Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, will be in attendance today to see the Lion flag of Lanka being raised, 70 years after his grand-uncle, the Duke of Gloucester witnessed the same flag unfurl as the Union Jack was brought down after nearly 450 years of foreign rule. Having already spent a few days on [...]


Flawed Democracy better than dictatorship


Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, will be in attendance today to see the Lion flag of Lanka being raised, 70 years after his grand-uncle, the Duke of Gloucester witnessed the same flag unfurl as the Union Jack was brought down after nearly 450 years of foreign rule.

Having already spent a few days on the island, the visiting Royal couple might well think that the ‘Divide and Rule’ policies of colonial rule continue to thrive despite Independence. However, they must be, no doubt, briefed that the political leaders of this country going for each other’s throats is only because there is an election in the offing.

Elections and democracy as this country knows of today are also a legacy of British rule. The Colebrook-Cameron Commission (1833) first recommended limited representative government in this country, which was still under the yoke of colonial administration. A Legislative Council was established with little say for the outnumbered native members, but by the early 20th century, the Donoughmore Commission recommended Universal Adult Franchise in Sri Lanka – one of the first in all Asia – even before Independence in 1948.

Local Government itself is not an inheritance of British rule. In ancient Lanka, the Gam Sabha (Village Assembly) was in use as a vibrant meeting-point to discuss local issues and resolve disputes. They even had an element of judicial power. A reputed senior village elder was chosen by consensus to preside over proceedings, often held under a shady tree, and open to the public. They met in harmony and decisions were taken by conciliation and mediation. The King had appellate jurisdiction only over serious crimes.

The Colebrook-Cameron Commission recognised the usefulness of the Gam Sabha system in resolving local issues and recommended its continuation. However, with trade expanding in the country by the 20th century and townships emerging with big markets, a judicial system of their own and colonial laws coming into force, the Gam Sabha system went into disuse. British-style Ordinances introduced Village Councils, Town Councils, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils depending on the population and geographical area. In many towns around the country, there are references to the places where their ancestors met. In some towns even today, main roads intersect these places where old Lanka ran local government, and they are known as Gam Sabha handiya (junction).

With the advent of the Donoughmore Constitution in 1931 and the first State Council election that followed, members contested as Independent candidates. It was only thereafter that the political party system took root and representative government took a different turn in the politics of the nation.

There is now no turning back. Political parties are an essential ingredient of democracy and elections worldwide and in Sri Lanka too, they have become part and parcel of democracy and elections. We witness frenzied campaigning by all leading political parties and leaders today to win the hearts and minds of the voters even though next weekend’s election is labelled a ‘punchi chande’ or mini-poll. For elections is a great leveller.
Until 1987, and the introduction of the Provincial Council system, the local councils that are being hotly contested for, were the nursery for the National Legislature. No longer is that the case and these councils are now throwing up only the third layer of politicians – in a nation of professional politicians.

Since Independence, the people elected and rejected successive Governments at national level. On the one hand it showed their aspirations were not met by those they elected to govern Free Lanka. On the other, it showed democracy at its best – that Governments were changed by the free will of the people and by the ballot, not the bullet, as is the case in so many countries that also received their Independence shortly after Sri Lanka did. That is why political leaders reach out to the people at periodic intervals and facing the daunting prospect of being sent home rather than to office.

It was not that politicians did not tinker with the electoral process and the franchise of the people along the way since 1948. An independent Elections Commission remained the great defender of the people’s rights to select, elect and reject their representatives. Independent Courts often upheld violations of Election laws and Members of Parliament have been unseated on election petitions.

The 1972 Republican Constitution was arguably the first major move to infringe upon the franchise of the people. The then Government (SLFP-LSSP-CP) unilaterally extended the life of the then Parliament from five years to seven by patent arithmetical jiggery-pokery. Not to be outdone, the Government that followed (UNP) usurped the people’s franchise to elect its representatives by by-passing a parliamentary election and holding a referendum in 1982. In 2010, the shenanigans that took place (by those now in the SLPP) with the still mysterious ‘abduction’ of the then Commissioner of Elections in the middle of a crucial count, are all recorded in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka.

The JVP’s attempts at disrupting elections by threatening to shoot voters, and the TNA’s meek capitulation and then defence of the fascist LTTE that called for the boycott of Presidential elections need no reminding. These are the main political parties in the fray for next week’s elections extolling the virtues of democracy, the rights of voters, and of representative government.

One can only hope that these are only aberrations of the past. All political parties seem to have come together after long and arduous deliberations and found an acceptable, and largely agreeable electoral system – a combination of the old FPP (First Past the Post) and the PR (Proportional Representation) systems.

A return to the Ward basis enables the citizen to know his or her representative to the council, while political parties that cannot win a ward, but obtain sufficient votes nevertheless in a council will find representation in that council and not be left out of governance forcing them to seek extra-parliamentary methods of having a say in running the country.

An element of disillusionment with local politics and self-serving politicians has triggered an apparent disinterest among voters and fears of a low turnout at next week’s elections. This has a direct bearing, therefore, on this negative view of representative government. But as the Election Commission Chairman quite rightly says – the alternative to a flawed democracy is a flawed dictatorship. That is something Sri Lanka has successfully managed to keep at bay for seven long decades whatever the country’s other faults may have been.

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