Protecting Democracy | Daily News

Protecting Democracy

Democracy has come a long way since it was first practised in ancient Greece. In fact, the very word is derived from the Greek “Demokratia” (demos=people and Kratia=rule), which essentially means “people’s rule”. In ancient Greece, it was possible for everyone to be in a governing council (direct democracy), but this is not possible with today’s populations. Hence, we have “representative democracy”, where we send representatives on our behalf to a parliament or other governing structure.

Democracy is a concept worthy of celebration. The world will be doing just that today, the International Day of Democracy under the 2018 theme 'Democracy under Strain: Solutions for a Changing World'. The day is an opportunity to look for ways to invigorate democracy and seek answers to the systemic challenges it faces. This includes tackling economic and political inequalities, making democracies more inclusive by bringing the young and marginalized into the political system, and making democracies more innovative and responsive to emerging challenges such as migration and climate change.

With this year marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Day of Democracy is also an opportunity to highlight the values of freedom and respect for human rights as essential elements of democracy. Democracy, in turn, provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.

The International Day of Democracy provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world. Democracy is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. What are the essential features of a democracy that sets it apart from a dictatorship? The values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of a functioning democracy.

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the region, along with India, where democracy has survived and thrived in the post-independence era despite some tumultuous times. There have been multiple threats to democracy in Sri Lanka including the failed 1962 coup, the JVP-led insurgencies in 1971 and 1988-89 and LTTE terrorism. But each time, the democratic framework not only emerged intact, but also became stronger.

Democracy is not only about elections – many dictatorships around the world hold regular sham elections – but it is a combination of several factors including freedom of expression, freedom of movement, independence of judiciary, equality of all individuals, human rights and media freedom. Sometimes, democracy can be threatened even by duly elected Governments – this was witnessed in Sri Lanka from 2005-2014 when democratic institutions were attacked almost on a daily basis. Political opponents of the regime were jailed or made to ‘disappear’ courtesy of the white vans, journalists were killed and attacked, media freedom was stifled, Presidential powers were strengthened and even the Chief Justice was impeached overnight. The nation heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Good Governance Government came to power in 2015, ending this sustained attack on Democracy. To its eternal credit, this Government has restored democracy in all its forms and manifestations and people are breathing freely once again.

However, worldwide, democracy is still under severe strain. Gains have certainly been made – one example is Pakistan, where a civilian Government is again in power. But there still are many other dark spots from Iraq to Afghanistan where democratic institutions and functions are at great risk. In some countries, extremist politicians dabble in racism, xenophobia and bigotry that directly attack democratic norms. Many countries also face the risk of transnational terrorism, which tears democratic institutions apart. Extremist and autocratic tendencies have crept into many democracies. Dictatorships that appear to be democratic on the surface gradually strip off the fabric of democracy.

Democratic countries must always be on guard against any attempts to subvert the process and vales of democracy from within or outside. We generally tend to disregard the value of democracy until the day we lose it. Having very nearly lost it, Sri Lankans know the value of democracy. But for democracy to work, the people’s representatives must work for and on our behalf. As highlighted in this space yesterday, it is useless to elect people’s representatives who do not raise their voice on behalf of the public.

Democracy is also about information, transparency, accountability and empowerment. We need to know what our people’s representatives are doing with public funds – hence the importance of instruments such as Right to Information (RTI) laws. We need to know what they are doing and they should be held accountable at all times. Above all, democracy should empower us as a people, a nation to march ahead with dignity and unity.


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