Political Principles - majoritanismFinally, in this Chapter on Democracy and Representation, I look at how countries can avoid the impression that their governments look after only particular sections of society. Making it clear that government is inclusive, and bears equal responsibility for all groups in a country is an important part of ensuring the unity and thus the sovereignty of any country.

 

Avoiding Majoritarianism

The idea that the winner takes all after an election has caused serious problems in many democracies. It reduces the need for constant consultation that will contribute to continuity of policy. In pluralistic societies, in particular, it leads to neglect of the needs and aspirations of minorities. Minorities need not just be racial and religious minorities. Particular regions and social groups, even though they are a part of the racial or religious majority in a country, can be neglected by a government based on a parliamentary majority that springs from a limited proportion of the vote.

Constitutional safeguards, in the form of entrenched provisions, can ensure to a certain extent that discrimination is limited. However, in order to satisfy the needs of all these groups, constitutional safeguards alone will not suffice. Increasingly therefore, states have begun to realise that regional structures of governance are necessary, if the needs of particular segments of society are to be addressed. A central government cannot be expected to appreciate and respond actively to the special needs of smaller units with the same devotion that a government concentrating on that unit alone can supply.

The argument that devolving power to smaller units will cause problems cannot be sustained if the process of devolution is systematic and coherent. Certainly, there are issues that are best handled centrally, and will have to remain the prerogative of the central government. But assuming that all issues are best handled centrally is a fallacy. Also, the argument that devolution of power can lead to separation is no more valid than the argument that failure to devolve also leads to separation. Historically, the latter has caused separatist movements more often than the former.

The argument that devolution suits only large countries is also incorrect, since rational devolution supposes that authority is devolved in accordance with convenience rather than abstract principles. Larger units may require more powers, but smaller units can also exercise some powers in a manner that will benefit their people. One of the most successful examples of a country that has remained unified despite marked differences among its people is Switzerland. It is a relatively small country which allocates considerable power to the several cantons that constitute it. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29654080One of the biggest problems Sri Lanka faces is the absence of consultation between political parties. The manner in which the Reform Agenda of the President was nearly destroyed because of a failure to see it as a national need is typical of what is wrong. The Prime Minister decided that this was an enterprise for which the UNP had to get the credit, and accordingly he worked only with his chosen acolytes. Though lip service was paid to consultation, through what was termed the National Executive Council, this was set up in a very haphazard fashion, and had no plan of work, nor regular meetings.

So the 19th Amendment emerged, like Athene from the head of Zeus, from the team that Ranil had asked as early as November to prepare a Bill to transfer power from the President to the Prime Minister. Jayampathy Wickremaratne revealed this early in our discussions about the manifesto, and though he took the point that publication of such a Bill during the campaign would play straight into Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hands, he did not accept the further point that such a procedure would be unfair. It was wrong to ask the people to vote for one person in order to give power to another, but Jayampathy was so enamoured by then of the Wickremesinghe agenda, that he simply bided his time and then produced his draft.

The result was that what should have been a process conducted with goodwill on all sides turned acrimonious. Other aspects of the manifesto that seemed equally important to other parties were ignored. Though perhaps Ranil Wickremesinghe was only concerned with what was of immediate importance to him, and thought other things could be dealt with later, the impression he created was that he was simply not interested in strengthening Parliament (through amending the Standing Orders) or introducing a Code of Conduct, or Electoral Reform.

 

Perhaps he cannot be blamed, given the confrontational view of politics that has developed in the last half century and more. The problem I think started with the manner in which Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was defeated in 1964, which involved bribery on a scale that would now seem ludicrous. But even so, the Parliament elected in 1965 seemed remarkably civilized, and legislation did seem to involve consultation and consensus. Indeed, though I still regret the manner in which the opposition campaigned against Dudley Senanayake’s attempt to introduce District Councils, that measure lost largely because of the internal opposition to devolution in his party.

The 1970 election however put paid to hopes of consensus building. Perhaps traumatized by the 1971 insurrection, the United Front government pushed through its new constitution without sufficient consultation. It did however go through the motions, of setting up a Constituent Assembly, but internal problems in the UNP prevented a principled response, which might have led to more productive discussion. In turn, in 1978, helped by the rout of the SLFP, J R Jayewardene virtually ramrodded his new constitution through, ignoring the very sensible strictures of experts such as N M Perera.

 

The massive majority he enjoyed, and the carrots he provided his MPs with, led to a breakdown in the Committee system. I was astonished, when I got into Parliament, to find that Committees did not meet regularly, and when they did, they took no notice of what they were supposed to discuss according to the Standing Orders. The business they transacted was about the particular problems of individual MPs. The idea that they should consider policy and examine expenditure seemed incomprehensible to my colleagues. One could not however blame them, since the electoral system J R had instituted meant that they had to devote all their energies to popularizing themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29589564In this section I look at how Democracy has evolved in the modern period, and glance at the methods by which people choose their representatives.

 

Democracy in the Modern Period

During the Renaissance, when classical (that is, Greek and Roman) learning was revived in Europe, there were a few Italian city-states that practised some forms of democracy. But these too eventually submitted to the rule of autocrats, or became parts of larger kingdoms.

As the world began entering the Modern Period, beginning in the sixteenth century, Europe, after reaching Asia and the Americas through its voyages of exploration, began to exercise power over the rest of the world At this time Europe was dominated by large empires and kingdoms ruled by hereditary monarchs. But as wealth increased, and more and more people began to feel the need to participate in government, demands for democracy developed. Study of classical authors helped to establish the idea that the state should be based on a social contract, whereby the rulers were bound to act on behalf of the people. If they failed to do this, they could be challenged. The Divine Rights Theory of Monarchy, which held that a state belonged to the monarch, lost credibility.

 

As mentioned earlier, it was in England that parliament emerged in the seventeeth century as an institution capable of challenging the executive power of the king. The French Revolution against monarchy, and the American Revolution against British rule in the eighteenth century, established the idea that government essentially belonged to the people, and derived its authority from them. Even though at the beginning of the nineteenth century the kings of Europe tried to restore the old order, this was only temporary. Monarchies prevailed in most countries until the twentieth century, but the kings had to accept parliamentary authority which gradually increased. Those who resisted the longest were swept away during the First World War. Those who had compromised earlier, such as the English King, kept their thrones though actual decision-making powers passed to the elected representatives of the people. Read the rest of this entry »

Good governance 10When we were discussing electoral reform at a meeting of all parties chaired by the President, I was astonished at the general incapacity or unwillingness to conceptualize. The principal exception to this was the JHU representative, Asoka Abeygunasekera, whose few interventions went straight to the core of the problem.

A week later, at the launch of his book on the last election, I was telling one of the diplomats present about his conceptual capacities when he got up to speak. His main point was the general lack of analysis in addressing problems. I suspect that, like me, he has been sadly disillusioned by the failure of this government to address scientifically the problems it identified during the election campaign, and work systematically to overcome them.

Unfortunately this government, like the last one, seems to avoid thinking and planning, but rather produces ad hoc solutions when problems crop up, with no assessment of long term goals. Its idea of consultation seems to be to leave particular matters to particular individuals, which is why perhaps there has been no progress at all on that most important of commitments, a Code of Conduct. Instead we have concentration by individuals of what they want, which reduces to how they can best enhance their own powers.

All this is accompanied by outbursts that do more damage than the good achieved by positive measures. Ranil Wickremesinghe threatening to shoot Indian fishermen or attacking the Australian government for not following the line of his preferred Westerners with regard to the last government, Mangala Samaraweera defending Kshenuka Seneviratne by accusing Tamara Kunanayagam of speaking in support of the Tigers, Ravi Karunanayake claiming that the business sector had supported the previous government, all show a penchant for scoring debating points without considering the long term interests of the country. Read the rest of this entry »

To ensure that Parliament is composed proportionate to the will of the people, while at the same time allowing for constituqrcode.29527441encies that had individual representatives, the Germans developed a system that combines features of both the simple-majority system and the proportional representation system. In the German system, half the seats in parliament are occupied by candidates elected on a constituency basis. In addition, voters cast votes for a party and those votes are counted separately.

The number of seats a party occupies in the parliament must be in proportion to these votes. In order to achieve this, the remaining half of the seats in parliament, after the individual constituency representatives have been chosen, is allocated to each party to reflect the proportion of the votes they obtained on the party vote. This requires correction of any imbalance caused by the constituency vote, where one party may win a great many constituencies even though it has won each of them by a very small majority.

An example may help to make this system clearer.

Capture

Read the rest of this entry »

Good Governance 9Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s defence of his taking a young man with him to New York was entertaining, but it was also very sad. Instead of concentrating on the problem of public funds being spent on private predilections, he engaged in a defence of what he evidently thought was a slur, if not on his character, on that of the young man in question. As a defence to charges he evidently took seriously, even if they had not been articulated, he claimed that the person in question was happily married and had a beautiful daughter.

This seems to imply that, had the youth not been married, or had he been married but childless, there would have been legitimate grounds for worry. But in thus diverting attention to what should be an irrelevancy, the Minister ignored the fundamental problem, which is that public money is spent on private convenience. This should not be acceptable, even when the person involved is a wife (whether with or without beautiful children).

Some years back I realized how absurd the situation was when I criticized the fact that a particular Minister had appointed his wife as his private secretary. The excuse offered was that he could then take her with him when he travelled, and that the cost to the country was less, since they could share a room. I do not suppose that was the reason for my predecessor as Minister of Higher Education appointing his wife to his private staff, or my erstwhile superior Kabir Hashim appointing his brother-in-law to his private staff.

 

Such individuals may be considered dependable – as was Kabir’s sister-in-law when he himself was non Cabinet Minister for Tertiary Education in 2002 (she was certainly honest, for she told me, when I complained about how the then UNP government was giving in to the LTTE at every turn, that they could not back out of the Ceasefire Agreement since that would be electorally disastrous). But the country should not have to pay for individuals a Minister finds dependable, unless they actually fulfil a task the country needs. And certainly the provision that a Minister can take one of his private staff with him when he travels is absurd, unless he can show that some public purpose is fulfilled.

During my brief career as a Minister, I was appalled at the perks that were available. I did not take all these up, and I believe the private staff I appointed did serve a public purpose. I had for instance, as Management assistants, two Tamil translators, in a situation in which the entire Ministry had only two people able to function in Tamil, and they at senior levels so they could not be used for day to day translations. As a result the Ministry website was functional in all three languages, which was I believe almost unique for any Ministry website. Read the rest of this entry »

political principlesIn Political Principles and their Practice, which Cambridge University Press in India published some years back, the 3rd chapter (after chapters on the State and the Powers and Functions of Government) was about the Law. However I thought that I would leave that till later, and move on to Chapter 4 because of current concerns about changing the electoral system. This chapter explores systems of representation, but before we look into that, it makes sense to consider what me mean by Democracy, and how it has developed over the years.

The origins of democracy

The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, which mean ‘people’ and ‘power’. Thus, by democracy is meant a political system in which power belongs to the people. This is now generally accepted as the best system of government, inasmuch as it is the people who constitute the state, and therefore the government of a state should be in the hands of its people. However, numerous disagreements arise when we try to work out the best mechanisms through which people can exercise their power of government.

Clearly, all the people cannot rule together. Therefore, in a democracy, at any given period some of the people have to rule on behalf of the rest. But choosing some people as representatives of all the others has its problems.

Athens was the first state to have adopted the democratic system of government. They found that when there were elections the wealthy were chosen as leaders. They, therefore, instituted a system in which the representatives were chosen each year by drawing a lot from among all the citizens. This, they felt, led to a more truly representative government rather than the system of elections which gave advantages to the more influential members of society.

Athens functioned effectively for several years in the fifth century BC under this system. But a terrible defeat in 404, in the thirty-year war against the Spartans, led to the downfall of its political system. Some of its citizens felt that the defeat was due to their existing system of government. Since then this system of participatory democracy has never been put forward as a model.

In any case it would be difficult to put the system into practice in larger societies with vast differences among people. Athens was, after all, only a small city-state with a relatively educated population which prided itself on the capabilities of all its citizens. It also excluded women, slaves and foreigners dwelling in the city, from involvement in the democracy. So, the number of those from whom the choices were made was limited. Still, the experiment was interesting, and has since provided a mode of sorts for all democratic societies which aim to maximise participation of people in government.

The next important experiment in democracy was conducted by the Romans. It was a significant stage in the development of democracy, since final authority lay with the representatives elected by the people. Though systems of administration in other parts of the world at the time have been described as democratic, inasmuch as there were councils of elders in villagers or regular consultation of bodies of citizens, these were not institutionalised as ultimate authorities. Power, in the end, lay with kings, and it was from them that others—governors, advisers or elders—derived their authority. In Athens, however, as later in Rome, for nearly five hundred years from the fifth century BC onwards, power actually belonged to the people and to the representatives they chose. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Governance 8I have been arguing for the last few months that the basic principle this government was elected to fulfil, namely reducing the power of an over mighty executive, requires the establishment of alternative centres of power. The Wickremesinghe recipe of transferring all power to the Prime Minister, by giving the latter freedom of action and placing the President firmly under his control, is authoritarianism of an even more insidious sort.

 

But in the discussions I see in the media, there is little attention to those alternative centres of power. The failure to amend Standing Orders so as to strengthen Parliament, and give due recognition to the Opposition, has not been discussed anywhere. The continuing suppression of the Public Service, by handing over the appointment of the Accounting Officers of all Ministries wholly to the Executive, has hardly been noticed. The fact that Secretaries have to see themselves as the chosen instruments of their Ministers, or of the political executive authority has not been challenged.

 

With regard to the Judiciary, simply getting rid of Mohan Pieris seems to be thought enough to guarantee an effective judiciary. No one seems to be interested in correcting the flawed impeachment procedure that led to Shirani Bandaranayake being accused and judged by the same group of people. And no one seems to be interested in ensuring that the judicial process is simplified and expedited, that judges follow rules as to remanding and sentencing, that legislation is prepared in a fashion that makes it readily understandable by the people whom it affects.

 

I have long realized that many of those who claim to want good governance are concerned mainly with criticizing the abuses of those they dislike, and putting in place alternatives that deal with the excesses of particular individuals. The need to have a principled approach to the problems that have beset us over the last few decades is understood only be a few individuals such as Rev Sobitha and Elmore Perera, and they seem to have been comprehensively sidelined in the last few months. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29413330We have looked thus far at areas where government has a major role to play. In other areas it must recognize that people should by and large be left to function on their own. Yet in the modern world, given the scale of activity that occurs, there is need of some state intervention. This however should be seen as

 

Facilitation

 

Increasing involvement of government has become necessary for production and trade after the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the modern economic system. Before that, government had mainly to ensure physical and financial security. But even in early days there were requirements that could be met only by large-scale activity, and governmental involvement was essential for this.

Thus, going back to early Sri Lankan history, we find that the mark of a good ruler was promoting infrastructural development for irrigation purposes. In modern times, apart from irrigation, which is still of vital importance, research to promote productivity and preservation, communications networks to promote distribution, and credit schemes to promote investment, are essential for the support of agriculture.

Industrial development requires even greater infrastructural support, including utilities on a large scale and specialised training. Trade in both agriculture and industry should be facilitated through financial assistance as well as improved international communications, including telecommunications where rapid modernisation is vital.

Some of these areas overlap with those discussed earlier, but these activities are the responsibility of individuals and organisations. Government need not itself engage in such activities. In statist systems, economic activity was undertaken by government, often leading to monopolies. Experience has shown that this may hinder economic development. Without incentives for efficiency or penalties for incompetence, systems tend to collapse. Political interference often leads to overstaffing and indiscipline, which breed corruption and limit productivity.

 

The essential function of government in these areas is facilitation of activity by providing infrastructure and services needed for smooth functioning. In some instances, it could also include subsidies, but this should be carefully monitored lest they contribute to inefficiency. Nurturing a particular sector at times is a vital task of government but such nurturing should be to strengthen it to stand on its own over the course of time. If this is not feasible, continuing with subsidies is inappropriate in view of the wider interests of society.

 

To sum up, the facilitatory functions of government, which need careful planning and the setting of readily identifiable targets, require in a cabinet the following portfolios—minister of agriculture / irrigation, minister of industries and/or trade, minister of transport (including roads, railways, harbours and aviation), minister of communications / telecommunications and minister of power and energy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reform 9I come now to what seems a contentious issue, unnecessarily so. The manifesto on which the President won the election clearly pledged that ‘An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’

This commitment, in the 100 day manifesto, was fleshed out in the commitment to a Compassionate Cogvernment and a Stable Country, as follows: The existing electoral system is a mainspring of corruption and violence. Candidates have to spend a colossal sum of money due to the preferential system. I will change this completely. I guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and will ensure that every electorate will have a Member of Parliament of its own. The new electoral system will be a combination of the first-past-the post system and the proportional representation of defeated candidates. Since the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal, I would be able to get the agreement of all political parties represented in Parliament for the change. Further, wastage and clashes could be minimised since electoral campaigns would be limited to single electorates.’

This makes clear the urgent need for change. Sadly, the United National Party, having scented power, seems determined to continue with a system that practically demands corruption and violence. And while it will not openly promote corruption, the manner in which it is trying to grab vehicles from Ministries to give Members of Parliament shows that it will command resources without hesitation to promote its victory.

Fleets of vehicles naturally seem essential when candidates have to work in whole districts. So do millions of posters and hundreds of people to paste them. That in turn leads to violence that is more intra-party than between parties, since one’s immediate rivals are those in one’s own party. But presumably that matters nothing to the Prime Minister who belongs to the Divide and Rule Jayewardene philosophy in the UNP rather than the more inclusive Senanayake tradition.

The main argument against a First Past the Post system is that it distorts the will of the electorate. We saw this in both 1970 and in 1977, when governments had massive majorities in Parliament even though they had just bare majorities. But that is why the Maithripala Sirisena manifesto says very clearly that there would be mechanisms for plurality, and even more significantly, ‘the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal.’ Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

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