Groundviews

Democratising Majority Rule

Photo courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Sri Lanka has been exposed to veiled despotic and corrupt rule for some time. The malady persisted through the last regime and the people joined hands, two years back hopefully, to usher in a new era of liberty and good governance. Though the stress appears to have been noticeably reduced by more liberal policies and attitudes of the new regime, the root causes behind the problems continue to demonize governance.

The symptoms

One hot topic that is under focus today is the delay in disposing of the criminal and corruption charges levelled against the members of the last regime, whose displacement was largely due to such allegations. Though  the new dispensation came to power promising to take the wrongdoers to task on the charges levelled against them, people are getting dismayed and dejected by the seemingly lethargic manner in which the victors are getting about to honour their promise to vindicate the wrongs of the past. In the meantime, similar allegations are cropping up against members of the new regime. The Bond Scam is a typical example. Of course, many institutions have been set up to deal with these complaints. In addition to traditional sources like the Police, the Attorney General’s Department and the Bribery Commission, new structures like a Presidential Commission and the FCID have been put in place to meet the demand. Nevertheless nothing concrete appears to have been achieved so far.

Those in power blame the system and the officialdom for this clumsiness. They forget that both the system and the administration are placed under their power and it is their primary duty to put them right. They cannot wash their hands off by saying that they had referred matters to their officials for action. Such evasion accrues primarily to their discredit. The cause for this incapacity would appear to lie elsewhere. The predilection of the rulers to palaver their supporters also stems from the same root cause. That is what makes them to assuage their team with perks and privileges like titles, pay increases, vehicles and additional allowances in an economy where the average citizen finds it difficult to make both ends meet. The tendency to overlook the wrongs of their henchmen is also attributable to the same source.

The root cause

That root cause behind such erratic governance is the craving of the leaders to capture and remain in power. Each side tries to be one up on the other by competitively mollycoddling those who get elected to Parliament in order to win them over to achieve that end. The latest extension of this predilection was seen in the current rulers’ use of their power to make MPs out of those who lost at the last election. These seemingly ridiculous decisions are rationalized vociferously but the fact remains that leaders in politics would not hesitate to make Democracy stand on its head in their professed endeavour to create democratic institutions, if only the net result could sustain them or upload them in power. Coming to think of it, one cannot blame the leaders summarily for this seeming transgression. In the ultimate analysis, it is a natural by-product of the lofty democratic principle of majority rule.

To become the Head of a Government, a political leader needs to have a majority in Parliament on his/her side. No problem arises where an election produces a clear majority. The rat race begins when an election ends in a stalemate, leaving the contestants in a situation in which they have to bargain against their rivals to attain power. Barring rare exceptions, an average politician placed in such a predicament would naturally agree to seemingly irrational and nationally detrimental proposals, if such agreement would place him/her in power. The most effective chip that crops up in such a situation is ministerial office.

Power as bargaining chip

Logically the number of ministries required to run a country efficiently, can be determined by research and statistical analysis. But such logic falls by the wayside where the number of ministries has to be determined on the demand of bargain-hunters in preference to the demand of logic. That is exactly what happened at the end of the last election. One of the specific promises of those who dislodged the Government in power was to compress the seemingly innumerable existing ministries to a specific number. The victors kept their promise through the 19th Amendment passed by Parliament within six months of their coming to power. But as if by intuition, they had left in the same Amendment a loophole that enabled exceeding that limit, without a limit, in the event of forming a coalition Government. Though it is hard to understand how forming a coalition inflated the normal workload by itself, the visionary provision of the new-comers accrued to their advantage at the succeeding general election, when they were one up on their predecessors in the number of ministries created.

But blame cannot be placed personally on the leaders who apparently acted inconsistently. In the future too, placed in a similar situation, their successors would act in a similar manner unless steps are taken conceptually to remove the factors that attract bargain-hunters. Demystifying the halo of a minister takes the first priority in this venture. A quick fix to that problem would be to replace the magic word ‘Minister’. But that is more easily said than done. The word has got so much ingrained in the public conscience, that no amount of logic can dislodge it.

The remedy

The alternative is to diffuse the glory of the title with initiatives that reduce the wide status gap that now exists between a minister and an ordinary MP. The most effective move in this direction is to equalize the pay of all members irrespective of their allegiance to the party in power. Additional allowances may be paid in line with special services they render as minister, deputy minister, leader of opposition, member of standing committee etc. This step would automatically shift the status approach to a utility base. Similarly status symbols like vehicles, security and facilities should be tailored to real demand and distributed evenly, without conspicuous concentration on favoured posts or discrimination against contributors from the opposition.

The proposal to reintroduce the executive committee system of colonial days would go a long way to rationalize the functions of Parliament while transforming the adversarial gap between Government and Opposition to a cooperative link. The recent appointment of a member of the opposition as chairman of COPE was a trail-blazing exercise in this direction. It is only the other day that the minister of agriculture invited the organizer of the opposition to be his consultant. Though that request may have been made in a lighter vein, the proposal pinpoints a functional approach to the work of Parliament as opposed to confrontation. At the same time, such delegations break down the habitual adversarial attitude between the two sides and create one of comradery, as was noticed after the above appointment of a JVP member as chairman of COPE. Frictions and invectives that now beset Parliamentary debates stem mostly from the exclusion of opposition members from the executive proses. Giving them a meaningful role to play should involve them positively in the Parliamentary system. At least the executive committee gave them a ringside view of governance that gave them a sense of belonging.

Where a Party obtains a clear majority, its leader automatically becomes PM and things move smoothly on the set path. Problems arise where there is no such clear mandate. That is where the horse deals begin distorting the basic values of Democracy. The executive committee system can play a meaningful role when an election ends up with a hung Parliament. As at present, negotiations to win over members of other Parties are conducted on an ad hominem basis, placing the bargaining in the hands of individuals. But if that selection is left to the Executive Committees, the choice would become not only broad-based but also collective as each Committee would consist of members of all Parties. Horse deals could have very limited space in such a collective process. Incidentally, the method comes close to the time-honoured US system that has helped to maintain balance of power for centuries.

Regulating the election process

Another aspect that has been neglected so far in the election process is the control of participants at an election. Although lofty ideals like limiting of election expenses and avoidance of undue influence have been written into the Election Ordinance to avoid foul play at an election, they have been observed in the breach more often than not. The reason for this failure lies not only in the legal provisions concerned but also in the limitations associated with a government department implementing them. Now that a Commission has taken over the supervisory function, one can look forward to a cleaner atmosphere in future elections. To ensure such outcome the Commission bears the bounden duty of upgrading the law applicable to elections and running them without fear or favour. Judging from the track record of the present Chairman of the Commission, we can confidently look forward to cleaner elections in future. The cleaner the election the greater will be the honesty and propriety of those elected. In that background the horse deals attributed to past elections would no longer pollute the conduct of elected members.

Normally not much attention is paid to the selection of a candidate for whom one casts a vote. It is dealt with as a matter of course, in a very casual manner. The tendency is to accept the ‘known devil’ without bothering oneself to go into the merits of the ‘unknown angel’. Some cast their votes under dictation by trusted friends and superiors or for a fee. More often than not, many voters decide their preferences at the spur of the moment of voting. Such a lackadaisical attitude towards the casting of a vote is mainly responsible for the quality of the legislators we have been saddled with. In that sense, voters have no right to complain against their representatives on their performance or the lack of it. They only get the legislators they deserve. If each voter makes a firm resolution to cast his vote to a candidate who passes muster, majority rule will stand on a solid base.

Responsibility of the enlightened

Those who are most suitable to seek election fight shy of coming forward to contest. They are dissuaded by the notoriety attached to the position by the misbehaviour and corruption of many misfits who have got themselves elected in the past with bribery and undue influence. What they fail to realize is that we have to draw the line somewhere to end this sad impression, if we are to make politics a gentlemen’s game someday. The duty to do so falls squarely on the intelligent, the educated and the respectable. Though such citizens openly express their dissatisfaction over the quality of people who get elected and the loop holes in the election law that make such deviations possible, they fight sigh of entering the fray themselves.

Of late, intellectuals and opinion-leaders have added their weight to the task of educating the masses. The National Movement for Social Justice headed by Reverend Maduluvave Sobhitha made a significant contribution towards the change of government at the last election. His discourses had a tremendous impact on the final outcome of the election. The Thera’s followers are continuing his campaign but its impact has dwindled after his demise.

The need of the hour is to add strength to the elbow of the NMSJ. There are several other organizations that have evinced an interest in election reform. The UTA, UTHR, BASL, GMOA and the OPA are some of the professional associations that are working towards the same end, not to mention NGOs like CaFFE, CMEV and CPA. Unfortunately the work of these activists is disjointed and sporadic. The greatest need of the hour is to coordinate their work into an umbrella organization that could help effectively to democratize the election process. That ideal will remain a pious hope until someone takes the lead to put it into operation. Sobhitha Thera’s NMSJ is the most suitable to fill this role in the light of their  unique intervention and success. It is earnestly hoped that the above civic minded organization would lose no time in setting up the mechanism to streamline the election process. The cited organizations and others of the same calibre, are sure to be an effective guiding light on the ongoing constitution building process.

A third force

Ever since independence, governmental power has crisscrossed between the UNP and its offshoot the SLFP. The JVP’s attempt to become the third force failed unfortunately, not because of their policies but because of their methods. The original leaders’ mindless effort to imitate the  methods of the Khmer Rouge distanced the party from the masses. Although their followers are making an honest and selfless effort to win over the electorate, judging from election results, their efforts have not made much headway. The prejudices created by their forerunners appear to die hard.  JVP’s dilemma creates space for a new political Party, upholding nationalist and progressive policies. Although the intelligentsia may not choose to enter the political arena themselves, they have the potential to guide their students, trade unions, followers and others who come under their influence into a new political force devoid of the fault lines that are alienating the electorate from the fossilized and stagnant traditional Parties.

Creating a political party from scratch is an uphill task. It is doubtful whether the goodwill and guidance of the above mentioned Godfathers would be equal to the machinations of the old power blocks who are sure to fight hard to remain in power. Judging from the ongoing frictions and outcries within the traditional Parties, I have a gut feeling that the enlightened and progressive members of both blocks would come together at the next election to challenge the forces that are getting outdated fast. They should succeed in their endeavour with the blessings of the umbrella organization of ‘Godfathers’.