The strength of democracy on trial | Daily News


The strength of democracy on trial

The opposition is demanding that elections should be held without any delay. However, State indicates several problems which were given, among which most important was the slowness of instituting electoral reform, the length of the delimitation process etc. Opposition claims these are bogus excuses to cover the wariness of the regime. It appears that this government has concluded that it is futile to go for elections without substantial changes in the constitution. While the delay will come with political costs, the change in the constitution will strengthen the political appeal of the government.

With the new electoral system, people thought that they are in more familiar territory, of returning to a first-past-the-post system, even in part. Back in the days the identity, track record and general standing of the candidate counted. Those who are against proportional representation that allows small parties on nationality or ideology basis to gain representation want to go back to ‘manapa’ system in which clashes take place among candidates of the same party. Preference or manapa system was named as the ugliest political system but now they are inviting this monstrosity for opportunist reasons. Anyway, it is unlikely that parliament agrees to revert to preference system.

This is why there is no much talk about candidates. We hear about the possible outcome in terms of the major political coalitions on ideology basis. Firstly we heard about a coalition to counter the devolution of power, racists of UNP and SLFP joining with Mahinda Rajapaksa group. Especially considering the dealing with a double-split here: the yahapalana coalition is split and the SLFP-Mahinda group split as well. In the end, the people will decide on the power of campaigns both, on racism and democracy. Their decision, in the end, will not base on multiple factors. One will know, by and by when the results come out, they will be in a pattern.

Better candidates

The issue is not about the ‘better party’. The party better organised and with better candidates. It is the campaign with correct mass appeal. Leaders should be able to touch the heart and mind of the people with a consistent appeal. In 1956, Bandaranaike played the Suwabasa card well jointly with the Federal Party but failed to give parity to Tamil. Belatedly he signed the Bandaranaike–Chelvanayakam Pact but failed to win over the people.

Hence the 1956 Bandaranaike progressive revolution failed to establish democracy to include all nationalities in Lanka. Nobody should do or say anything to understate the challenges of maintaining a truly democratic society. Lanka may be your country as well, and your country is facing turbulent times. We passed through 53 days of menacingly turbulent social unrest last year. Many who left the country before these events say they could never have guessed that the judiciary, the press, minorities, our intelligence professionals, our law enforcement officers, and many of our closest allies will be attacked this way.

The analysts tend to compare these happenings with events taking place in America under Donald Trump. Surprisingly in the US, many of the ills we face here have raised its head. People are talking on intense inequality, big money in politics, gerrymandering and restrictions on voting rights, corruption, polarization, racism and exclusion. These have raised serious questions among young people about how functional their democracy is in the twenty-first century. Instead of democratic practices moving from the US to so-called underdeveloped regions in the world, the surge has reversed in the recent past.

Sri Lanka has experienced its own political crisis, which raised alarm bells all around the world. However critically they show, while our respective institutions have bent, they are not breaking in the US, and they are not breaking in Sri Lanka either. In the United States, journalists are mostly either liberal or democratic socialist and they have done an extraordinary job investigating corruption and calling consistently attention to abuses of power. In so many cases, false reporting has led to resignations and to expose terrible wrongs with just corrections. This situation in America apparently connected to an important change in Congress.

There are more than 100 women in the House of Representatives flying or the first time in American history. At the same time, more young people and women and minorities are running for office than ever before. In addition, US state and local governments have taken a stand on many pressing issues, from climate change to immigration to voting rights. These are issues that the federal government is failing to address with any seriousness. Mass campaigns in streets are playing a role in the making of democracy, as never before.

Democratic intellectuals and professionals

In Sri Lanka too, during the recent crisis, masses made them heard, while democratic intellectuals and professionals, many of them speaking not for parties or personalities but in defence of our hard-earned democracy. At the same time, streets were home to the country’s biggest-ever spontaneous, popular protests not initiated by a particular party. This proved the Marxist belief that the most important political office is that of masses driven into streets in thousands of demanding justice and fair play.

In Colombo, many proletarian women who participated in a protest commented, ‘As women, mothers, as grandmothers, we want to see democracy restored. We are not against any person or any party but as a citizen of Sri Lanka we’re doing this for the next generation, for the future of this country.’

Both traditional and new media outlets were able to play a key role in keeping Sri Lankans informed and keeping institutions accountable. Civil societies – and again, both new and established groups – were active and effective. All these compelled our judiciary to stand by the Constitution and enforced the rule of law with great independence and seriousness of purpose. All of this is a credit to the resilience of Asia’s oldest democracy and to the checks and balances that Mangala and Ranil championed over the years. Does that mean both the US and Sri Lanka maturing in the same direction? It is unlikely.

The US passed through national liberation and equality struggles with much sacrifice and it is embedded in their Constitution in powerful clear language. Our liberation is tied closely with the Indian liberation struggle both spoiled by religious sectarianism and racism. We have to improve democracy by implementing both 13th and 19th Amendments fully before we claim enduring strength of democratic institutions and the success of democratic accountability. 

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