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Sri Lanka LG Polls: Would USD 27.2 million(Rs 10 Billion) address fundamental questions relating to democracy?

The maturity of a democratic governance system, traditions, how such a system fits within an overall framework of governance perhaps matters a lot for the sustainability of a democratic system.

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Sri Lankan polling officers dispatch election material to polling centers ahead of the parliamentary elections in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. [AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena]

The following passage from Britannica is a good commencement point to discuss the much debated Local Government poll in Sri Lanka. Conducting the election is said to cost around 10 Billion Rupees of State funds, assuming such funds are available to spend in the bankrupt Sri Lanka. Besides State money, individual candidate spending would be substantial. Two serious questions need to be asked. Firstly, whether the country could afford such an extravagance at this point. Secondly, the current political system being what it is, what benefit such an election would provide to a bankrupt country and an increasing number of people already in poverty and others who are on the verge of poverty. 

Democracy as defined in the Britannica, “is literally, rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratia, which was coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the middle of the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens.

The Britannica goes onto say “etymological origins of the term democracy hint at a number of urgent problems that go far beyond semantic issues. If a government of or by the people—a “popular” government—is to be established, at least five fundamental questions must be confronted at the outset, and two more are almost certain to be posed if the democracy continues to exist for long.

(1) What is the appropriate unit or association within which a democratic government should be established? A town or city? A country? A business corporation? A university? An international organization? All of these?

(2) Given an appropriate association—a city, for example—who among its members should enjoy full citizenship? Which persons, in other words, should constitute the dēmos? Is every member of the association entitled to participate in governing it? Assuming that children should not be allowed to participate (as most adults would agree), should the dēmos include all adults? If it includes only a subset of the adult population, how small can the subset be before the association ceases to be a democracy and becomes something else, such as an aristocracy (government by the best, aristos) or an oligarchy (government by the few, oligos)?

(3) Assuming a proper association and a proper dēmos, how are citizens to govern? What political organizations or institutions will they need? Will these institutions differ between different kinds of associations—for example, a small town and a large country?

(4) When citizens are divided on an issue, as they often will be, whose views should prevail, and in what circumstances? Should a majority always prevail, or should minorities sometimes be empowered to block or overcome majority rule?

(5) If a majority is ordinarily to prevail, what is to constitute a proper majority? A majority of all citizens? A majority of voters? Should a proper majority comprise not individual citizens but certain groups or associations of citizens, such as hereditary groups or territorial associations?

(6) The preceding questions presuppose an adequate answer to a sixth and even more important question: Why should “the people” rule? Is democracy really better than aristocracy or monarchy? Perhaps, as Plato argues in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons—an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.” What reasons could be given to show that Plato’s view is wrong?

(7) No association could maintain a democratic government for very long if a majority of the dēmos—or a majority of the government—believed that some other form of government were better. Thus, a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the dēmos and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative. What conditions, in addition to this one, favour the continued existence of democracy? What conditions are harmful to it? Why have some democracies managed to endure, even though periods of severe crisis, while so many others have collapsed

These questions, and answers to them by the readers themselves will be quite relevant to the LG poll which is to be conducted at this enormous cost. Perhaps the poll could be considered from two key aspects

Firstly, is it the appropriate time to spend Rs 10 billion on the election, when

  1. The country is bankrupt with the forecast for 2023 even worse than the situation in 2022
  2. Would not the 10 billion rupees meet many other critical needs for people who are in poverty and on the verge of it?
  3. Will the local government poll result in a change to the National Parliament, and the effectiveness or otherwise of the national parliament? What power or authority do LG institutions have from a national perspective?
  4. How much would LG politicians be able to do for their constituencies at this stage if the entire country is bankrupt?
  5. Is it not best for the country for a national government to govern the country at this stage rather than spend Rs 10 Billion for a LG poll which will not address the issues that bankruptcy has befallen on the country?

Secondly, in relation to the questions posed in the Britannica

(1) What is the appropriate unit or association within which a democratic government should be established? A town or city? A country? A business corporation? A university? An international organization? All of these?

This has not been addressed and the structure/s of democratic government that establishes and makes good the adage of “a government by the people, for the people” has not materialised. A question must be posed whether the country should have more of the same or whether it should have a discussion on what type of a democratic structure is needed in order to make the masters, the people, dictating to the elected representatives and not the other way around. One has to question whether the best brains of the country are part of the policy making process or whether they are bi standers in a process managed by politicians who think they have brains.

Democracy “is literally, rule by the people.

(2) Given an appropriate association—a city, for example—who among its members should enjoy full citizenship? Which persons, in other words, should constitute the dēmos?

Is every member of the association entitled to participate in governing it?  Assuming that children should not be allowed to participate (as most adults would agree), should the dēmos include all adults? If it includes only a subset of the adult population, how small can the subset be before the association ceases to be a democracy and becomes something else, such as an aristocracy (government by the best, aristos) or an oligarchy (government by the few, oligos)?

There is a strong case to be made for universal franchise and for all citizens above a given age to be entitled to vote, rather than an aristocracy or an oligarchy. The question of what is “best” of course is very subjective while in fact, the “few” in fact is a reality in Sri Lanka considering that family politics has been the main stay of political power and governance in the country. The challenge is to have a system that is neither an aristocracy or an oligarchy, even by any other name, but a system that provides a wider collection of professional, academic, civil society organisations, unions, women’s organisations to participate in policy making, while policy administration should be entrusted to efficient and effective administrators and not politicians.

(3) Assuming a proper association and a proper dēmos, how are citizens to govern? What political organizations or institutions will they need? Will these institutions differ between different kinds of associations—for example, a small town and a large country?

As touched on earlier, this question is an extremely critical one relating to what democracy is and should be. How do people govern? Is it only by exercising their franchise once in so many years? What mechanisms should be there for people to have a say in governance, and chart their destiny and that of the country? If family power, influence and money results in personalities  being voted in rather than their policies or the policies of the political party’s they belong to, in effect, people will not have any input or a say in governance.

(4) When citizens are divided on an issue, as they often will be, whose views should prevail, and in what circumstances? Should a majority always prevail, or should minorities sometimes be empowered to block or overcome majority rule?

This is probably one of the most contentious issues from a Sri Lankan context and the long standing and ongoing ethnic issue, and which has a direct relevance to this question. The question of all citizens agreeing on all issues is an impossibility and is a highly impractical proposition and majority decision making, with whatever its shortcomings, is a realistic option. However, in Sri Lanka, the majority/minority composition has ethno-religious dimensions, with the minorities, primarily Tamils, but Muslims as well, feeling subjugated by a Sinhala Buddhist majority. It is this numerical strength rather than what is right and fair for all people, from within the majority or the minority, that has dictated how the country is governed. In this context, majority rule has not delivered fairness, justice, and equality for all people, and therefore needs minority empowerment to block and even overcome majority rule when situations demand it. Majority/minority rule issues would become less important  if there is better communication between people, and they understand each other better and they trust each other more.

(5) If a majority is ordinarily to prevail, what is to constitute a proper majority? A majority of all citizens? A majority of voters? Should a proper majority comprise not individual citizens but certain groups or associations of citizens, such as hereditary groups or territorial associations?

Another very valid question. In some countries, the USA being one, the average voter turnout at Presidential elections is less than 60%. If an individual gets 50 % of that 60%, plus one more vote, that person could potentially become the President of the country. One could argue that the other 50% who voted have opposed that candidate. In effect, a candidate becomes the President of the US with 30% of the eligible vote

In Sri Lanka, whether it is at Presidential elections or Parliamentary elections, the voter turn out is greater, perhaps averaging between 55- 70%. However, prior to the introduction of the district based proportional representation system, in 1970, a government was elected with a 2/3 majority with only 49% of the votes cast, and in 1977, with a 5/6th majority with just over 51% of the vote.

These lopsided election outcomes makes a strong case for a change to the system, and a greater involvement of groups or associations of citizens, such a business associations, academics, unions, women’s groups, other groups such as environmentalist groups, etc to play a more active part in political governance, especially policy development.

It is interesting to note the voter turn out in countries where voting is compulsory. For example in Australia, it is in excess of 95%

(6) The preceding questions presuppose an adequate answer to a sixth and even more important question: Why should “the people” rule? Is democracy really better than aristocracy or monarchy? Perhaps, as Plato argues in the Republic, the best government would be led by a minority of the most highly qualified persons—an aristocracy of “philosopher-kings.” What reasons could be given to show that Plato’s view is wrong?

This is a debate on fundamentals and probably suited for another occasion!. Two issues in response to what Plato postulated is (a) who will decide who is most “qualified” and what and who would comprise the aristocracy of philosopher- kings (2) would his theory be relevant and/or appropriate in an age of technology and communication access where information could be just a nano second away from each other, as compared to Plato’s time?

(7) No association could maintain a democratic government for very long if a majority of the dēmos—or a majority of the government—believed that some other forms of government were better. Thus, a minimum condition for the continued existence of a democracy is that a substantial proportion of both the dēmos and the leadership believes that popular government is better than any feasible alternative. What conditions, in addition to this one, favour the continued existence of democracy? What conditions are harmful to it? Why have some democracies managed to endure, even though periods of severe crisis, while so many others have collapsed

The maturity of a democratic governance system, traditions, how such a system fits within an overall framework of governance perhaps matters a lot for the sustainability of a democratic system. It could be argued that diffusion of power as against the concentration of power, particularly in the hands of a few, could encourage the few wielding that power to change the system if they feel their power is ebbing or there is potential for that to happen if pressure builds up to diffuse power. An independent Judiciary, other stakeholders such strong business entities, academic institutions, unions, women’s organisations, civic entities, and as many peoples organisations could act as deterrents to changing a democratic system to more autocratic systems. The democratic governance system in Sri Lanka has been minimally democratic as the demos or peoples component of it has limited themselves to voting in or voting out governments every five years or so. The money, power and acquiring more money symbiotic link has thrived, and it has been used basically to buy votes in one way or another. Policy debates have been confined to a few living rooms.

So, what is or should be the practical alternative to the LG polls? Assuming politicians love the country more than themselves, and considering the deep pit the country is in, a national government with no more than 15 ministers could govern the country under a national economic plan approved by all political parties in Parliament at least for a period of 2 years. During this period, a national political commission could be constituted with wide, nonpartisan political representation to seek the views of the people, political parties and others, to design a new political system for the country. If the existing system is retained, it will produce the same output of substandard politicians, and an ongoing policy vacuum that will lead the country further down the precipice. As Einstein would have said if he was around, Sri Lankans would be mad to expect different outcomes doing the same thing with the same system in place.

Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale is an independent health supply chain management specialist with wide international experience. Writing is his passion.

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