By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
Democracy is a system of governance where people choose their representatives, by freely exercising their treasured franchise at elections. Results do not match theory. It was famously defined by Abraham Lincoln as “rule of the people by the people for the people”. At the other end of the scale, it has been cynically said to be “Based on the fond belief that the franchise somehow transforms the ignorance of the many into the wisdom of the chosen few” or as Churchill declared “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for those that have been tried before” or still as “In a democracy it is your vote that counts, in feudalism it is your count that votes.” Closer to home “In Sri Lanka (said Lee Kwan Yew), elections are an auction of assets that they do not have.” and “elections are like two wolves and a sheep voting on what they will have for dinner”. Or “Selection by the incompetent many of a corrupt few”. All of these, on reflection, embody more than a few truths.
Elections are expensive, but have been quite frequent under the former (“Nethipalana” and “Pawulpalana” regime) dispensations. Under the present, the lament is that they are not conducted as required by law, being postponed under various pretexts. There seem to be more and more complaints that the quality of representatives is in decline. Despite this, there is a reckless increase in their numbers, quite out of proportion to the voting population, and at utterly unconscionable cost. Various remedies have been suggested – educational levels, experience and delimitation anomalies. Many of these can be mitigated by addressing root causes.
1. Remuneration: This is clearly excessive and out of proportion in comparison with other sectors. Naturally this draws into its ranks persons with highly unsavoury histories. Where the rewards are high, politics becomes legalized robbery.
2. Free choice: The system precludes this. The Party leaderships decides nominees, who are not always the best – on utility value, and not on merit. The electors have no hand in this and are driven not to select the best, but rather to pick “the least worst”. In such circumstances, it is grossly unfair and even insulting to be told “It is all the electors’ fault”.
3. Qualifications: Reference is often made to set educational minima for representatives. It is true that progressive countries have done so, but we have many instances where persons of limited academic achievement, have made excellent politicians and of those with exceptional academic backgrounds, who have been spectacular flops.
4. Corruption: It is almost a given that politicians are corrupt. This is not fair by those who are admirably non-corruptible. They however, could do much to reform the delinquent among them. “Those who lie with dogs, wake up with fleas.” Someone gave the nonsensical reason that because contesting an election costs a fortune, that outlay has to be recouped! The scandalous and criminal offense of hawking their Duty Free Permits is justifiable. Surely this is gross abuse of a privilege, and unseemly.
5. Travel: Frequent and unnecessary foreign jaunts are scandalous. Especially, considering the grave financial crisis confronting the National Airline. The other huge disadvantages are that Ministers often represent our country at specialists meetings at which they are totally incompetent, often at the expense of very knowledgeable professionals – by hogging these for themselves. There is also the ever-present risk of signing various agreements whose implications are later found to be highly imprudent. The cost of internal flights too is not small – a helicopter to be air-borne is said to cost around Rs 400,000/= or more. The missions, are almost always unnecessary. Unpaid bills– owed to the Air Force, for instance are astronomical.
6. Nepotism: This is an ever present abomination. If not anything else, it is a grave injustice inflicted upon those more qualified for the task. The argument that certain positions require complete trust, and that the known devil is safer than the unknown. Who better then than one’s immediate or peripheral family? This contention is at best very feeble, and only slightly justifiable in the limited case of positions like Personal/Confidential Secretaries/Stenographers. Possessing of a wife does not deter many from having a mistress!
Parliamentary process is cumbersome and often hilarious. The anomalies and contradictions are very many. Nominations are done by Party Committees. The electors have no say. Money determines choices. The simple expedient of requiring Parties (and individuals) to disclose their electoral funding sources, amounts and expenditures have ben extolled and then ignored. As long as a free, conscience vote is not permitted, the Party Whip eliminated, and voting in Parliament made confidential, there can be no Democracy. The outcome is foregone. So, this chant of “We have 150, or we need only five more cross-overs” is sickening. Why cannot we call it “Political Prostitution”? President Ronald Reagan, whose candid and imaginative oratory is widely admired, declared “It has been said that Politics is the Second Oldest profession. The longer I remain in it, the more do I realize how closely it resembles the First”.
What is the point of requiring minimum educational qualifications, no dual citizens etc. when the only persons who are unsuited are cripples unable to lift their hands or dual amputees?. The preferred option of installing an Electronic Score Board at enormous cost , is typical of generous gobbling of Public Funds. Why spend so much of time and money on Parliamentary Debates when, as Tarzie Vitachchi declared “Conversation without transformation is gossip”? Is it any surprise that “Parliament” is the collective noun for a collection of Baboons”.
In trying to understand an exceedingly complicated and hugely unnecessary circus, I find that applying the “Theory of Cahoots”, finds much falling into place!. “Unuth Ekai Munuth Ekai”, while trying very hard not to add “Mamath Ekai”.