Colombo Telegraph

Democracy In Sri Lanka And The Challenges We Have Faced

By Rajiva Wijesinha, MP –

Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha

I am grateful to the Pakistan Liberal Forum for having invited me to speak today at your seminar on Challenges for Democracy in the upcoming Elections. Though you have suggested I present a regional perspective, it would be more practical I think for me to talk about democracy in Sri Lanka and the challenges we have faced, which may perhaps have lessons for you in Pakistan too.

Sri Lanka has been a functioning democracy for 80 years now, with Universal Adult Franchise bestowed on us by the British in 1931. That they gave us a privilege you in the then united subcontinent did not receive for over a decade longer is not a tribute to us, but rather a function of our small size and the perception that, whatever happened, we would not be a threat to the Empire. We were given not only the opportunity to select a legislature, but also an approximation to Cabinet government with seven Ministers chosen from amongst the members of the Legislature. Needless to say, though, there were three appointed Ministers, for Law and Finance and what was termed Chief Secretary, while Defence and External Affairs were kept in the hands of the Governor.

We followed the classic Westminster model which, as you know, does not separate the Executive from the Legislature. All members of the Cabinet were chosen from the Legislature, but unlike in Britain this soon turned into membership of the Legislature being seen as the main qualification for becoming a Minister.  Ability was not considered important, and seniority seemed a sufficient claim.

There were a few exceptions, and I can also think of one case where a man of recognized ability was brought into a safe seat, a practice that the British had, so as to bring in people of talent. More importantly they also had a House of Lords to which proven talent could be introduced, which India for instance still continues with, in the form of the Rajya Sabha. As you know, several of the most distinguished Ministers in the Indian cabinet have not faced the hustings, but are in effect appointed.

Sri Lanka however had a Senate, which rapidly became a joke, since it was generally a tool for patronage rather than a repository of merit. It had just two Ministers, who rarely did credit to the administrations in which they functioned, and in the early seventies it was abolished. That was the time at which we introduced a new Constitution which emphatically bestowed all powers on Parliament, with a President appointed by the Prime Minister, instead of the Governor General we had previously had, who was of course chosen by the Prime Minister, but appointed by the Queen.

The new Constitution had been pledged in the manifesto of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its Communist allies who formed the 1970 government, but it seemed more urgent because of a youth insurrection that took place soon after that election. This indicated the frustration young people felt about governments that did not seem to take their concerns into account.  Unfortunately the remedy was the classic response of radicals in that period, which was increasing centralized authority. The dominant view was that reform was essential, and to achieve this soon, the government needed more power.

That perspective also informed the government of J R Jayewardene which won the 1977 election. Though the platform was right wing, it was an authoritarian capitalism that he installed, with power being concentrated in the hands of an Executive President. However he ignored the logic of such a position, which he had claimed in his manifesto was necessary to promote efficiency. Though he had advocated a separation of powers, with a Cabinet removed from Parliament, he decided against this, and introduced a hybrid Constitution whereby the rest of the Cabinet had to be part of the legislature.

One consequence of this, even if it was not the reason for this inconsistency, was that it made his power over Parliament absolute. The leading figures of Parliament constituting the Executive meant that the oversight function of Parliament was observed in the breach. From that day on, the scrutiny that Parliament has engaged in has been minimal, and the Executive has had a free run for its money.

Jayewardene also introduced a few more measures that reduced the effectiveness of Parliament as a legislature and an oversight body. He decided that proportional representation was desirable, which was understandable in view of the lopsided majorities the first past the post system had engendered, in the context of a volatile electorate, with most seats being marginals. His first idea, of list based PR, where members were placed in order by the party, for which alone electors voted on a district basis, was abandoned when he found that those low down in the list would not work for the party since they had no hope of getting into Parliament.

He then introduced what was perhaps the most cynical innovation of a diabolical mind. He gave every voter, not just one preference (which might have made sense), but three, for which candidates on a party list had to compete. They were thus forced to publicize themselves over entire Districts to defeat others in their own party. The cost of elections became colossal, the violence that was engendered excessive.

As serious a consequence was the need after election to nurse a whole District. Ensuring popularity thus became the principal focus of a legislator, with the need to compete also against representatives of other bodies, Provincial Councils as well as local bodies, who could easily become threats if their work proved popular. Government indeed went so far as to introduce the concept of a decentralized budget, to bestow funds on Members to use in their electorates, but given that all Members in a District have to work in the whole District, the funds are inadequate and have to be supplemented.

Successive governments have talked about electoral reform, and all pay lip service to the German system, which mixes individual constituencies with a final result that is proportional, but change is not likely when it has to be passed by those who have got in through the current system. Perhaps simply reducing the preferences to one each, to enable Members to concentrate on the particular constituency which they are allocated, may prevent unhealthy rivalry. Thus also reducing excessive expenditure, that is populist rather than coherent, may help, but perhaps the rot has set in too deep for Parliamentarians to resume their principal role of legislators who monitor the financial outlay of government.

For legislation has indeed suffered as a result of this change in the role of the Parliamentarian. The committee stage of bills, where problems should be ironed out through discussion, hardly exists. The consultative committees which should formulate policy have turned into yet another forum for solving constituency problems. And there are of course far too many of these for there to be any coherent approach to problems of governance, since the number of Ministries has multiplied, given the assumption of all Members that they need an executive position in order to command the resources that will ensure continuing popularity.

Thus it is rare that ideas about governance come from Ministers. As part of the centralizing process, bills are developed centrally, when indeed there are bills. Over the last two and a half years, Parliament has spent its time approving regulations, in particular financial regulations, while legislative enactments have been few. Sadly, two of the most important measures government pledged in its manifesto, electoral reform and a compulsory pensions scheme, have been abandoned, because it became clear that there had not been sufficient consultation before the bills were presented. Especially important legislation to promote reforms in education seems likely to suffer the same fate.

I have highlighted the current problems because they made clear that power no longer lies in any sense with the legislature in Sri Lanka. While legislators have to be kept happy, because they can vote out a government, this is done by raising many of them to executive office while providing funds and job opportunities to enhance their electoral appeal, in a context in which that needs relentless shoring up.

The same goes for other layers of government. We set up Provincial Councils in 1987, but there too power has passed to the Provincial Ministers, or rather what power remained after the central government arrogated many functions to itself. Thus we had a situation where one Provincial legislature has had no quorum on I think 30 occasions, if I recollect aright what its Governor complained of. Of course in some areas statutes are made and the Council functions effectively, but given the limited powers it enjoys, and the ambiguities inherent in a failure to outline the distinction between National Policy – which remains with the Centre – and the instruments of implementation, which are with the Province, the scope for action is limited.

It is perhaps for this reason that the recent turnout at Provincial Council elections was so small. In a country which had traditionally enjoyed deep commitment to the electoral process, this suggests that the voter has realized that elections mean little. Of course I have no doubt that, in a national election, enthusiasm will return, especially if there is a possibility of a change of government. But for the moment I feel that democracy is seen as more cosmetic than a means by which people can exercise their power.

I should note that one reason for this is the absence of a vibrant opposition. Given the advantages of office, there is a tendency for politicians to gravitate towards government, and the present Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka has facilitated this by making it clear that reform or leadership change in his party will not be permitted. Unfortunately the clear legislative provisions against change of party allegiance have been subverted by courts that are more concerned with technicalities than justice. Since however Sri Lankan political parties have not been based on ideology, except for some broad characteristics that have become blurred following the conclusion of the Cold War, politicians have no reason not to switch party allegiance for purely practical considerations.

While I have presented a generally bleak picture of electoral politics in Sri Lanka, I should note that we have benefited from continuing democracy in a manner that only India in the subcontinent has enjoyed apart from us. India did have its Emergency and we suffered from a suspension of elections for six years in the eighties, but in both cases I believe the resistance has ensured that such excesses will not be repeated. Unfortunately, whereas in India the resistance was by Civil Society, in Sri Lanka it was spearheaded by yet another youth insurrection, and that may be a bad precedent in case things seem unbearable again. But for the moment all major parties agree that we must never seek to circumvent the electoral process in the future.

What we need to concentrate on then is to make this process more meaningful. I believe this will only be possible if we allow more space for elected officials at local levels whose responsibilities are clear, and who can be made accountable to the citizens they serve. Local government reform seems then a must, and may be the first step we must take to ensure responsive government, before going on to tackle larger questions of provincial powers and authority. After all, without only arguing about areas in which all stakeholders feel insecure, we could begin by empowering people in small units which are not seen as a threat by anyone. With strengthening of their capacities with regard to the few areas in which they now have powers, such as utilities, and extending this to basic services such as educational administration, we could broaden the concept of democracy.

We must after all promote the understanding that democracy is not just about elections, it is also about governance. Responsible and transparent government is best achieved through subsidiarity, that places people at the centre of the democratic process, without treating them simply as voters, to be cajoled into voting and then not consulted again until the next election.

Presentation at a meeting of the Pakistan Liberal Forum – Islamabad, 11th September 2012

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