Real democracy the key issue

With the chief contenders for the country's most coveted job persisting with their mud-slinging campaigns, it is increasingly apparent that the choice for the people is - as is said pithily in the vernacular -- between a partner who has a cough and a partner who has a cold.

Both contestants are claiming credit for the war victory over the LTTE. The rightful claimant may even be neither; for many would justifiably argue that it was the Defence Secretary who steered the war to its ultimate conclusion with his resoluteness and single- minded determination to see it to a finish. Of course, he is very much in the fray on behalf of his brother, the President.

The war behind us now, questions relating to the restoration of democracy, good governance, transparency, and other such fundamental tenets that make up a modern state are being increasingly debated.

At the root of this exercise is the rebuilding of the institutions, the arteries of the body politic of a nation that have slowly withered away during the turbulent three decades that the country was enveloped by the northern and two southern insurgencies.

During the past several years, regular readers of this space, as well as other media, would have seen the repeated appeals to depoliticise government by rebuilding this institution-based democracy rather than an individual-based democracy.
This is why this appeal should be reiterated during a Presidential election campaign showing up the incumbent for not paying heed to these appeals.

When one looks around the world, it is countries that have strong institutions - a strong and caring Executive; a potent Legislature; an upright Judiciary; an honest Police; a free media; an apolitical Public Service and Armed Forces, not merely as namesake institutions, but vibrant independent bodies, recognizing each other's role - that have flourished. Unfortunately, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has refused to recognize this concept of government.

He has made no excuses for not working towards such a goal arguing at the highest level of national policy making - the Cabinet, that if he is unable to appoint the OIC of the Tangalle Police station, what earthly use is it of him being the President of the Republic.

Even if this argument seems logical, there is the bigger picture which he has refused to see; that an independent Police Commission gives confidence to the policeman to uphold the law of the land irrespective of political considerations, and that when the law is so upheld, it is the citizenry that ultimately benefits. When the Police become an appendage of the ruling party, at least half the country tends to despise what is going on. At the helm, a President tends to get isolated and insulated from such a reality.

Over the years, there has been a gradual process of politicisation that has affected the Police and many other institutions established to serve the people in general and not any political party or a President or Minister in particular.

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution was brought in with the unanimous assent of Parliament in a rare show of bipartisanship in 2001 because even legislators had recognised that the very fabric of good governance in Sri Lanka had crumbled and restoration work had to be done.

That process, however flawed the legislation was, at least saw the creation of some of the independent commissions like the Police Commission which restored a semblance of independence to what was increasingly becoming a disgraceful institution reeking with corruption of every kind. But some other independent commissions could not be established because of the intransigence of the then President who saw everything through a political prism. This made it easier for the incumbent President then to circumvent the Constitution and scuttle the entire process, sending the country skidding towards the abyss of one-party rule.

The Elections Commissioner is now under tremendous pressure in the face of accusations that he is not ensuring a free and fair election. For one thing, he has not been given the powers to crack the whip. Take the case of him issuing repeated warnings to the IGP to pull down the cut-outs which are an offence under the law. The letters being duly filed, nothing else has been done. Some OICs under duress or otherwise, flagrantly breach the very law they are expected to uphold by having the offending cut-outs right next to their stations. In such a country, one can hardly say that the spirit of democracy prevails. It is nothing but a façade.

Now come reports that even circulars are being sent telling policemen how to vote. This partisanship has extended to sportsmen, artistes, professionals being forced to back one candidate or the other, and yet, there are those who are expected to be neutral and only cast their vote, secretly. This includes those in the Armed Forces, Police, public servants, the Judiciary and the Elections Office.

As one by one these hallowed traditions fall by the wayside, the credo seems to be 'if you are not with us you are against us'. The only consolation is that we haven't reached the stage like in some so-called democracies where the Elections Commissioner and the Chief Justice also ask the people to vote for a candidate.

What worries the people is whether the challenger to the incumbent will actually restore these institutions to what they were, despite promises to this effect. The voter can be excused for being cynical because recent history is replete with challengers promising to restore democracy and actually turning out to be nastier than their predecessor ever was.

This bad precedent should not be held against such a new challenger but there is no mechanism to sue him for breach of contract with the people should he renege on his pledge. The fledgling democracy of Bhutan, we are told, is experimenting with such a 'Right of Recall' process. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from new democracies as well.

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