“Isn’t Democracy All About People’s Choice Through The Ballot Box?” - No.

| by Laksiri Fernando

( January 31, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) The question in the title is from K. A. Sumanasekera to my last article on “President Reduces Democracy to Elections and Human Rights to Defeating Terrorism!” The simple answer is no, but the present is an explanation in addition to what I have already said. Answering the question is important not as a polemic against the questioner, but because this appears to be a confusion or misconception even among the supposed to be educated people in the country. There may be reasons for the situation. One may be an excuse for increasingly anti-democratic or authoritarian tendencies in the country. Another may be simple ignorance.

There was a time, even internationally, where democracy was defined mainly on the basis of elections. That was before the end of the Second World War. This changed thereafter, because of mainly Hitler’s or fascist experience. Hitler came to power through the ballot. Not that I am equating anyone in Sri Lanka to Hitler, but there can be some traits. There can also be the other extreme, like what was argued in Egypt recently. The bullet or chaos should not replace the ballot either. The ballot is fundamentally important, but it should not be left to abuse or reduce democracy.

Among the prominent scholars, Joseph Schumpeter was one who gave a minimalist definition to democracy in his famous Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy in 1942 as follows.

…the democratic method is that institutional arrangements for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote. (p. 269)

Schumpeter was articulating the traditional view which was partial. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, on the other hand, redefined representative democracy within the broader context of human rights. Article 21 was on representative government, elections and ballot, but they were only one aspect of human rights among many other principles. I am not initiating the argument, whether ‘human rights are part of democracy’ or ‘democracy is part of human rights.’ In reality, it is both. Both aspects are dialectically interconnected.

There are many contemporary interpretations or definitions of democracy. Among them, perhaps, what articulated by David Beetham and Kevin Boyle (2009) in their Introducing Democracy: 80 Questions and Answers might be the best and clearer as follows:

Democracy belongs to the sphere of collective decision making. It embodies the ideal that such decisions, affecting the association as a whole, should be taken by all its members and that each member should have an equal right to take part in such decisions.

Democracy, in other words, entails the twin principles of popular control over collective decision making, and equality of rights in the existence of that control.

I had occasion to translate the above book into Sinhala in 2010 and it is available as a Marga publication. The above definition/interpretation was given after making a distinction between private decision making and public decision making. This definition is broader to what Schumpeter said. It applies to any type of public decision making organizations including political parties, trade unions, religious organizations or NGOs. Therefore, democracy is not only about the state but also about the society.

Another important point that they have made elsewhere is that democracy is not an ‘all or nothing’ affair. It is a matter of degree. What it says is not about the basic threshold but the larger horizon. The distinction between public sphere and private sphere is also hazy at certain points. The task of democratization is never ending and it might in the future even encompass the business sector. Already there are inroads made through human rights. ISO 26000 is an example.

In such a context, how could we limit democracy only to elections?

There is no question that regular and free and fair elections are primarily important in a democracy. Chartists in the mid-19th century asked for elections in annual frequency. The reason being that between elections, the elected can abuse power. Major distortions in our political system took place when elections were not held for local government institutions (1978-1991?) and Parliament (1977-1989). The life of Parliament was extended through a manipulated referendum. Even today, free and fair elections should not mean just people going to the booth and voting. They should be free from violence and intimidation. People should be able to access all necessary information through free media. The state institutions should not be used to influence election results.

Many critics and primarily Marxists have continuously questioned the fairness of ‘bourgeoisie’ elections world over. The reason has been the possibilities of manipulation of vote through money, influence and power. The Soviet Union and other communist states also misused elections to remain in power. Of course there are possibilities of overcoming these odds when people are well organized like what happened at the NPC elections last September. However, under normal circumstances, there should also be other devices, institutions, traditions and principles to safeguard democracy. Human rights and institutions to safeguard them are primarily important.

There are many studies conducted particularly pertaining to post-communist societies on this subject. For example, after critically reviewing the views of traditional minimalists (i.e. Schumpeter), the following was what Erik Herron said in his Elections and Democracy after Communism? (2009).

While subsequent scholarship has not seriously challenged the inclusion of free and fair elections as a necessary condition for democracy, researchers have acknowledged that the existence of elections alone cannot guarantee citizens a full set of rights to express themselves, compete for office, and cast ballots meaningfully. (p. 5)

The pertinent question in Sri Lanka at present is that when the President attempts to limit democracy mainly to elections, and does not look or allow beyond, whether the citizens have “a full set of rights to express themselves, compete for office, and cast ballots meaningfully” as Herron asked.

It is also important to briefly highlight what are the other conditions and/or institutions that are required for a functioning democracy. In this context, it may also be important to quote what Lincoln Mitchell said in this respect in his Uncertain Democracy (2009). This is more to the point of what Mr Sumanasekera has asked.

Elections are understood by most practitioners of democratic development to be only a part, albeit a critical one, of a necessary battery of democratization activities that seek to strengthen democratic institutions such as courts, legislatures, local governments, political parties, civil society, and the rule of law. (p. 144)

In the context of Sri Lanka, a country which is also multiethnic and unevenly developed, devolution and provincial councils also should be added to this list of democratic institutions. There is a greater understanding today, internationally, that democracy should be horizontal than vertical.

Among many other requirements, Sri Lanka also needs decent politicians and who should not threaten the critics as traitors. The newest threat is now levelled against the former President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has been named as the “country hating ex-President that has palpably joined hands with the enemy” by a stooge Editorialist, Rajpal Abeynayake (Daily News, 30 January 2014).