This elusive thing called Democracy!   

Daily Mirror


The former President of the United States of America Barack Obama in his last official foreign visit to Greece delivered his speech at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens. Obviously perturbed by the shock result of the then recently concluded Presidential election, it was no surprise that he dedicated a fair proportion of his speech to highlight the need to cling on to democracy and a mode of governance fashioned by its attributes. Doubtless he was inspired by the fact that he was physically in the place where democracy (‘demokratia’, as he pronounced in Greek to the applause of the audience), was born as a concept 25 centuries ago. Not only did he mention the fact that USA was more inclined to treat as their allies, those countries that had democratic modes of governing but was unequivocal in his notion that the power the USA yields in terms of its economic and military power was derived from their democratic roots of governance.  

Obviously there would be cynics, detractors and critics with their fair share of negative observations about the so called democracy or the rules of democratic governance of the USA as a state in terms of its role as the international policeman. In addition , looms in the background the election of Donald Trump who seems to consider democratic norms and tolerance of dissension as afterthoughts. Yet one thing stands out as clear as ever;the belief and persistence with democracy, not nominally but in reality , is still precious to the citizens of the USA as reflected by their popular former President.  

We too have been a democracy since 1931, when the Donoughmore Commission introduced universal franchise and the nation, ever since, has been going to polls every five or six years or sometimes more regularly than that. In that sense, we can boast of being a democracy, some times more vociferously than even advanced nations. Yet it seems that our acquaintance with democracy has been a superficial one and not profound or organic. In other words, in a quantitative basis we might call ourselves a democratic nation; yet qualitatively , we lag behind. In the said speech Obama made a distinction between two types of countries that call themselves democratic. One were the type that went for elections every few years yet whose structures of governance are far from democratic at the core. The other type were the ones where the mode of governance was organically democratic and based on structures that support democracy from the roots.  

  • We talk about democracy more vociferously than even advanced nations
  • On quantitative basis we call ourselves democratic; qualitatively, we lag behind
  • SL had witnessed two massive, bloody revolts in the south and a separatist struggle in the north that spanned one third of a century
  • LTTE was crushed and war was won, but it did heavy damage to inter ethnic relationship
  • Civil Service was a pride to SL, but is in tatters with endemic corruption and subservience to Politicians
  • We live in an era where the nation state is being threatened by racial, religious and ethnic tendencies

I believe that the first type that he referred to is a fair assessment of the status quo of our democracy in many respects. We have a parliament that is supposedly filled with representatives of the people and also a President who yields executive powers and elected by the people. In addition we have Provincial Councils that could be called sub tier legislative bodies followed by local governments in the form of pradeshiya sabha, urban councils and municipal councils. Since the introduction of the universal franchise, no regime change has taken place other than through the ballot. Thus the notion that on a quantitative basis, we are democratic.  

Yet can one be satisfied that we are a democratic society, in the true sense of the word? We have witnessed two massive and bloody revolts in the south and a separatist struggle in the north that spanned one third of a century. The respective governments have been able to suppress these insurrections leading to nationwide bloodshed, disappearances, assassinations, abductions , media restrictions etc. We have crushed the rebellions but in doing so we have damaged, in my view fatally, the social fabric that was supposed to be democratic and civilized.   

We tolerated a pogrom in the form of the black July in 1983 and it is no exaggeration to say that the civil society in general and the Sinhala majority in particular has never considered it necessary to look back or revisit those dark spots in our social psyche with a self critical out look, so that we would not allow such an occurrence again. The separatist war was crushed and we all celebrated ridding ourselves of the murderous and fascist group LTTE. Yet the heavy damage it did to the inter racial relationship as well as to the social psyche in terms of tolerance and right for dissension,it is yet to be recognized by the major society.The engagement with and the pursuant suppression of the terror outfit has been uniformly, but erroneously, identified along with the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils and other minorities and condemned in a heap without drawing a distinction between the two.  

True, the excessive power concentration in the executive presidency and the consequent subjugation of other arms of the state by it are fatal to democratic governance, by itself. Yet the cancer that has stricken us is not confined to the obvious. I think we are witnessing phenomena wherein each and every citizen thinks that his or her rights, benefit and well being are the only things that matter. If at all, they will tolerate an extension of such rights to those who are like them socially, racially and economically and not beyond. Democratic principles which should underpin day to day activities are brushed aside. For the simplest of example, selecting a prefect board of a school is done not in a manner that allows the most suitable students being selected but in accordance with their affiliation to the immediate power structure that is in the form of Principals, teachers or powerful members of the school development board.  

Going beyond that, selection of personnel for govt’s official portfolios are done in a manner that negates all civilized and accepted norms of selection. The Civil Service, which was once a pride to the country is in tatters with endemic corruption and subservience to Politicians.Transparency, accountability and suitability are simply forgotten words in face of nepotism, bribes, political favouritism etc. Even the public representatives elected by vote are bent on such interests rather than being mindful of the capabilities of such officials who in turn will be expected to serve the populace.   

Fundamental rights of citizens are of little concern until and unless judicial intervention is sought by an aggrieved party. The local government bodies, police, corporations and statutory authorities act more reflective of a slave-master or serf-feudal Lord-power relationship rather than a democratic one.Those who are capable of oiling the palms of authorities manage to circumvent the difficulties they face from such bodies while the hapless and the helpless are left to suffer without vindication of their rights.  

All this , in my view, emanates from the utter decrepit and dysfunctional status of the civil society structure which, if at all, exists only nominally. The civil society and it’s organizations have been paralysed by the overriding political authority that permeates each and every aspect of social life. The executive presidency bludgeons all aspects of democratic socio-political life to listless submission. Democratically elected representatives are not being held accountable by the people who select them. The service that a citizen expects from a representative whom he voted for is some personal favouritism such as getting a job, finding school admission for children, or in a more extreme case getting some type of permit etc.   

There is no concerted effort on the part of society to hold their representative responsible; rather it also expresses itself along the line of party politics irrespective of whether such a representative merits to be supported. Once in a while you hear a voice in the wilderness like that of John the Baptist in the New Testament, calling for public representatives to declare assets and justify their election expenses etc. which arouses some interest for a while and falls silent.  

The whole society seems to be engaged in a rat race aimed at grabbing the biggest piece of cake in the form of economic prosperity. There is nothing wrong with economic advancement and upward social mobility. In fact the whole objective of democracy is to allow individuals to attain to the highest possible goal without being weighed down by caste, creed, race, political affiliation etc. Yet the manner in which our society seems to be engaged in it seems to be in negation of all such notions and ultimately bound towards self destruction. In such a hysterical struggle for personal gain alone, concerns about democracy, ethics, good governance, fundamental rights, universally accepted forms of charity etc. seem to be inconveniences.  

Yet the ideals expressed by Barrack Obama with regard to democracy being the greatest propeller for their wealth and might , resounds so true, specially in our context. A deterioration of democracy, whether it is the neo-liberal type or the social democratic alternative, will ultimately give rise to unequal distribution of wealth, unrest, disillusionment and rebellion. The old classical type Marxist revolution may not be en vogue when it comes to social change, yet as the Arab Spring illustrated, its substitute is a spontaneous and an anarchist type of rebellion with no clear nucleus of control and therefore, so destructive and fragmentary in terms of the interests of national state.  

We live in an era when the nation state is being threatened by racial, religious and ethnic tendencies that has the propensity to drive segments of the populace away from the centre along such lines. It becomes that much important that we are mindful of such tendencies and are not complacent with the mode of governance we have as being immune to such dangers. The need to protect, advance and promote democratic values in all spheres of life is felt ever more acutely at present. It is in this regard that the civil society with its non- political structures should take the banner of democracy instead of entrusting it entirely to politicians.  

It is such structures, not political parties that hold the fabric of democratic life together in advanced democracies. The political colouring that the fabric assumes might change depending on the political leaders and parties that gain the support of the masses given the exigencies of times. The political inclination could be right wing, neo-liberal, social democratic or left-wing based on the policies of the govt. But yet the very essence of a democratic society is not touched as the civil society with its watch dogs are always vigilant to fire the first salvo, the moment a regime gives a signal that it intends to engage in an anti-democratic course. Any regime that is oblivious to such a response would be doomed for failure in such a vibrant democracy. It is such a scenario that we should aspire for, no matter how utopian it might sound given the present stagnated and superficial democracy we enjoy.   

There is no alternative for us; if our democracy is flawed, the alternative is more democracy!!