By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
Our nation styles itself as “The Democratic, Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” How many of us have considered what this means? Beginning from the end (which we normally do), the word “Republic” we vaguely know that it has something to do with not owing allegiance to Royalty, but to a body of representatives who we (s)elect. “Socialist” has a whiff of equality and the “Democracy” part has to do with our right to elect representatives to govern us. As pithily expressed about this privilege, “In Democracy, your vote counts, in Feudalism, your Count votes.”
“Democracy” means much more than the mere exercise of ones’ franchise. It cares with it a concept of honesty, integrity, purpose and principle. It goes far beyond catering to populism. As a simple example of a serious lack of honesty, consider the blatant lies uttered on political platforms. Where are the alleged Presidential palaces, underground shelters, golden swords and a lot besides? On those grounds, not only Mahinda Rejapaksa but the whole clan should have been hounded out. The same applies to the person who would have been “six Feet underground” but did not take long to start negotiating party leadership and perks! What do we make of all this? Combine this with the ease with which inter-party cross overs take place. A popular writer has picturesquely declared that “Politicians change parties more often than their underwear”.
When one has to comprehend a mass of information, the sensible urge is to organize the information within a pattern. The first step would be to assume some hypothesis, and try to move information to fit it. If confusion still prevails, then the hypothesis should be discarded and another tried in its place. If pre-election allegations are without substance, one has to assume that compulsive lying is the main attribute of our politics. (Perhaps a “Frequent Liar” title, imitating the “Frequent Flyer” title of Airlines may be warranted). The other more attractive option is to assume that the distinction between parties is fake. The theatrics of opposition is only a “put on” for public consumption, and in reality, they are all in cahoots. Pohottuwas, Aliyas and Hansayas are merely part of the ploy – the “rivalry” displayed is not real. The contest is not between the UNP or SLFP or more recent connotations, but really “politicians of all stripes” versus the “People”. To me, application of this hypothesis helps enormously in understanding much of the confusion. In fact, it justifies elevation to the rank of “Theory” and may even become a “Law” with a very small number of exceptions to the rule.
Getting back to the matter of our democracy, how far do our actions match these implications and what are the procedures that warrant a claim to being democratic? I aver that our procedures negate these lofty ideals. Let us first look at how democratic we are. In the popular mind, elections are the instruments we employ to exercise this right. If their number and frequency are the criteria, our performance would place us at near the top of the league. We have had so many, and at the direct cost said to be around 600,000,000/= per shot. This may make a substantial contribution to our fiscal problems and our penury. The figure perhaps covers only the direct cost to the State – for payments to the officers employed in numerous ways, printing of ballot papers, providing security, and numerous other provisions to ensure integrity of the process. When an exercise does not yield tangible returns of materials or service, it does not need a genius to see that progressive decline is inevitable.
Two claims irritate me deeply. These are blaming the voter for the poor quality of members of Parliament and local bodies. Second, the challenge to display discontent by rejecting incumbents at the next election. These are cynical insults and smug acts of deceit. At 600,000,000/= each time, this is one a heck of a way of expressing disappointment!
Several elections have displaced incumbents and brought in a new set of members. It is difficult to see instances where it is not a case of shuffling the same pack! No election has been “won” by any group (I nearly said gang) but that the others have lost. The hapless voter has been left to select the “least worst”. Some of the events that the public has been privilege to watch, would shame even the “Marriakade market”. In that August Assembly there was a heckling (a dignified term for sheer filth) when a Head of State (happened to be a female at that) was shouted down when attempting to present, of all things – a new Constitution!. Can one think of a polite word sufficient to describe such degrading behavior? I cannot.
Then there was the recent instance where the Speaker – supposed to be their Head and Protector of their Rights (perhaps better to call them wrongs) and Privileges – was hooted out, had to come with Police escort, to have chairs and other missives hurled at him and the Police Officers, compelled to speak from the floor, because his seat had been desecrated by some lout! The contagion has evidently spread to the devolved bodies (School for Scoundrels?) very quickly!
One is told that candidates are selected by the top leaders of their party. Considering the well -established greed for office, and perhaps a readiness to offer substantial contributions to Party coffers, can one reasonably expect drug dealers, cheats, bootleggers, pimps and gamblers to be kept out? Have we evidence that the Party leaderships have proved to be good judges who could be entrusted the task of selecting men of worth? I do not think so. In any case, where do the electors have freedom of choice?
Of course the party cannot conceivably poll every ones’ ideas. It therefore should appoint (or request) a small group of competent people to do their best. In the context of electoral candidates, the panel may be drawn from Gramasevakas, Police, religious leaders and outstanding members of the public (I have omitted local Party representatives, deliberately). The best choices may emerge or at least the worst could be excluded.
Let us for a moment exclude the electoral process, which has many unsatisfactory aspects and move on to the products from this elaborate, expensive, divisive and altogether dubious process.
Much has been said of the desirability of requiring minimum educational qualifications. This has been prompted by the realization that dozens of the present membership do not even have the requirements to be a peon, gardener, or conservancy labourer, never mind a Minister! There have been great legislators with little by way of formal educational grades. There have also been persons with stellar academic records who have been woeful failures. May I suggest an alternative? Taking Parliament alone as an example (but applicable to others as seen fit), why not fix emoluments on the basis of “Last legal salary drawn”. Use a factor, say 5x, 10x or even 25x or other as a multiplication factor to decide on emoluments? This may draw the ones who are most competent and excellent, and already selected as persons of integrity. Of course, the stipend will be all inclusive and not with sundry extras, which have led to the most blatant, shameless, even criminal and otherwise illegal practices. Of course the administration will be loaded with extra work, but the savings would be massive and the extra load will be compensated by the cessation of computations of attendance allowances, medical, travel costs, petrol, postage, electricity, canteen subsidies, pensions and heaven knows what else. Is this a suggestion worthy of consideration?
Then there is a huge problem with the exercise of the ‘Party Whip’ and not allowing a free vote through a secret ballot? Surely, there is an anomaly where the most elaborate measures are taken to ensure anonymity at the polls stage but not at the most crucial stage of the legislative! If the Party Whip ordains that a small coterie has decided which way its Party members should vote, why bother about qualifications? Maybe only cripples with an inability to raise one hand at voting time should be disqualified. As Tarzie Vittachi has aptly said, “Communication without transformation – is gossip”. So, what is the use of elaborate debates if it is a case of “my mind is already made up, please don’t confuse me with facts”. Perhaps in this case, it is somebody else’s mind!
What about the Budget, touted as the most important duty of the legislature, decorated with various rituals, if Supplementary votes that go well beyond unforeseen expenses, to cover vital public services to continue, where even costs for the import of luxury vehicles for the privileged, are leaked in?
I am told that “tradition” allows a secret ballot only in the case of electing a Speaker. Is this not a wee bit of “Tradition” that deserves to be thrown out of the window? What is good for the goose should be good for the gander.
All this worries me as to whether I should exercise my franchise at all. Would I thereby, not become an accomplice in betraying our people? An accessory after the fact? A crime against other generations beyond our own? Personally, am I not so gullible enough to wallow in such “Bovine excrement”?
What pray, is the answer?