By W.A Wijewardena –
Discipline among Parliamentarians in good old days
This writer had an opportunity to observe a Budget debate in the old parliamentary building at Galle Face in 1974 when N.M. Perera, popularly known as NM, was the Minister of Finance. In that Parliament, the Government party had been swollen to such an extent, as it has been today, that some of the Government party backbenchers had to be accommodated in the backbenches of the Opposition side of the House facilitating them to effectively sandwich the Opposition.
An Opposition MP was on his feet castigating the Budget and Vivienne Goonewardena, an MP from NM’s party, was trying to interrupt him. Speaker Stanely Tillekeratne looked at NM and one stern look from NM silenced Vivienne. NM listened to the Opposition MP very attentively and in his reply thanked the Honourable MP and explained his position on the criticisms made on the Budget. By any civilised standard, that was an honourable way to treat one’s opponents.
Undisciplined representative democracy becoming a mockery
That was how the senior Parliamentarians disciplined the juniors in the good old days. This era is now gone as one could observe from the clips of Parliamentary debates posted on YouTube. There, the Parliament, the high temple of representative democracy, is in utter chaos, not different from nasty live political debates on electronic media in which they debate everything except the topic in question. When an MP is on his feet in the House, he cannot continue his speech without being constantly interrupted, without being called by uncomplimentary names and without being forced to deviate from his speech to make similar counter attacks.
Thus, the entire Parliament loses an opportunity to listen to the other side of a Bill being presented for enactment by the Government in power. It is a sad situation to observe that the senior Parliamentarians just look on as if they approve of such behaviour by their junior members, while the Chair appears to be taking it as the normal tradition in Parliament.
The danger which this trend entails on representative democracy is that laws are being passed in Parliament without proper inquiry, debate or discussion. It is not the contents of the Bills that are discussed in Parliament. It is the private lives of the members who speak on Bills that are often brought to light in debates. Thus, the people who have chosen to be ruled by their representatives have been grossly betrayed.
The best system is direct democracy
Democracy traces back to ancient Greece where free citizens assembled at an elevated place and discussed matters relating to them. Arguments for and against the matter in question were freely exchanged. Every free citizen had a right to make his point known to others.
Finally, they approved of what they should do by popular vote. Thus, public policy was designed, debated and delivered by the people themselves. This system is known as ‘direct democracy’ and it is the most effective system of governance. This could be done in a small township with a limited number of free citizens who could afford to spend time in deciding their destiny.
Today, States are large and people are numerous. Hence, it is practically impossible to have direct democracy in place, though it is the best form of government.
The truncated direct democracy through representative democracy
Societies therefore developed a truncated system of democracy known as ‘representative democracy’. In this system, the busy populace, who could not devote their time for such work, chose to get the same work done through representatives elected by them from time to time. These representatives, known as politicians because they govern a city on behalf of its citizens, are full-time professionals functioning as agents of the citizens. Hence, politicians are not masters but servants and like any servant, they have to work for, represent and decide for the masters, namely, the citizens.
What they do is communicated back to citizens by the media – supposed to be the Fourth State of the Government. To make proper choices, politicians should discuss, debate and examine good and bad repercussions of the choices they make. Since a person cannot see the bad things he does, there is the other side, known as the Opposition in a representative democracy, which should point out the bad things.
Hence, politicians on the choice-making side as well as the Opposition side are equally important in a representative democracy. Thus, representative democracy is the truncated replay of the direct democracy that prevailed in ancient Greece. The citizens, on learning from media the choices which politicians have made for them, have the right to redirect politicians to change those choices to represent their true aspirations.
For citizens to give this feedback, the media should have freedom to report and the citizens should have freedom of assembly, association, discussion and debate among themselves. Any impediment placed on these freedoms at the choice-making level in Parliament, reporting by media and free discussion by citizens will make the representative democracy a mockery.
Representative democracy has failed citizens
The actual working of representative democracy in both developed and developing countries has come under severe criticism on a number of grounds. First, politicians have been wasting money belonging to their masters on wasteful expenditure programs without proper scrutiny, discussion or debate.
One example is the Annual Wastebook prepared by US Senator Tom Coburn about wasteful expenditure programs funded by US politicians. In his Wastebook 2014, he has accused US politicians of wasting citizens’ money amounting to US $ 25 billion on such projects (available here). This is not peculiar to the US. Such examples abound in all countries including Sri Lanka.
Second, governments run by politicians have been restricting free information flows to citizens either by blocking information or supplying them with distorted information or misinformation. To counter this, a new political organisation called Pirate Party has come up in Europe in the last decade. This party, first launched in Sweden, has now spread to 67 countries including China and India, and has been federated at the global level by Pirate Party International (available here ).
Third, elected representatives in many democracies function as dictators and suppress the freedom of citizens under various ruses. The most common ruses used are the nation, ethnicity, race and religion. Some democratic dictators use even history and historical heritages to suppress the free thought of people. But the real motive behind such suppressions is not to preserve history or historical heritage, but to enjoy power as long as possible.
Fourth, democracies have not been kind to minorities or minority interests. These minorities include not only the minorities in terms of race, ethnicity or religion but also minority voices. With power derived from the majority which has developed a wanton fear of such minorities, representative democracies have deliberately suppressed the rights of many citizen groups. Thus, though representative democracy aspires to attain inclusiveness, it has been an exclusive privilege of some.
Unattended window-breaking has created so many window-breakers
Over the years, these deficiencies have been built into the representative democracy making it a solid conundrum incapable of reform or being directed in the proper way. For this malaise, it is citizens who are in fact to be blamed. Once a deficiency is noted in any well-functioning system, it has to be corrected right away, for otherwise, it will one day bring the whole system to a halt by causing even the well-functioning parts of the system to malfunction. A parallel to this is a cancer cell in the human body which, if not arrested at the proper time, will soon spread to the whole body system.
In society, criminologists call this the ‘broken-window syndrome’. When a window is broken by a vandal, if it is kept unrepaired for others to see, all others take it as a message that ‘window-breaking’ is a socially-accepted behaviour. Hence, it leads to a situation where more and more windows are broken by new vandals.
This is similar to the famous ‘Gresham’s Law’ in economics which says that bad behaviour not corrected initially will make everyone behave badly eventually. This is what has happened to Sri Lanka’s Parliament: Interrupting an opponent unproductively without bothering to listen to what he says has now been accepted as the norm of Parliamentary procedures.
Replace ‘solidified representative democracy’ with ‘free-flowing liquid democracy’
Citizens have reacted to this solid conundrum present in representative democracy by suggesting a new form of democracy which takes good features from both direct democracy and representative democracy.
That is called ‘liquid democracy’ or ‘delegative democracy’. It is called liquid democracy because like any liquid which has the ability of penetrating every corner and taking the shape of the place it occupies, it is amenable to be shaped properly by citizens.
Representative democracy has lost this feature by being solidified over time, thereby becoming incapable of being shaped. In it, citizens – the masters – have to shape themselves according to the style of their elected representatives – the servants.
Thus, liquid democracy is a replay of direct democracy in a new form: Citizens participate in law-making by direct voting in some very important cases as was in ancient Greece and through delegated voting in other cases. This latter feature has earned it the name ‘delegative democracy’, a term coined by Yale University IT scientist Bryan Ford in an article under the same title (available here ).
The wholesale voting by citizens on public issues is done in referendums as in the case of Switzerland. In that country, a referendum is to take place in end-November 2014 on the proposal that its Central Bank should mandatorily hold 20% of its assets in gold (available here ).
Presumably, the citizens have not trusted politicians and central bankers to maintain stability of their currency.
Proper IT platforms can make every citizen a legislator
Bryan Ford of delegative democracy fame says that the main problem in democracy, though it is the best form, is how to ensure that “an organisation serves the interest of all its members fairly and equitably” and “to spread the ultimate power of decision and action evenly among all of the organisation’s members”.
The artificially imposed representation structure through elected representatives found in representative democracy lacks this feature. It also has failed to gain the trust of the people. Hence, it is necessary for people to directly participate in law-making. But it requires constant dialogue, debate, discussion and feedback.
Based on the technology available prior to the 1980s, this was unthinkable. But today, with advanced IT platforms, the unthinkable has become possible where, as in the case of social media, fruitful public discussions can take place in cyberspace.
Even then, it is difficult for all citizens to take part in direct decision-making due to the limitations identified by Herbert Simon with regard to the rational behaviour of people. He said that people are not perfectly rational but rationally bound by three limitations: inadequacy of information, time and brainpower.
Given these limitations, citizens can still take part in deciding on choices for themselves by delegating their voting power to delegates. However, they have the power to withdraw that delegation if they find that the delegates do not act according to their advice and directly participate in decision-making. A simple explanation of this process can be found in the video here
eVoting without frauds is possible
But elections are messy, subject to fraud at every stage and have failed to earn trust. A person might vote at an election but cannot check whether his vote has been correctly counted. The present system with manual interference has lots of room for manipulation by interested parties.
A number of charges have been levelled against the integrity of election processes: switching ballot boxes in transit, frauds committed by counting officers, computer manipulation of the results released and so on.
The reason is the failure to verify the results and inability of civil society organisations to do a recount of the votes on their own. Modern technology has solved many of these problems in other areas. In research, econometric estimations can now be verified by independent reviewers as to whether the original researcher has done his job correctly.
Software on checking plagiarism can easily detect whether a thesis is original or copied from someone else. Same technology can now be applied to voting which liquid democrats have promoted as electronic voting or eVoting. Can an eVoting system free of frauds be developed? Yes, according to computer scientist David Bismark who presented his doctoral thesis to UK’s Surrey University on the same subject.
He has explained his fraudless eVoting in a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Development) lecture delivered in 2010 (available here ).
eVoting enables subsequent verification of results at a low cost
According to Bismark, the system is simple and leaves an audit trail for subsequent verification by the voter himself as to whether his vote has been correctly counted and election observers and political parties whether the results released by authorities have been accurate.
According to this system, a voter who goes to a polling centre will get a ballot paper where the list of candidates have been duplicated in two parts which can be separated. Both parts have a computer generated barcode that identifies the ballot paper.
The voter casts his vote on both parts, tears off one part, feeds it to a computer that scans the information and then shreds the marked ballot paper on a shredder. He keeps his part of the ballot paper for subsequent verification. The information fed to the computer is transmitted to a central counting place which autocounts the votes after a designated time.
Once the results are released, the voter can log into the computer system of the election authority to verify whether his vote has been correctly counted by using the barcode on his part of the ballot paper. This is similar to the facility provided by Sri Lanka’s Elections Commissioner to citizens to verify whether they have been correctly registered in the electoral list just by entering their national identification number.
Election monitoring civil society groups, media and political parties can recount the results stored in the computer system. This type of transparency and correct disclosure makes the electoral system trustworthy and credible. It can be used even for individual laws being passed by Parliamentarians without proper debate, discussion and scrutiny.
Money can be made available if economic objectives are properly prioritised
One may argue that a developing country like Sri Lanka cannot afford to build such a massive IT infrastructure at a substantial cost. But it will not be an unaffordable cost for a country which has spent billions of taxpayers’ money to keep afloat the continuously loss making two airliners, the Sri Lankan Airlines and the Mihin Air without attaining any fruitful results.
Don’t try to do patchwork in constitutional reforms
Hence, instead of trying to do patchwork, in the proposed constitutional reforms, attention should be paid to bring back direct democracy through a hybrid of liquid democracy and the associated delegative democracy which give true powers to citizens and not to their elected representatives.
*W.A Wijewardena can be reached at email@example.com