Sri Lanka’s Vertical Theory of Democracy

More than 4 million voters will elect 148 members to three of the nine provincial councils in Sri Lanka during landmark elections on Saturday September 21. The most significant aspect of the elections is that Tamils in the country's formerly war-torn north will exercise their right to vote after 25 years.

Posted on 09/19/13
By Rukshana Nanayakkara | Via Ceylon Today
A view of an election rally of the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in North Western Province's Kurunegala District on September 17, 2013. (Photo via President Mahinda Rajapaksa's office)
A view of an election rally of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in North Western Province’s Kurunegala District on September 17, 2013. (Photo via President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office)

I feel we are living in a vertical democracy. As the President of the country stated, we do have elections on a regular basis. We are governed by a Constitution, which establishes democratic institutions of governance. One can check the boxes: Sri Lanka has an Executive, Parliament, a Judiciary, and universal franchise is an age-old tradition in the country. This is the garb of democracy that the President boasts about. How much of this vertical democracy, has spilled over, horizontally?

If a democracy functions well, the population of a country should be able to lead their lives with dignity, or if not, at least strive for it beyond constructed and identified barriers such as race, ethnicity, religion, caste, and so forth. This is what I call horizontal democracy – where justice and dignity underscore over lives and the societies we live in.

Examples of failing democracy
I grew up in a troubled society. My generation holds no childhood memories that are void of political chaos, ethnic violence and the ghastly horrors of civil war. I once found myself feeling like an alien, when a batch mate in my postgraduate class told me that I come from one of the oldest democracies in Asia – a historic fact and a present day vertical reality that I cannot relate to. The facts of present day electioneering is an example of our failing democracy.
A free and fair election is a farfetched idea in Sri Lanka. As voters weigh among the evils, the notion of free and fair is vacuumed of its absolute meaning, transforming itself to a concept of relativity. I hold no recollection of elections pre-dating the days of my universal adult franchise, which I have come to know were free and fair in every sense. However, today, sections of voters, at times vast numbers, are compelled to make their decision in the context of violence and/or abuse of power. So, we often complain or regret our decisions, or the conduct of the candidates, which in turn denotes the decision we had taken in this regard.

Continue to make the same mistake
On the verge of another election with no change of circumstances, we will continue to make this mistake. Interestingly, the recent survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, reflects this reality. When selecting candidates, the most important factor that matters to most is the candidates’ engagement in community service and village development. Honest and suitable candidates who have good policies are generally in the second place.

According to Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), as of 15 September, only 30% of the candidates contesting at the upcoming Provincial Council elections have declared their assets and liabilities. This is despite the Elections Commissioner’s warning that his Department will not Gazette the polls results of those who do not submit a declaration of their assets. The same source reveals a number of abuses of State resources by the ruling party in the election campaigns. According to People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), interestingly, military personnel are engaged in the election campaigns.

This is a regrettable status of affairs.
The attitudes of the voters and the conduct of the government, both, indicate how we view democracy. From the voters’ point of view, we weigh democracy along with development. While democracy is and should be a means to an end, the manner in which democracy is manipulated, is welcomed by those who resort to abusing what it is all about.
Promoted and manipulated democracy
Since 1972, those who drafted our Constitutions, promoted it and manipulated it to make it seem as a vehicle for economic development. The attitude of the voters, indicate their ignorance of the manner in which the Constitution has been manipulated.

Among many other functions of democracy, it should facilitate value-based, healthy, economic development. As the survey results reveal, the voters, in determining their choice, unfortunately ignore the process and policies of  healthy development – the transparency and accountability in public spending, the participation of citizens in related development, the sustainability of development, among other relevant aspects.

Laissez faire
This attitude of voters, which could be equated to being laissez faire, has enabled criminals to govern our lives. The inefficiency and impunity in our system pave the way for these so-called candidates to fill their coffers with public money. Their flippancy is insulting and embarrassing. They, together with their criminal gangs, engage in violence in broad daylight. How is it that, we are as a nation, are still oblivious to the conduct and the policies of our politicians?
The apathy of the citizens and the level of awareness among them about the functions of a democracy, allow the government to manipulate what democracy denotes, for their benefit. The vertical democracy exercised by those at the helm of affairs manipulates the voter and the level of awareness of democracy, as well as the social status of the masses, for their benefit.

As much as civil society raises concerns over abuse during elections, and moans over the conduct of the government, it needs to define strategies to enable citizens of the country to question the government’s conduct and that of our representatives. The quality of both needs to be looked at as an investment; it is something we have failed to achieve since independence. And until we do, democracy will continue to exist in the vertical ivory towers of our politicians.

This article first appeared in Sri Lanka leading daily Ceylon Today. Click here to go to the original.

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