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Putting the philosophy of ‘democracy’ to practice

By Sumudu Chamara

Democracy in Sri Lanka is facing a multitude of issues ranging from a lack of understanding of what the rudimentary elements of democracy are, to political, social, and cultural practices that have overpowered the true nature of democracy. In order to change the status quo, which is essential for a truly democratic country, all these aspects need to be addressed, and the media, the civil society, the political leadership, as well as the citizens have a massive responsibility.

These sentiments were extensively discussed at a webinar held on 15 September, which marked the International Day of Democracy, with the participation of experts from the human rights, elections, civil society, and academic fields.

The discussion was attended by former Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama, who focused on whether democracy is essential; Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) Senior Lecturer Dr. Dileepa Witharana, who focused on from whom democracy should be saved; former Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) Executive Director Dr. Udan Fernando, who talked about whether civil society is the liberator of democracy; Attorney-at-Law K.W. Janaranjana, who spoke about the mass media’s role in ensuring democracy; and People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi, who focused on why there are no results in voting. The discussion was moderated by Vishaka Sooriyabandara of the Sri Jayewardenepura University and organised by the Samabima organisation.

According to Dr. Udagama, although Sri Lanka upholds certain elements of democracy, in general, the subject of democracy in Sri Lanka is questionable. Further, Dr. Udagama believes that the country has overlooked many elements of true democracy.

She explained the concept of democracy, stating: “Democracy is an idea, and philosophers Aristotle and Plato did not like democracy much because of the concerns as to whether the people would have the power to control the administrative system (under democracy). The term democracy is formed based on two Greek words, i.e. demos, which means people, and kratos, which means rule and control. In essence, democracy means people’s control. Even though it sounds simple, when it is implemented, it is very complex.”

Speaking of democracy and politics, Dr. Udagama added that one of the most important characteristics of democracy is everyone having political equality and equal voting rights, and therefore, the concept of democracy is extremely essential to a lot of marginalised people. Another characteristic of democracy, according to her, is democratic governments being bound to protect natural rights, which makes protecting democracy not just a moral obligation but also a legal obligation.

“The rule of law is the other most important part of democracy,” Dr. Udagama noted, adding that it is, in fact, bigger than a single person.

She further added: “The people should have the right to express their opinions when decisions that matter to them are being made, and in a democratic process, the Government being accountable is extremely important.”
Dr. Udagama also opined that when looking at democracy theoretically, the main concerns the world has are its practicality, transparency, and capacity for self-correction. Moreover, she noted that modern society depends on three pillars, i.e. the right to vote, free education, and free healthcare.

Whilst addressing the driving forces of people’s motivation to seek democracy, she noted: “Except for a few countries, a lot of countries have embraced democracy, which I think goes hand in hand with the human mind. I think that humans have an inherent autonomy, whether we accept it or not, and when there is no autonomy, or when we don’t have the right to take decisions, we become rebellious. This concerns who we choose as our rulers and how we want to live our personal lives, which are of importance to human beings,” she explained.

Explaining the relationship between democracy and the political culture, she elaborated: “There are questions as to whether our aspirations have been achieved, and whether our preferences are being represented. In a book titled Coping With Post-Democracy, a UK-based political scientist questioned whether we have achieved post-democracy. What he talked about was today, democracy in many countries is empty. When looked at closely, there are a few elite groups that control the democratic process, especially the Executive and the Legislature.”

In this context, she emphasised that there is a question as to whether the people have a proper representation as far as democracy is concerned.

“Sri Lankans were divided throughout history, on the basis of ethnicity and religion, among others, mostly during elections. We should pay attention to this situation, and look into what our inabilities are. We have changed governments through elections but there is a problematic situation as to whether we have the ability to control the situation and demand democracy from political parties, and whether we try to elect good candidates. Therefore, we should discuss the way we can change the nature of political powers, and if we can change this, we would be able to achieve some progress,” Dr. Udagama said during the discussion.

Thereby, she emphasised that Sri Lanka should change the way it looks at democracy in the future.

Meanwhile, Dr. Witharana explained that democracy is a system driven by the people and that the people tend to identify democracy in different ways. He added that democracy is a system that can be established by addressing three concepts, i.e. ideas of democracy, democratic institutions, and democratic cultures.

“We can go beyond the normal definitions of democracy, and identify other aspects such as respecting human rights, having a multi-party system, democratic elections, the rule of law, and the people’s participation in discussing the idea of democracy. However, having an idea is not enough; we also have to discuss democratic structures. We can identify structures at certain levels such as the Parliament, provincial councils (PCs), electoral systems, the media, the Judiciary, various commissions, and the Constitution. However, in order to establish democracy properly, ideas and structures are not enough. There should also be a democratic culture. Such a culture should be at a number of levels including national and institutional levels, and it should go to lower levels of the society as well. In order to establish democracy, it is important that all these three things are fulfilled; democratic ideas, structures, and cultures.”

However, in addition to those three aspects, disparities in society, which can affect the people’s trust in democracy, can in turn affect democracy as a whole, according to Witharana.

He explained: “Most of the time, we tend to discuss the idea of democracy; however, that is limited. Even if we addressed all these three factors, democracy can still fail. The main reason for that is the disparities in society, which are prevalent in Sri Lankan society. Owing to them, we have been unable to get a majority of our society to engage in democracy. That is because they do not trust in democracy, which leads them to opt for undemocratic ways to resolve the issues caused by these disparities in society. Also, they start thinking that there are no answers in democracy to the issues caused by these disparities.”

He noted that in an extremely diverse social structure, it is difficult to implement democracy, because the majority opts out of democracy due to the lack of trust placed in it.

According to him, these disparities include disparities between the elite and non-elite communities as well as those who have relationships with politicians and authorities and those who do not, disparities pertaining to languages and elite and non-elite school systems, and disparities pertaining to social classes, religious disparities, ethnic disparities, and environmental disparities.

He added that the list of disparities can be categorised into three parts depending on the type of discourse it requires, i.e. democratic discourse, socialist discourse, and environmental discourse.

Stating that a democratic society cannot be built from democracy alone, Dr. Witharana underscored: “If we want to make a democratic society, there are two solutions we can look into. First, the idea of democracy should be widened with a special focus on socialist and environmental issues, and secondly, politics should be made a common discourse which combines the said three aspects.”

Dr. Fernando, who spoke of the civil society’s role in establishing democracy, was of the opinion that considering how civil society has been a part of many political changes, he could identify the civil society as not only an entity and a set of ideas, but also as a political force and an ideology.

He noted that throughout history, civil society has been looked at in different ways. However, according to him, at the end of the day, civil society and those representing civil society are a part of the general society and are not separated from the rest of society.

“In the global context, from time to time, civil society has worked under different themes such as manufacturing democracy and transparency. The civil society played various roles in Sri Lanka’s political history too, sometimes to overthrow governments. They have played important roles not only in elections but also in amending the Constitution, and by doing so, they tried to establish democratic tools, institutions, and practices. Whether we can see civil society as the liberator of democracy or not, first and foremost, we have to rethink what democracy is and understand that what we have identified as democracy is not only a superficial concept but also a deformed concept. In this context, there is a question as to whether we can mobilise the people within this deformed democracy we have now. We have to ask whether we can be happy with the elements of democracy.”

He added that democracy is not the only burning issue, and that there are more serious issues in our social and political structures, such as militarisation and despotism.

Moreover, he noted that at present there are new civil society forces who claim the civil society space, and that the old civil society forces do not have the monopoly they had before. However, he added that civil society alone cannot establish democracy, because in history, civil society worked in accordance with political forces.

During the discussion, Janaranjana spoke extensively of the media’s role in establishing and maintaining democracy.
He pointed out how the media should ideally behave and what practices it should adopt in order to be a productive partner of democracy, and that unfortunately in Sri Lanka, a large number of media institutions are not up to that level.

He explained the media’s role, stating: “Even though the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary have been appointed by the people, be it directly or indirectly, there is no way for them to monitor whether these institutions follow the social contract properly. In this context, the media has a massive responsibility to monitor whether it takes place, and therefore, the mass media is answerable to the people. In this process, the idea of democracy becomes extremely important, and our idea of democracy is what decides the extent to which we maintain it. I am of the opinion that the media should focus on political, ethnic, religious, and geographical aspects, and we can go beyond them based on the extent to which the media works with the basic concepts of democracy. Journalists should consider their democratic ideologies as progressive ideologies, and work above various divisions such as democratic aspects related to human rights, ethnic rights, the freedom of expression, religious freedom, fundamental rights, and civil, political, social, and cultural rights.”

Further, he noted, when taking Sri Lankan media into consideration, they do not show signs of adequate knowledge about applying democracy in their work, adding that media institutions publish anti-democratic ideas too. Moreover, he expressed that although the principles of democracy refer to the majority’s opinion, simultaneously, attention should also be given to ensure adequate space for the minority. Citing an example of this in Sri Lankan electronic and print media, he noted that Sinhala-Buddhist ideas and communities are predominantly represented in such media, as opposed to minority ideas and communities.

“In this context, the minority within the democratic process has been excluded from the media, which gives a message that they do not have adequate space in the media,” he opined.

Meanwhile, Hettiarachchi noted serious flaws in Sri Lanka’s electoral system, highlighting that politicians, political parties, and voters deviate from their ideal role. He opined that when looking at today’s electoral system in Sri Lanka, there is no bond between the voters and the politicians, and that they are, in fact, very distant.

He said: “There are transactions between voters and politicians, which prevents a proper bond forming between the two parties and it goes against the social contract. In fact, we have seen parliamentarians who do not have adequate knowledge as to what the Constitution is. Elections are based on favours, which is unacceptable, as the people tend to use their vote based on those factors. There is a serious question as to whether MPs (Members of Parliament), who express public opinion, can express their opinion, as well as whether the MPs are aware of and have understood their role and responsibility. Also, we have a question as to whether we have citizens who have understood their responsibility. Who we have are voters, not citizens. If we had citizens, they would look into their candidates’ eligibility. Also, what Sri Lanka has is political camps, not parties that have policies and programmes. Their policies are mainly about getting power at the next election, and sometimes they include bribery and corruption. Political parties have followers, not members that question their parties.”

The lack of political parties, politicians, and citizens who understand their role and responsibility, is a serious issue, and in that sense, Sri Lanka has failed to develop citizens that go beyond being mere voters, according to

Hettiarachchi. He added that the country has failed to create political leaders who have a vision, which has in turn paved the way for a lack of visionary leadership in the country.

Hettiarachchi noted that the status quo cannot be changed unless all these aspects are addressed.

As the experts who spoke during the discussion noted, democracy is a concept that goes beyond the people being allowed to use their franchise and weigh in on national-level decisions only when they are allowed to, and there are many other aspects that establish and strengthen a democratic system.

However, the duty of changing this situation lies not only with the Government, but also the people, the media, civil society, as well as religious and ethnic leaders, who have a responsibility to create citizens, not mere voters.