Business Times

Business of democracy in Sri Lanka

The role of the people in a democracy is to participate in public life. The people have a right to be informed about public issues, to be aware how their political leaders and representatives they have chosen use their powers, and to be able to express their own opinions and interests without fear or favour.

Here is one simple description of democracy from the web:
"Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system. The people elect leaders who represent their opinions and values. Those elected individuals will then represent those people in the government; proportionately to those who voted for them. Basically power to the people! In proper democracies, the government is afraid of the people; rather than the people fearing and obeying the government.”

These are the basic tenets of a fully-fledged democracy. Can the same be said today of Sri Lanka? Unfortunately, no. Politicians and so-called independent institutions are failing the people who look on helplessly as manipulative politics, horse trading and cash-for-votes take precedence over ethics, morality, governance and loyalty to your vote base.

Take this week’s mass cross-over of opposition parliamentarians – 17 in all – to the governing party. These are politicians who, before the elections, went to the people, virtually wept, pleaded, cajoled and actually conned their way into winning.

From blasting the government and the President, to vowing to change dirty politics and being that ‘honourable MP that is missing in the House’, they won power. Oh … the speeches of doing good, being a humble servant of the people, and so on.

A few months later they turn their backs on the faithful who voted for them and embrace the very persons, they hated, they detested. All for the love of what? Money and positions. This however is not the first time crossovers of this kind have taken place … and certainly won’t be the last. So why take issue with a rather accepted practice?

For many reasons. A President and government that’s extremely popular assumes that all what they do has the blessings of the people. Both J.R. Jayewardene (through a referendum extending the term of parliament) and Sirima Bandaranaike extended their power without as much as blinking an eyelid. Ranasinghe Premadasa may have also followed the same route like all ‘good’ politicians if not for being assassinated in 1993 before completing his first term.

President Rajapaksa is traversing the same route and even worse has his whole, powerful family - members of who are elected or otherwise – going the same way. With such enormous and untrammeled power, anything could happen to even the most benevolent of dictators. This week’s amendments to the Constitution is taking Sri Lanka back to the infamous 1978 JRJ constitution whose own party members some decades later felt its powers were too much in the hands of one individual.

The only safeguard in that Constitution was the restriction of two terms of office for a President while the President had the powers to appoint (through the Cabinet) powerful and influential positions like the Chief Justice, judges, the Attorney General and the Elections Commissioner. Those powers have reverted back to Rajapaksa albeit the creation of the Parliamentary Council which just can make only ‘observations’.

The public has been told that the sweeping powers for the President is purely intended to strengthen the hand of the government in its post-war development mandate. But why is there a need for so much powers just to develop the country? Break the rules in the rush to develop?

Why also the rush to allow unlimited terms office for the President – that too without any public discussion and as an urgent bill before the Supreme Court – when Rajapaksa’s second term starts in November and ends only in 2016, six years from now? Why?

It was only a few civil society organizations that came out in protest against the constitutional changes. There was silence elsewhere – for good reason though.

While the end of the war has given intellectuals some space to express their views, there is still an element of fear and concern that one would be branded as anti-patriotic, anti-Sri Lankan or just anti-country. Nationalists are calling the shots and clearly for journalists very few independent thinkers are willing to be quoted on their political views.

The Ministry of Finance this week invited public views and suggestions on the budget and to inform the government if any projects are being delayed. Wouldn’t it have been a good idea if Rajapaksa similarly invited public views on the constitutional amendments? Or was it too sacred an issue for the public to comment?

The business of democracy now is all about winning an election after conning the electorate; looking at which way the winds are blowing; shifting alliances without a hoot about loyalty to voters; and acquiring wealth and power in the shortest possible time. What a sad day for Sri Lanka.

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