By Kumar David –
The United States prides itself as the longest continuous constitutional democracy though the Brits, home of the mother of parliaments, may demur. The written document apart, US pride must be tempered by the unfortunate truth that enforcement of the right to vote by blacks became reality only after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Squabbling with the Brits aside, the American Constitution enshrines the separation of powers, Presidential term limits, checks and balances, and most important, accountability and answerability to the people. A hyperactive media both helps and confounds the processes of American democracy.
Comparatively, it’s bloody chaos in Lanka. The awful JR-Constitution must to be discarded and the depraved Executive Presidency (EP) abolished. EP would be long gone but for Mahinda Rajapakse’s greed for power and the droppings there from that his siblings gorge on. Public distaste is growing and Rajapakse covetousness and public anger will collide. Then it is EP that will be flushed down the WC. Sobitha and the UNP have proposed drafts – fairly good and with considerable overlap – Chandrika is said to have called on Sobitha Thero; presidency and constitution surely were on the agenda, I doubt she was seeking guidance on chastity, abstinence and the Dhamma. Since we have to discard our constitution, deadlock in the US that has shut the government down, is worth exploring. (Currently there are 9 presidencies with over 20 years grip on power in Africa, another 6 of over 10 years duration; these ogres no doubt are Rajapakses exemplars).
The Mad-Hatter’s Tea Party
Neither the Constitution nor the doctrine of separation of powers is to blame if Mad-Hatters take over Congress and prance in bibs spilling scalding hot folly all over. The blame falls on voters in 50 US congressional districts who chose these tenderfoots, now holding the Republican Party and House Speaker John Boehner hostage. The 2012 elections did a funny thing; America re-elected a black president of liberal bent, but in fear it had gone too far (racism is not far below the surface in some Americans and liberalism is only a shade less awful than card-carrying communism) it corrected itself by inserting 50 unmitigated loonies called the Tea Party caucus into the 435 member House of Representatives; the ‘lower house’. In a European country with a managed institutional system, these fruitcakes would be confined at public cost, medicated, and cared for.
There are five Tea Loonies in the 100 member Senate (upper house) but they do less damage as they are unable to hold Republican Senate leaders hostage. Though there are 230 Republicans in the House, the Tea Party Mad-Hatters call the tune because Speaker Boehner and GOP leaders run scared of those who, in any other country, will be dismissed as extremists. Boehner is terrified that the Hatters could back a challenger and he could lose his Speaker’s job. The Hatters refuse to pass the budget unless heath-care is excluded. An even worse cataclysm looms if the US debt ceiling is not raised by Congress by 17 October. An American default on national and international obligations is unthinkable as it will throw pension and social security funds, local and global markets and the global financial system into panic. This is infinitely more perilous than the on-going government shut down. At the time of writing (15 Oct) the Mad Hatters are driving America ever closer to the cliff, for the same reason as they are blocking the budget, but a tidal wave of public anger is also mounting.
The Montesquieu (1689-1755) principle of separation of powers, as carried into the American Constitution, is that money is doled out by the people’s elected representatives in Congress. Till Congress approves a budget the Executive’s (President’s) pockets are empty. There are non-discretionary provisions by which the armed forces, judiciary, essential services and Congress members (sic), get paid. For others it is furlough (compulsory leave) or no-pay work (payment deferred till government reopens for business). In a parliamentary system, if the budget is rejected, the government simply falls. Government shut down has happened 17 times previously in the US, the longest in 1996 for 26 days till President Clinton forced a Republican climb down.
This time it is different; the American jihaddists are in control. They are not in a budget battle, they do not want some expenditure or revenue proposal modified; they are fighting an ideological battle, like all jihaddists, and public opinion matters little. Islamic fundamentalists will not settle for concessions and compromises, they are in it for the long haul; an Islamic state, sharia law and the Caliphate (world Islamic government). The Tea Party demands that Obamacare (now law) be scuttled; but this cannot be done except by legislation to repeal previous enactments. This, the Tea Party caucus is powerless to carry through; hence the objective is premeditated deadlock to turn the Obama Presidency into an ungovernable USA. Their true motive is “to get this bloody black out of the White House”. This is a dreadful example for Lanka where partisan politics is more vicious.
No to Executive Presidency for SL
America is a sophisticated polity; its democratic traditions deeper than Lanka (so are its capitalist provenances). If Montesquieu’s and the Founding Father’s separation of powers doctrine could end in such deadlock there, imagine what could happen in a narrow minded polity if president and parliament were from different parties. Remember Chandrika and the UNP government of the early 2000s? An Executive Presidency does not suit this country not only because it is a font of corruption, dynastic ambitions, and power abuse, but also because, as a scheme of government, it is unworkable here. (For a substantive discussion see “Executive Presidency: A Left Perspective” by Jayampathy Wickremaratne, forthcoming CPA publication edited by Asanga Welikala). Good government needs leadership, wins trust and manages the bureaucracy; it evokes confidence in all classes and social groups. Bad regimes undermine trust and corrode democracy; enter Lanka’s presidencies, particularly the present one.
Democracy is a way of muddling on and muddling through; it is preferred because autocracy is oppressive and conflicts lead to bloodshed and gigantic overturns whereas democracy would have groped through. Contrasts are many; Pakistan versus India, Indonesia before and after Sukrano’s overthrow, Egypt today versus a few months ago, Tiananmen Square versus the easing of tensions in Brazil in June. Hence there is no argument in Lanka about democracy; it is about the model. Lanka’s feasible options are between a presidential system, modified to make it intelligent (US or French are the paradigms), or a parliamentary system a la Westminster, fine tuned by local experiences and conditions. There are four modifications to the traditional Westminster model that are necessary.
a) The number of Cabinet Ministers must be limited. Rajapakse experience shows that putting every available joker in the Cabinet is corrosive, buttresses greed and destroys democratic governance. (An added advantage is that it will keep out wankers like Mervyn, drooling over visions of Navi Pillai in a string bikini).
b) Lanka needs an Upper House, but not akin to the hereditary Lords in the UK. It should be elected; say two per district. And empowered to block unsavoury constitutional amendments and protect minorities. There could be provision for the prime minister to appoint a person or two to the Upper House, specifically for inclusion in Cabinet. A Cabinet drawn entirely form yakos in the Lower House will have yawning intellectual gaps.
c) The US committee system monitors efficacy, probes motives, and checks abuses. A committee system was part of the Donoughmore Constitution and worked well in smoothing over partisanship. It is much to be desired, though it will take designing to fit a parliamentary system where Ministers sit in the House, unlike in the US.
d) Asymmetrical devolution and power sharing with the North-East must be included.
Deficits of modern democracy
Though I am contend to go along with the quip attributed to Churchill that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others, we must mull over internal threats to democracy in modern times. I say internal, to underline that I am not referring to extremism, jihadism, fascism, or such external threats, but rather instability within the system itself; the democracy deficit in America that I discussed above is an example. Hitler was elected in 1933 to the chancellorship because of excruciating internal political breakdown. In the last 6 weeks two alarm bells have gone off. The Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party launched a thinly veiled defiance of legality; when its leaders were arrested there were mass demonstrations in their support. Second, the xenophobic-extremist Freedom Party (FPO) polled 21% in Austrian elections. Tea Party insanity is spreading to Europe.
The storyline is simple; calamitous economic crisis engenders shattering political instability. The breakdown of global capitalism as an economic order is igniting political commotion as never before seen since the end of the war. Let me close with a quote from a blog posted by Daniel Alport. (The URL is lengthy but a search by name will locate it).
“Policy makers fail to appreciate that the most formidable challenge today lies in the area outside the borders of any one nation or region, that multilateral action to address this challenge is more important than internal stimulus. Present-day economic imbalances, particularly those stemming from the rapid emergence of the post-socialist nations over the past 15 years, with their associated supply of excess labour, productive capacity, and capital, have hamstrung the economies of advanced nations. There is risk of unilateral or bilateral action being viewed by players left out as threatening, leading to countermeasures. The issue is compounded by the complexity of the relationship between developed nations and emerging ones”.
The death agony of global capitalism has put democracy, world-wide, at risk. The bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state are in extremis. The battle now is for peoples’ minds; the heart doesn’t matter too much. Popular democracy will have to intervene, at the ballot box and on the streets.
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