By Ranga Kalugampitiya –
There is no question that Sri Lankan democracy is in grave danger. One of the solutions that is being proposed, particularly by the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp, is to dissolve the parliament and go for a general election. Many government ministers (or, are they?) have been emphasizing this solution over the past couple of weeks not only as the best solution to the problem but also as the only way out of the present crisis. Their argument is that the members of the current parliament have failed to figure out a way forward and that therefore the only way to solve the problem is to give the general public the opportunity to elect a government of their choice. Such a move, they argue, is nothing but an affirmation of the sovereignty of the people.
Although this argument looks fine in itself, it is deeply problematic when read in its proper context, for many reasons. The reason, which I wish to discuss in brief here, concerns itself with the very nature of democracy. Everyone knows that elections are an essential component of a democracy. Elections are so central to the idea of democracy that, in the eyes of many, democracy equals holding popular elections. (It was this thinking, which the Mahinda Rajapaksa government [2005-2014] appealed to in justifying the scattered elections held during that time.) Those who either genuinely believe in this understanding of democracy or simply side with it and use it to achieve narrow political objectives often raise the question, “What is wrong about giving the people the opportunity to decide?” They are usually quick to brand those political forces that do not share the same understanding of democracy as forces that fear the verdict of the people.
The general understanding that democracy is mainly about holding elections is important to the extent to which it underscores the role that elections play in democracies; nevertheless, the reduction of the idea of democracy to holding elections, which this understanding entails, is deeply problematic. In representative democracies, like ours, people elect representatives at elections to represent them. Technically speaking, such representatives represent the will of the people as expressed at the time of the election. This does not in any way suggest that the representatives should not take into consideration the changes, including any shifts in the popular will, that take place after the election. In an ideal setting, the representatives should always be sensitive to the changes that take place on the ground level, and their conduct should demonstrate that sensitivity. Nevertheless, it is also important to note that any developments that take place after the election do not necessarily nullify the mandate expressed at the election. The changes and new developments, including those that impinge on the will of the people, need to be accounted for necessarily within the parameters of the existing mandate. In other words, if it is important in a democracy to seek a mandate from the public it is equally important to ensure that a mandate, once issued, is respected and upheld.
This, however, does not mean that a mandate should be respected and upheld at all costs. If there is a widespread need to change a mandate before it expires there are ways of doing it. Many countries have provisions built into their constitutions that enable them to seek fresh mandates before the expiration of the current one. The Sri Lankan Constitution lists a couple of ways in which the parliament could be dissolved before the expiration if its term. Any attempt at dissolving the parliament in a manner that is not provided for by the Constitution is to defy the basic law of the land. In this sense, although elections in themselves uphold the idea of democracy, a general election as requested by the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp at a historical juncture like the current one can only undermine the very idea of democracy. In no way is it a celebration of democracy.
The crisis that Sri Lanka is going through right now is undoubtedly going to have an irrevocable impact on the democratic system of the country. If the country survives this crisis, the way the crisis is handled today is going to determine how the concept of democracy is going to be understood in the future with regard to the Sri Lankan state. It is going to define how important the Constitution of the country is going to be in the eyes of the people. It is also going to define the degree of seriousness with which the idea of the rule of law should be viewed. When the situation is such, to go for a general election violating the Constitution in both letter and spirit would be the gravest damage that we as a people could do to democracy and, in turn, to ourselves and the future generations to come.