The General Election 2020 to elect representatives of the people to the Parliament was delayed due to the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic. But finally, the people have the opportunity to send to the legislature their representatives, to make policies that will ultimately have an impact on their lives. From the model of direct democracy of the Greeks where each and every citizen took part in the law making, representative democracy has come a long way in ensuring that the laws, rules and regulations that govern the populace, are willed by the populace themselves, and not by one or a group of supreme rulers who dictate terms from above. In modern democracies the concept of separation of powers is an inviolable and integral part of good governance and a prerequisite for maintaining a balance between the three pillars of governance i.e. the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary.
Sri Lanka has been a representative democracy from the year 1931 when Donoughmore reforms introduced to us the universal franchise, thus making Sri Lanka one of the earliest countries in the world to have representative democracy in a modern sense. Of course, the system introduced was quite akin to the Westminster Model where a Prime Minister with the support of the legislative body governed with the help of a Cabinet.
In the year 1978, the introduction of the 2nd Republican Constitution turned the legislature oriented governance on its head by replacing it with an Executive Presidency that weakened in no small measure the power of the legislature and of course, the judiciary. The 19th amendment adopted in the year 2015, restored the balance violated thus by the executive presidency, by curtailing the unbridled powers the president enjoyed hitherto.
When Sri Lankans go to the polling booth today, they will be constrained by the restrictions and precautions placed by the Election Commission in view of the COVID -19 pandemic that the world has been threatened with. Some have expressed the view that it is not worth taking all the trouble to make it to the booth to elect their representatives as none of the politicians deserve their mandate. Some, who have traditionally supported main parties, are frustrated and find no urge to express their will in terms of governance. Some, are disgusted with old and senile politicians from all parties who cling to power like leeches, without allowing young blood to serve their motherland.
Yet the fact remains, whether we like it or not, today’s election will see a new parliament being elected and constituting the legislative arm of the sovereignty of the people as entrenched in Article 3 of our Constitution. If you do not vote on the basis that the individuals that vie for your vote are not worthy of it, it does not mean that your abstinence from voting will prevent such unworthy elements making it to the august assembly at Diyawanna.
Need to vote
Quite to the contrary, abdication of vote by the independent or the on-the-fence voter, does benefit some contestants who are in possession of ill-gotten money, with their manpower, bribes, thuggery and mega advertising. The segments of society who benefit from their links or allegiance to such individuals will surely make it to the polling booth to ensure that their ‘horse’ comes on top, thus creating a result that is diametrically in opposition to what the persons who abhorred by the quality of the faces that vie for their votes, would shudder at. Abstaining from vote is no solution at all. It confounds the problem.
As has been mentioned umpteen times, people have voted in patterns which are not logical, foreseeable or explainable. Yet the Constitution does not require people to act on those lines. It is their will, their wish and their power. No restriction could be placed in terms of education, professional qualification or social background when it comes to qualifying as a contestant for public office based on vote. Yet it is up to the political parties who field the candidates to ensure that they leave the voter with a choice. As has been the case in Sri Lanka as well as many undeveloped countries, there is hardly any choice. It boils down to a pick between the kettle and the pot. Despite a lot of hype and furore over ‘clean characters’ being made candidates, the string of faces that smile at the voter this time too, do stink of corruption, thuggery, illegal businesses, political prostitution etc.
The subversion of the legislative sovereignty of the people by those who are not worthy of being the representatives of the people, has not only undermined the power of the legislature, but has culminated over the years, in creating an environment where the entire democratic structure of governance has now come under threat. The fact that we have been able to ward off threats to electoral democracy in defeating two armed uprisings of the Sinhala youth of the South and a civil war for separation by the armed Tamil youth of the North hardly guarantees that our democracy is safe, healthy and functioning. The ‘threat within’ that comes from corrupt individuals grabbing power, not by arms and ammunition, but by the very system of selection that decide who rules the people, though subtle, could be far more damaging.
Our own work
Yet in a national constituency where political parties dominate elections, it is naïve to expect that individuals who are worthy of being holders of the legislative office that wields people’s legislative power, will be fielded. They would not. Yet that is no reason to be disappointed. It is like a painter being disappointed with his own work on canvass. It is his doing. When the majority of people shudder at the composition of the parliament with chain snatchers, ethanol dealers, bookie owners, rapists, timber fellers and sand miners seated in those comfy chairs at Diyawanna, they need to realise that it is their own work on the political canvass of Sri Lanka. I would daresay it is a shudder at themselves at the mirror.
Parliament is the legislature of Sri Lanka. The classical definition of a legislature could be simply put as law making, policy making, being in control of public finances and representing the political will of the people who elect them. Needless to say, all these tasks need some amount of intellect, skill, exposure and not to forget, upbringing. The privileges, perks and other benefits given to legislators is to lubricate their efficiency in doing so.The benefits themselves are not the aim. At least they should not be. The COVID -19 aftermath will be economically disastrous for countries like ours. We need holistic and people friendly policies which at the same time encourage private entrepreneurship and investment. On the other hand, the ever burning issue of national reconciliation needs minds that are temperate, moderate, and farseeing. We need representatives who are able to stand up to authoritarianism and populist majoritarianism. Therefore, a backbone, in addition to the brain and the heart, is a prerequisite.
There aren’t many who fulfill the criteria of being worthy representatives of the people. But there are some. But more numerous are the stinky fellows.
We need to go to the polling booth and spend on that pen that we are required to carry with us.
It is our legislative sovereignty that we are talking about, dear citizens!!
And we do not want to shudder at our own painting, certainly!!