With Sri Lanka preparing for a presidential election later this year, the United Nations tomorrow marks the International Day of Democracy and we need to reflect deeply on the vital importance of democracy with its values and transparent processes. Already the National Elections Commission (NEC) has been informed by about 15 parties that they intend fielding candidates for the upcoming elections and the total number maybe about 20. On Thursday, an NEC official pointed out that at the January 2015 presidential election, 19 candidates contested. But other than the two main candidates -- the United People’s Freedom Alliance’s then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the New Democratic Front’s common candidate Maithripala Sirisena – the other 17 candidates together polled only about 138,000 votes. It is clear, most of these candidates contested for just publicity purposes or with the agenda of splitting votes and gaining some perks or privileges from the winning party. The NEC official said they were considering measures to limit the number of candidates. Besides, the ballot papers being too long and causing confusion to the sovereign people, democratic freedoms are linked to responsibilities. To the extent that any party fails in its responsibilities to that extent it forfeits its freedom because we are aware of the dangers of the freedom of the wild ass. Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya -- widely respected for his prophetic proclamations that he would at any cost ensure free and fair elections – has said nominations could be called any day after tomorrow and the elections will be held on a Saturday between November 20 and December 7.
One of United States’ greatest Presidents Abraham Lincoln has given one of the best definitions of democracy and though it has been often quoted before, it is worth quoting again because Sri Lanka is at a crucial phase if not a turning point in its history. Mr. Lincoln said, democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. How near or far we are from this principle is a matter for debate. Mr. Lincoln was an American statesman and lawyer who served as the 16th president of the United States from 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. Mr. Lincoln led the nation through the American Civil War, its bloodiest war and its greatest moral, constitutional and political crisis. He preserved the Union, abolished slavery, strengthened the federal government, and modernized the US economy.
In a statement to mark this event, the UN says this year’s International Day of Democracy is an opportunity to recall that democracy is about people. Sri Lankan politicians please note this. Democracy is built on inclusion, equal treatment and participation -- and it is a fundamental building block for peace, sustainable development and human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that, “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” (Article 21.3), has inspired constitution-making around the world and contributed to global acceptance of democratic values and principles. Democracy, in turn, provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights. True democracy is a two-way street, built on a constant dialogue between civil society and the political class. This dialogue must have real influence on political decisions. This is why political participation, civic space and social dialogue make up the very foundations of good governance. It is even more true with the impact of globalization and technological progress. Yet today, civic space is shrinking worldwide at an alarming rate. Civil society activists are finding it increasingly difficult to operate. Human rights defenders and parliamentarians are under attack. Women remain vastly under-represented. Journalists face interference and in some cases violence, the UN says.
This International Day of Democracy, is an opportunity to urge all governments to respect their citizens’ right to active, substantive and meaningful participation in democracy. Not only in Sri Lanka but even in the United States – till recently regarded as the leader of the democratic world – President Donald Trump is acting against many traditional democratic values, hiring and firing top officials, erratic, inconsistent and dangerously unpredictable.
We hope and pray that even through some miracle, Sri Lanka will have a President who is gifted with the values of honesty and integrity, transparency and accountability and is a sincere, selfless and sacrificial servant of the people. Civic conscious citizens and civic action groups, as the UN says, need to come to the forefront and speak out for such a leader or leaders in contrast to the big business that party politics has degenerated into today.