to educate the Sinhala public about the values of Secularism within multi-faith Sri Lanka.

  • 6

    After visiting a few very poor villages, that are not in the radar of polticians, are also exploited by the high and mightyand ignored by officialdom, I am convinced devolution must filter down to the villages in meaningful manner. The villagers must be empowered. The concept of cluster of villages, promoted by this government is insufficient. Every village has to have a community council, a police post, a grama sevaka, a village development officer and a agricultural officer. The Community Council should be empowered to propose projects for their village , which when properly evaluated and approved at the district level,should be allocated a budget. The implementation of these projects should be the responsibility of the GS, VDO and AO. The CC should be involved in the process.

    However, with greater devolution should come even greater evolution of financial control systems, which of course should not strangle progress. We should not make more rogues in the name of greater devolution.


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