By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
I read with interest some opinions expressed in the Island newspaper over the issue as to whether Sri Lanka can now call itself a democracy or dictatorship.
For us Sri Lankans domesticated in Australia it is opportune to join this debate at a time like the very present when General Elections are to be held on Saturday, the 7th of September. Election behavior is a good sample expression of the wider political culture that prevails in any country. Look at the situation prevailing here and one can make a comparison and arrive at a judgment about the parallel situation in Sri Lanka..
Well here, it is election day today. However, over the last six weeks campaigns have been going on led by the two principal rivals-the governing Australian Labour Party and the Coalition comprised of the Liberal Party-National Party combine. It is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd vs. Tony Abbot.
The campaigns are defined by decency and by the conduct and strict maintenance of the Rule of Law. The law and not anyone of the ruling elite are supreme. The judiciary is independent and is available to intervene fairly and impartially over any disputes that may be brought before it. People trust the judiciary because of its long-established independence from political control. Leaders of the past have been supportive of this judicial independence and the people are oriented to frown at any attempt to tread on the judges. The overall outcome of the strict maintenance of the rule of law is peace and public confidence.
The campaigns here have been running peacefully: No murders; no kidnappings; no political bribery; no priests or monks; no pirith nool; No religious ceremonies; no astrologers; no loudspeakers blaring and slandering and disturbing peace-loving residents. No Public Meetings. Most campaigning is done through the TV and other media. There has been a public TV debate on policies run on TV between the two leaders. No posters on walls. One finds posters neatly displayed at shopping centres. Nobody is engaged in tearing or disfiguring posters of opponents. Leaders are also seen talking to people at malls, shopping centres and community centres. Opinion Polls are held without complaint of bias and published every Monday. These are like weather predictions.
Leaders and campaigners try to attune themselves to such feedback. A few aspirants to Parliament had to give up half way when allegations distasteful to the public were expressed about the latter. One prospective MP was found to have said something unsavoury to a disabled person at a shopping centre and when the matter was brought to light he had to make way for a cleaner man.
On Election Day, today, people have confidence that ballot boxes will not go missing or that there would be no computer ‘Jill-marts.’ This is because elections are independent.
One cannot be naïve and assert that it is all perfect over here. These processes can never be perfect as men and women running them are never perfect. There is observable media bias but that doesn’t prevent media from giving publication freely to all parties and persons that demand it. There isn’t any government-controlled media to monopolize and block other sides of expression. Journalists are never seen bending in two or three before the power of politicos who are half-lovingly called ‘polies,’ here in Australia. Pollies have rarely evoked hate from the public in this culture.
The concepts of democracy and dictatorship are essentially relative ones that have to be placed and adjudged on a spectrum. These are not absolute states. No polity can reach an absolute state of democracy. The public of a country have, however, to worry if their ruling politicians are taking their governance toward the wrong and dangerous end of the spectrum. Judging from the above description of the scenario here in Australia in a practical situation like election time Sri Lankans can find for themselves how far away they have moved from the salubrious state of a democracy.
Sri Lankan leaders carry a responsibility on their shoulders to ensure that the country is made safe for democracy. To be sure Lanka did have such leaders in the past-DS Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, Sirima Bandaranaike and DB Wijetunge and these statesmen did their best to provide the conditions for free democratic expression and change.
Unfortunately, the great tradition that was being built was destroyed in stages thereafter. The reason is simple: leaders who succeeded (most dramatically the present one) put themselves before the welfare of the country; their egos were/are high. The latter thought that the country handed over to them by popular consent in a temporary trustee relationship, is private property over which they can overlord. In legal terminology one hears of the doctrine of implied trust when leaders are elected. The trust implied includes that the leader would protect the constitution, the rule of law and be just and fair in dealings. Such a role model will trickle down to his immediate Ministers and through them flow down via the Provincial hierarchy to the village level.