19 January, 2022


How Our Democracy Has Changed

By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

The recent provincial election results show that the Government of President Rajapakse cannot be shaken. Is it due to its popularity with the people and if so what are the causes of the popularity. Are there other factors as well? The Northern Provincial Council of course showed that the methods employed in the South to win popularity do not work to win the votes of the Tamil people. What are these methods?

Firstly the electoral system has been completely transformed. The rationale behind the Proportional Representation system is that it is based on lists submitted by the Political parties. The names  denoted a ranking as well, under the original system introduced by President J.R. Jayawrdene. But President Premadasa changed it to determine the first three winners   on popular preferences. But the winners under the PR system were debarred from changing the party which nominated them and on which they were elected. If they did so they would lose their seat. This was logical and necessary since the people voted for the party and it was the party that nominated them for election. The entire rationale for the system as democratic depended on the prohibition of cross-over to any other party from the party ticket on which the candidate was appointed. The first erosion of the principle was the modification by the introduction of the preference vote. It looks democratic prima facie but it was not; for the principle of voting for the party rather than the candidate was undermined. Chief Justice Sarath Silva destroyed whatever was left of electoral democracy by permitting the crossing over of the winners to other parties.

Our political parties do not have any ideology unlike in the western democracies. They are factions tied by family loyalties or class interests. Some families are traditionally SLFP supporters while others are UNP supporters. As for the ethnic minorities the Tamils always stood apart and had their own parties although a few Tamils were co-opted to the major parties mainly by the offer of perks- a powerful incentive in Sri Lankan politics.  The Estate Tamils too had their own political party linked to the trade union of Estate workers. The Muslims joined the two major parties among the Sinhalese. So did the Christians. With the introduction of the PR system the way was open for the minorities to win seats on the basis of their ethnic or religious affiliation. So PR promoted ethnic and religious basis of affiliation to politics and political parties. It has probably  also ensured permanent coalition governments.

With the abolition of the cross-over provision the stage was set for the winners to be wooed to join the party obtaining a majority at the polls. In the case of the presidential election of 2007 the LTTE banned Tamils from voting and thereby deprived the UNP of winning. The later election was distorted by the UNP supporting Sarath Fonseka as a common candidate.

What of the future? The ethnic and religious minorities traditionally favored the UNP rather than the SLFP which stood for the supremacy of Sinhala Buddhist majority over the other communities.

I think with the abolition of the ban on cross-over the electoral process no longer reflects the people’s will. The wooing of opposition party members who win the election by offering them perks such as posts of Ministers and the power that Members of Parliament have acquired after 1956   have made it easy to woo opposition party MPs. The President can create any number of Ministers irrespective of any need for them.

The nature of our democracy has undergone a change after 19566. In western democracy the back bench Member of Parliament is a legislator and has no role in the Executive functioning of the Government. After 1956 the MPs interfered in the district administration and sought to decide what should or should not be done in their electorates. The western model of democracy involves the uniform application of policies and executive actions to all people without any favoritism to those who voted for the ruling political party. It also envisages the equal treatment of citizens of all communities without favoring those who belong to the majority community or discriminating against others.

The West achieved this objective by a clear separation of the Legislature and the Executive branches of the State, the establishment of a bureaucracy  and by a further separation of the functions of the political Executive from the permanent Administration. The Ministers were expected to confine their function to formulating policy and holding the bureaucracy accountable to them according to law and the canons of good administration. But after 1956, the bureaucracy was asked to reward and favor those of the ruling political party and their supporters. They were also to be treated as special persons and even the Police could not treat them in the same way as they would treat other citizens where they were offenders under the law. Influence peddling through the MPs has become he order of the day. So the MPs  are fawned upon by the people who have also been corrupted by the offer of special favors if they had voted for the ruling party. Those who did not, were discriminated against. During a survey carried out by the Sri Lanka Economic Association in Anuradhapura the people of one village called Nallathudawa said they were deprived of the Samurdhi (the hand out given to the poor by the government) because the Grama Nladhari had said they voted for the opposition party . Voters know that the right political contacts are needed to land government contracts, a place in a popular government school, a job for a child at a State institution, or even top posts at a university or hospital or a Ministry. So State employees too must woo the politicians if they want to go places. This includes those in the highest posts in all branches of the State.

So democracy has come to mean government of those people who voted for the ruling party by them and for them only. Those who voted for the opposition political parties are outside this democracy. The people have understood this well and being a dependent people (made dependent on the State by the politicians) they prefer to vote for the ruling political party. Those in power have understood this well and hence the staggered elections. The Opposition with or without the current leadership is unlikely to win as long as largesse or as the American say “pork” can be distributed by the ruling party and the voters are dependent on such pork.

So the bureaucracy WHICH WAS ORIGNALLY A MERITOCRACY came to be replaced by a politically affiliated bureaucracy much like that which prevailed under Communist rule where bureaucrats had to be members of the Communist Party which was the sole ruling party. Although elections were held regularly they were a mere formality to enhance the claim that the governing members were in fact the choice of the people. There was no level playing field for the contesting political parties. Communists held power uninterruptedly for 70 years.  Do we see any parallel between this system of democracy and that of the democracy of the Communist countries?

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  • 0

    Dear Mr. Senanayaka,

    Perhaps you, like a very few others whom I am aware of, are genuinely concerned that democracy has not been established in Sri Lanka and that the majority of the islands people regardless of their ethnicity or religion appear to favor something that is antithetical to democracy. If so I understand your concerns.

    Unlike you, it did not take me too long to realize that the Government of President Rajapaksa cannot be shaken because the character of this government and its style of governance speaks to the psychodynamics of all those whose lives are based upon an identification with this island and the worldview of the small human community that has been able so far to survive hereon. Had the President chosen to relate to the people of the north and east the in the way that the government of the United States of America chose to treat the Japanese after their defeat in the last world war, these people would have become his loyal subjects as well and there would have been no room for any sort of global criticism of the current regime until its influence begins to reach abroad.

    Whatever kind of election a country may have, the style of its governance depends on the psychology of its citizens…after all Mr. Senanayaka I think you will agree that there have been dictators and dictatorial regimes that have won the support of their people at various times and in various places and there certainly appear to have been several rulers whose actions were seen as ‘good’. It is also a fact that however good dictatorial regimes may have been there has been a global repugnance shown towards them to the point of military interventions seeking to depose them having been legitimized. Why this repugnance towards dictatorial regimes and why the acquiescence in the violence employed in ousting them?

    I do not have an answer but what I do know is that while we were actively promoting democracy our schools were actively promoting corruption with rampant sexual abuse and the regular assaulting of students by teachers amidst the palpable fear of parents to intervene and incur the wrath of the teachers and governing bodies of the schools. What about the violence within the institution of the family that was largely ignored and silently tolerated? The model that was constructed was that of an authority that was above all human and divine laws and demanded compliance to its every whim and fancy and which had the right to use violence if opposed to the point of…yes…torture, rape and murder. This kind of a model is what to me looks like fascism and it has been quite clear to me for many decades that most people who live in Sri Lanka regardless of their class, ethnicity or religion or level of education are fascists who worship authority, have a strong gender bias against women, consider intolerance to be a virtue and welcome violence as a response to freedom and dissent.

    Most political parties in Sri Lanka do have a very clear ideology which is “This is a Buddhist Country entrusted by the Lord Buddha himself to the Sinhala Race which he charged with the duty of preserving Theravada Buddhism which is threatened and likely to disappear any day and ensure its spread Throughout the World and that this Sinhala Race may do anything that it deems necessary to preserve this Theravada Buddhism and ensure that the task of its propagation over the face of the planet is accomplished successfully. The ideology of the creation of a Global Theravadocratic Government is the underlying ideology of most political parties in Sri Lanka. This is no worse or better than any other kind of imperial ambition of any sort be it eastern such as the Chinese Communist venture or western such as the American one or even the transnational Islamic and Christian ones which it most resembles. All of them are imperial ambitions and all of them arise from the self same dynamics that have been described in the fourth paragraph above, which is basically a model for the generation of fascism.

    Are we in some way obliged to oppose imperial ambitions? Is it our task to deny those who wish to be governed by fascism their pleasure at being done so? Is it not time for us to gain the measure of maturity required to make the global arrangements required to make it possible to live and let live? Do we need a plethora of democratic nation states? Why cannot we have enough dictatorships to accommodate all those who wish to live under such dictatorships and to which countries they can be politely requested to relocate? Why cannot democrats in Sri Lanka for instance be asked to please relocate to democracies in return for all the Sinhala Buddhist settled in democracies being returned to Sri Lanka where their expertise and money is sorely required to support the Theravada empire building project? Why do democrats wish to force everyone to live under democracy? Is this ‘wishing to force everyone to live under democracy’ democratic in itself or is it a form of insidious dictatorship that occasionally becomes violently explicit? I think that we should work towards such exchanges that may allow the emergence of a more tolerant and pleasant and worthwhile world rather than spend our energies attempting to convert dictators and their supporters and followers to democracy.

  • 0

    LOL one crazy pair if there ever was. No wonder just the two of you. Do you really seriously think that anyone understands what you are saying or cares a hoot! Pack your bags me boys and get a movin.

  • 0

    The retired CCS guy is a Christian evangelist and the other guy must be a saint!

  • 0

    RMB says=
    “The West achieved this objective by a clear separation of the Legislature and the Executive branches of the State,”
    That is why there is a Government Shutdown in USA today.

  • 0


    How Our Democracy Has Changed?. This is a multiple choice question and the possible answers are as follows.

    Yes No
    1) Has the system Changed ( ) ( )

    2) Has the electorate Changed ( ) ( )

    3) Has the Messenger Changed ( ) ( )

    4) Has the Racist message Changed ( x ) ( )

    Is it due to its popularity with the people and if so what are the causes of the popularity.

    Sadly it has become more racist over the years

  • 0

    Mr.Senanayke,a correction.After the 1978 constitution was introduced,an amendment was brought under JRJ regime it self where cross over was made possible,A select committee where the govt side always had the majority was to decide on the correctness of the cross over. of course a jump from opp. to govt only was made possible.Rot started there.One of the CJs as you mentioned compounded the issue,and it was always with things changing hands,although it was said a conscience issue.
    On the PR system originally it was the Secretary of the Party who was to have submitted the preferential list and he had the power to change the preferential Nos till the election was over and before the counting began. This was a crude way of giving preference to the elite.This was changed to the present system which ushered in a multitude of persons who can stoop to any low level, to ensure a win.
    President R.P brought down the cut off from 12.5% to5% allowing mushrooms to come in and dictate.

  • 0

    Dear Mr. Senanayaka,

    The tumult within the United National party and the general Malaise that has seized the nation with intelligent people fleeing the land, the north and east almost shorn of its middle class citizens, the flight into exile of several journalists, the obvious subversion of the rule of law democratic and academic processes, the removal of social spaces for democratic discourse and the intimidation of dissidents highlights the need for existing political parties, as well as new ones that may emerge, to understand the influence that organizational structures and their internal processes have on the generation, sustenance and functioning of a tolerant, inclusive, pleasant, helpful, happy and non violent society. In this respect I search in vain for a political party that has the following structures that I think are required for the above”

    1. A founding member or group of founders not exceeding twenty in number who are clearly identified as such and a constitution drawn up by such founder or founding members which shall stipulate that such founding members shall form the governing body to be replaced on their resignation, retirement or demise by persons chosen by consensus from the members of the electoral college.

    2. A membership that is selected on the basis of a subscription to the clearly stated political ideology of the party amongst any other requirements as may be stipulated in the constitution.

    3. A well thought out and widely discussed policy framework and electoral manifesto drawn up and approved by this membership well in advance of any election and maintained as a party document that is constantly developed through discussion.

    4. An electoral college to which those who wish to represent the party are admitted after having satisfied the party as to their moral integrity, ethical values, familiarity with the parties policies and program and exceptional behavior in the past and they will be trained in parliamentary procedures and processes and the skills required to advance the policies of the party in parliament. Needless to say those with criminal records and a demonstrated bent towards violence, immorality and unethical behavior will be prohibited from applying to or being accepted to this electoral college.

    5. The electoral college will train candidates for different elected bodies.

    6. The electoral college will submit its list of recommended candidates for each electoral body to the membership for approval.

    7. A shadow parliament which will respond critically to every move of the government clearly articulating the parties alternative and the reasons why the party advocates these alternatives.

    8. A proper media arm that will consistently advise the public as to its activities and position on current issues and the actions that it advocates.

    9. A scientific propaganda wing that engages in marketing the policies of the party and in the task or projecting a vision of what the nation would look like if the policies advocated by the party are implemented.

    10. A cultural wing which will encourage the development of cultural forms of expression that are compatible with the policies of the party and disseminate these cultural forms through the holding of regular cultural events through which the party can engage the citizenry.

    11. An Academic wing that will identify, develop and advocate technologies and behavioral models that are compatible with the policies and projected national vision of the party.

    12. A human resource development and training school which will train people in how to conduct themselves and how to relate to each other in order to realize the policies advocated by the party.

    If you know of any such party please let me know.

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