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The democratic ideal sounds simple enough. All citizens have a say in their system of governance, typically through elected representatives. The concept has been a part of Sri Lankan politics since as far back as 1931 under British colonial rule when Sri Lanka enjoyed universal franchise and partial representation. Yet, despite our 90 years of democratic resilience, the Sri Lankan political system is somehow flawed, ill-reputed, and often charged with being undemocratic.
Through a democratic lens, the feature of majority rule requires that decisions are made upon collective preference without marginalising minorities. Although in Sri Lanka, majority rule is confused with majoritarianism. The latter grants higher status to majority decisions even if they may harm a minority.
The essential democratic elements of consent/consensus are of little concern to decision makers in Sri Lanka. Instead, since gaining independence in 1948, political parties have continually adopted electoral strategies that appeal to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Ethno-centric policies such as the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 that excluded estate Tamils from citizenship and the later amendment which disenfranchised them, the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which violated language rights of the Tamils, and Article 9 of the 1978 constitution, which gives Buddhism the foremost place in Sri Lanka; are all strategies by successive governments to gain political leverage through majority popularity.
One one hand the constitution states that no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of religion, on the other it places Buddhism above the rest. Majoritarianism would have it that some citizens are more equal than others.
For important decisions such as law making or amending the constitution, majority vote has become the more legitimising factor over consent, consensus or collective preference. Take for instance, the government’s continued defense of the 20th Amendment to the constitution through the claim that the bill could be passed with a 2/3 majority in parliament. Despite the strong opposition by civil society groups, religious groups, councils, committees, and organisations, the only justification has been the majority mandate and not the welfare of all communities. It seems anything goes, as long as one has a majority on their side.
Even at critical political junctures, with the 20th amendment and a new constitution on the horizon, majoritarianism it appears is a convenient tool and an accepted defence for exploiting and transforming the country’s political framework.
A new constitution once drafted by this government is likely to reflect changes made through the 20th Amendment which have deliberately reversed democratic measures that assured transparency and accountability. Undemocratic reforms will be defended as demands of the majority declared through the Presidential and Parliamentary elections which saw a landslide victory for the governing party. Sri Lanka seems to be trapped in the fallacy of electorialism, the faith that elections alone accord public legitimacy to the winners- in this case to make sweeping and far-reaching changes to the constitution, the very foundation of Sri Lanka’s democracy.
The idea that a constitution enshrined with safeguarding all communities equally can be amended or replaced purely with a majority mandate and with no consensus by the minorities it seeks to protect is illogical. It is also undemocratic, but it is not something new.
This would not be the first time in Sri Lanka that democratic processes were used to legitimise undemocratic acts. Although elections are mandatory in a representative democracy, in 1982 calling off the Parliamentary election was legitimised by a referendum held by former president J.R. Jayewardene. Essentially, people cast their vote against voting and this was facilitated by the President himself.
Such blatant disregard for democratic values within Sri Lanka’s political leadership is rampant and unsurprising. The political crisis in October 2018 saw the President’s arbitrary removal of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of Parliament. It was an act that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and a violation of the fundamental rights of the people.
Acts such as this, which manipulate democratic elements for political gain, must reflect an absence/ weakness of commitment to democratic values among political leaders.
Majoritarianism manifesting as violence
Over the years Sri Lanka has witnessed a rise in ethno-nationalist sentiment as well as the association of political leadership with Sinhala-Buddhist leadership and dominance. Actions on the part of political leaders to appease this sentiment, such as the rhetoric enforced by President Rajapaksa’s swearing in ceremony, fuel this majoritarian ethno-nationalist ideology that can have damaging impacts on the sense of national belonging of minorities.
In the worst case, as Sri Lanka has been unfortunate enough to witness, unchecked majoritarian sentiments could lead to tragic consequences such as social polarization and violence. The violence against Muslims in Aluthgama in 2014, in Digana-Kandy in 2018 and even incidents as far back as the Black July massacre in 1983 are examples of heightened ethno-nationalist sentiment coupled with inaction by governments to prevent majority aggression against minorities. Government response to these incidents have shown that in Sri Lanka, protecting minorities has become a political inconvenience.
Majority rule then, while being an identifiable component of democracy, cannot be a lone guarantor of peaceful democratic governance. Rather, it can function as an element that breeds communal disharmony and eventually, violence.
Majority rule adopted in isolation, with no regard for consent, consensus and collective preference severely undermines both equality and the quality of democracy. Sri Lanka is a primary example of this. Majoritarianism only increases social polarization, leading to more chaos and violence than the country can afford.
The lack of respect and commitment by political leaders to the values of democracy have made existing democratic processes and institutions redundant. The people and the leaders they elect must value the essence of democracy; that it is not a concept limited to elections and majority popularity, but one that empowers and protects all communities. Until then, Sri Lanka will continue to be a state adopting elements of democracy only to undermine it.
 Statement by National Peace Council, Audit Inspector’s Association, Federation of National Organisations, National Federation for Social Justice, Free Media Movement, Buddhist monks, Catholic Bishops’ Conference, National Christian Council