Making a democratic choice at General Election

By Shanie
Courtesy: The Island

"There are two types of people, the fox and the hedgehog. The fox is sly and the hedgehog committed."

(April 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) This generalisation is relevant to us as the people of Sri Lanka are once again called to make a choice next Thursday at the election to the next parliament. There are an abundance of foxes and some hedgehogs among the few thousands who are seeking to fill the 225 positions as Members of Parliament. Which choice will the people make – the fox or the hedgehog?

Tony Benn, that principled and committed politician who belonged to the left wing of the British Labour Party, was also an interesting diarist. His published political diary contains some very perceptive insights. In one entry, he refers to a meeting he had with the then American Ambassador in the UK. The Ambassador and Benn were talking about two leaders of their respective countries – Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom by then were not holding any political office. During this conversation, the Ambassador had pulled out a little notebook he had with him and said: ‘Listen to this. It’s from Isaiah Berlin’ and went on to quote the above observation about foxes and hedgehogs. Benn had no doubt as to which of the leaders the Ambassador saw as the fox and which the hedgehog.

Likewise, the people of the country can also see through the façade that most of our politicians present. They can see the politician who has a commitment to peace, justice and the rule of law and those sly ones whose only commitment is to political power for its own sake. Yet, the people must be able to freely choose in terms of their own perception and conscience, without intimidation and harassment. That is why the democratic process calls for a free and fair election and the election laws framed so as to ensure this. A free election has been defined as the freedom of the electorate to determine its choice among alternate options without constraints and restraints that fetter that choice. A fair election is defined as one where no one political party or alliance exercises undue advantage in the electoral process at the expense of other parties or alliances.

The role of the intelligentsia

Most of our early elections were, by and large, free and fair. That is the reason for elections resulting on changes of government. The electorate showed maturity in articulating their needs and to make a free choice as to whom they wanted to take over the reins of government. But, sadly, there has been an increasing trend in recent elections for the ruling party to use state power to thwart that democratic process. It is here that it becomes necessary for the intelligentsia, the academics and the media, to safeguard the democratic framework. This is where many of them have failed the country. Some have lacked the courage to stand up and speak up against the assaults on democracy and injustice. To be fair, however, some who over the years had the courage to do so have disappeared, been subject to violence or forced to go underground. This is not easy in a climate of fear and violence but our conscience and our commitment to justice must ensure that we stand up for what is right. It is only the intellectuals and religious leaders who can give the lead in this.

But there can be nothing but contempt for those who among the intelligentsia who, to use a phrase once used by the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, become mere salespersons for political leaders; a trend that came into vogue after 1977. Bishop Wickremesinghe was obviously referring to those who were willing to sell their minds to a person, to a party or to an ideology, losing their reasoned thinking and contributing constructively to healthy public discussion. Intellectuals should not engage in character assassination, in rhetoric and abuse of those holding views other than their own or that of those political leaders whom they wish to defend. Today’s trend is against healthy and open dialogue, free of abuse. It is the duty of the intelligentsia of this country to halt this trend and to restore reasoned thinking and rational discussion and debate, despite the dangers from undemocratic forces.

The intellectuals indeed have a duty to critique injustice and the disregard of the rule of law. In another of Tony Benn’s diary entries, he refers to meeting he had with the Soviet Ambassador to the UK (when Gorbachev’s glasnost was the current ideology in the Soviet Union). In reply to Benn’s question as how he thought Stalin would be regarded by history, the Ambassador had said: ‘He was a very competent man, and undoubtedly his collectivisation and industrialisation enabled us to win the war, but two million people were killed by Stalin before and after the war… When I was a boy in the Young Communist League, we thought Stalin wasn’t aware of what was happening, that he couldn’t be responsible and it must have been the people under him. But when I joined the Central Committee of the Party and read the government records, I realised Stalin knew who had been killed, indeed had given the instructions himself.’ Like in Hitler’s Germany, the intellectuals acquiesced or opted to remain silent in the face of brazen assaults on democratic rights.

Issues at the Election

The parliamentary election next week presents an opportunity for the electorate to make a choice both as to the representatives whom we send to Parliament and, more importantly, as to which political alliance will govern the country until the next election. Some of us have our own political persuasions and political parties which we have supported in the past. But most of us are perhaps among the ‘floating’ voters who decide independently at each election as to which party to support based on its past record and present commitment to the issues that face us. The ‘floating voter’ recognises the gap that exists between what the politicians proclaim in public and what they do in practice when in power, between their rhetoric about people’s rights when in opposition and their abuse of people’s rights when in power. That is why the ‘floating voter’ treats with cynical scepticism the many promises that politicians from all sides make in their attempt to get his or her vote. That is why the past record of a politician is so very necessary in assessing as to whether he is a fox or a hedgehog.

The ruling UPFA says it is seeking a two-third majority at the election. But it has failed to tell the electorate why it requires this majority. Sadly, in the last Parliament, it was quite open about disregarding provisions of the Constitution. Taking cover under the immunity clause in the Constitution, the President refused to appoint the Constitutional Council which would have led to greater independence and less politicisation of institutions like the Police, Elections Department, Public Services, ‘Bribery Commission’ and even the Judiciary. If his alliance wins, there is little likelihood that there will be a change of policy with regard to his adherence to the provisions of the 17th Amendment. Even with regard to the 13th amendment and the changes to the electoral system as discussed in the Dinesh Gunawardene Committee, there was consensus between the major parties. So why then is there a need for a two-third majority? Unless we have a clear unam biguous statement from the UPFA, the electorate will continue to speculate that there is a hidden and sinister agenda behind this demand; and the electorate may rightly want to deny the UPFA this majority.

The campaign in this election has been short on issues. There has been little focus on two main issues that faces the country – an economic policy that will ensure development leading to jobs within the country for our youth and a reduction in living costs, and a political solution to minority grievances that will lead to peace and justice for all. While the UPFA alliance keeps harping on the need for a two-third majority, the UNF and DNA alliances have focussed their campaign on the need to curb authoritarianism and the collapse of the rule of law. Last week’s attack on the Maharaja Organisation by goons identified as supporters of a UPFA politician, the arrest and detention of Sarath Fonseka and his associates and the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda have added grist to the mill for the opposition’s campaign. The UPFA alliance rightly claims to have improved the country’s infra structure of roads and bridges.

But the electorate remains largely in the dark about the policies of the three alliances to take the country forward in unity and by creating more employment. The mood of the electorate is one of despair. Therefore, despite the confidence of the three alliances, the result could be closer than what many believe – if there are no external factors involved.