By R.M.B Senanayake –
For the first time people protesting against the ruling government have opposed elections. It is in Thailand. It is really interesting to ask the question why since they want to change the government. Is it because they do not have any faith in elections due to the failure of the incumbent governments in several countries in Asia to hold free and fair elections? Or is it because the protesters think they do not constitute the majority who are not with them in their attitude to the government? I think people have lost faith in elections. This constitutes a dangerous situation for it means change of government through an election will no longer commend credibility. It means the risk of civil protests and even violence to change a government which is unpopular.
We too have failed to ensure a free and fair election procedure. The incumbent party uses the public resources such as state employees, State owned vehicles, State properties for their benefit and secure an unfair advantage. They even harass the opponents and deny meeting places for the opponents by bringing pressure on the owners of premises. So governments rig elections to win.
The former Soviet Union held elections regularly and the Communist Party obtained almost 100% of the votes. They thought the people were with the party but they did not hold free and fair elections. So the Communists continued to rule assuming their popularity until the 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. By 1989 the Communist Party’s hold in Soviet Union began to crumble.
The provision for setting up an Election Commission under whom the commissioner of Elections would function has been ignored by governments that held power. So did the present regime. But more and more people are beginning to realize that a government that rigs elections is resorting to the use of their power illegally an unethically.
In Bangladesh there was a provision that elections should be conducted by a caretaker government. But after winning a landslide victory in 2008 the Awami League of Sheik Hasina used its big parliamentary majority to amend the Constitution and do away with this requirement. So the Bangladesh National Party of Khaleda Zia boycotted the election. So democracy has ended in Bangladesh.
In Thailand the political system has broken and the people are on the streets. They refuse to accept an election because they distrust the ruling party. The opposition party – the Democratic Party opposes elections but demand the removal of the Government. It is boycotting the elections now being held in Thailand. In Cambodia too democracy has ended and a one party state prevails under the control of the Cambodian People’s Party.
In Malaysia as the Economist says the opposition knew that the voting system was biased in favor of the ruling coalition more than is usual in a first past the post system. In May it lost the election despite winning the popular vote. The opposition alleged rigging and cried foul.
The nascent democracy in the Maldives has also collapsed. Mr Nasheed was president from 2008 to 2012, succeeding a 30 year dictatorship but was toppled in a coup.
So democracy seems to have collapsed in the Asian countries. What is the reason for this?
The rot started with SWRD who transformed democracy into a popular populist democracy equating the common man and stressing equality. The Americans have a name for such type of democracy. They call it Jacksonian democracy. Andrew Jackson was a man with a strong personality, the incarnation of the American ideal of a common man who overcame the unjust aristocratic domination of American political, economic, and social life. Jackson was the hero of the common people, set apart to convert and save the world. As on historian says “originally a fight against political privilege, the Jacksonian movement had broadened into a fight against economic privilege, rallying to its support a host of ‘rural capitalists and village entrepreneurs.’ In Madison’s words in the Federalist, the country was transformed from “the medium of a chosen body of citizens’ whose wisdom, patriotism, and love of justice would best discern what was in the country’s genuine interests” to a government of popular majority. Andrew Jackson treated the machinery of government as his private possession and appointed placemen to all the top jobs. Does it sound familiar? Yes it is afterwards that the American public service became a meritocracy.
In the 1990s the professionals realized that the country was heading for chaos in public administration and public spirited persons in the Organization of Professional Associations drafted the 17th Amendment to set Independent Commissions and restore order and merit to the public administration. By a strange confluence of circumstances the Parliament passed the Bill unanimously with the JVP throwing in their lot as well. A semblance of order and good governance was restored. But not for long. President MR overturned the system by the 18th Amendment and today the country is heading for a failed State with rampant corruption – a veritable hell hole benefiting only the politicians of the ruling coalition.
Our politicians and civil society groups talk about popular sovereignty or the sovereignty of the people as a sacrosanct principle justifying any action of the government if it has the consent of the people through a referendum. In practice it would of course mean the decision of the majority of the people. President J.R Jayewardene extended the life of Parliament through a Referendum. President M.R frequently refers to the will of the people to justify his actions.
This extension of the concept of sovereignty of the people to cover direct decisions by the majority of the people, is not really what the proponents of democracy meant. By Popular sovereignty political philosophers like Rousseau meant the principle that the authority of the government is created and sustained by the consent of its people who are the source of all political power. Popular sovereignty is the principle that the authority to rule is drawn from the people. It is created by the consent of the people and is sustained by the continued consent of the people. Before the American Revolution, few examples existed of a people deliberately creating their own governments. Most people in the world had experienced governments as an inheritance—whether monarchies or expressions of raw power. The Americans were the first to self-consciously create a government explicitly relying on the authority of the sovereignty of the people (or “popular sovereignty”).
This assertion of the peoples’ sovereignty however contains a dangerous dynamic of making people think that whatever they decide by majority vote is right and can and should be carried out by the government which it chose. It also raised the popular expectation that the peoples’ wishes must be satisfied no matter what. So we find in today’s debate on devolution of power that the peoples will must prevail. Selfish and power hungry politicians are invoking the peoples consent as to whether there should be devolution of power to the Tamil minority or not. So we find Wimal Weerawansa collecting signatures of the people in the streets to a petition against devolution of power. But there are fundamental individual and minority rights that no people can curtail because they constitute a majority. . Lawyers inspired by James Madison’s warnings about majority tyranny argued for limits to popular political empowerment and majority rule and stressed the responsibility of representative democracies to protect minority rights. This is the issue in our democracy today. Do we as a people subscribe to the notion of human rights and fundamental rights of all people including the minorities? Whether we like it or not the world has come to accept such rights.
The concept of untrammeled power to a body of elected men who were elected by the people does not give them the right to curtail or curb the human rights of others who belong to a minority- ethnic or religious. We may accuse the UN of interference with our national sovereignty but the world will not accept our protestations. If we do not respect the rights of minorities the UN can invoked the right to protect a minority which is harassed.
The Government must realize that right and wrong, truth or falsehood doesn’t depend on majority will. They are universal values and the decision of the majority does not make them right if they go against these values. The majority cannot vote to kill the minorities for example.