Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Democracy, constitutions and politicians: what citizens need to know

Shammi has reminded me that today is my blog's birthday. I was not sure so I had to go back and check, but it indeed the anniversary.  What shocked me is that it has been nine years since I started.

It seems a very long time indeed. Ironically I started with a post criticising the President, shortly after he was elected to office and seem to have spent much of the time since criticising his administration.

I have been playing around with a primer on democracy. It's not finished yet but now that I feel obliged to put up something to celebrate the annivesary here it is.

Democracy is a highly complex political system. The original meaning of the term “democracy” was rule by the people, as opposed to rule by a monarch. In practice it meant rule by the people’s representatives.

In a democracy the ruler is only a representative, a servant of the people. The problem is that once elected, the servant is tempted to become the master. If he controls the state he becomes a king. How do we prevent this?

In a democracy this is prevented by:
a.      Not giving power to a single person. Sounds simple, but how is it done? Principally by sharing power.
Power is shared between several bodies including:
                           i.          Parliament, which makes laws. The president cannot make laws. Laws must be made by parliament.
                          ii.          The parliament itself has both government MP’s and the opposition MP’s. The opposition is there to ensure that parliament is simply not a rubber stamp of the president or the Government .
                         iii.          The laws made by parliament must be obeyed by all. But if an unjust law is passed what happens? People should be able to go to court to challenge the law. This is why independent courts and a judiciary are necessary. Judges are appointed independently and can review and change laws if they are not in keeping with the constitution or are otherwise unjust.
                         iv.          Laws are administered and enforced by the police and public servants. Appointments to the police and the public service must not be under the control of the president or ministers. If the police and public service are appointed by ministers/president, they only do what the politician’s want, not what the people need. This is why we need an independent police force and administration. Entrants to the police and public service should be chosen by way of competitive exam and the promotions, salaries and transfers must be determined by an independent commission. Not the MP’s, not the president.
                          v.          Many of the controls that limit power described above are set out in the constitution. This is why the constitution is important-it sets out the limits on power.

b.      Keeping the people informed of events. Despite all the checks above things can still go wrong. In order to correct anything we need to know what has gone wrong, so the media should be free. The Government should not own media outlets or control what is broadcast through censorship or by licensing. People should be free to criticise the rulers.
           The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life. It is not only the president and the parliament who have a say. Ordinary citizens should also take and interest and participate in political debate, either as individuals or in groups. Groups that participate in political debate are usually called Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) – because they participate in politics but are not a part of the Government. Participation by citizens must be encouraged because along with the media they can help inform the people of what is happening.

Based on this scale how do we rank democracy in Sri Lanka today? Citizens need to observe and make up their own minds but here are some facts that they should consider:


1.      Parliament – opposition MP’s have been bought over by giving various ministerial positions and fat salaries. This is why we have a jumbo cabinet – opposition ministers are bribed to vote with the Government and no longer check power.

2.      Appointment of judges is no longer independent. The Chief Justice was removed arbitrarily and replaced by a Presidential aide. This has both weakened the independence of the judiciary and placed it under presidential control.

3.      Independent police and public service commissions have been removed. The independent commissions were set up under the 17th amendment which has now been repealed. All appointments, promotions, transfers are now subject to political control.  If police or public servants do not carry out political orders they will be punished (transferred, denied promotions or increments). They no longer serve the people.

4.       By eliminating the independent media and demonising NGO’s the government has prevented full participation by citizens.

These are just some of the issues, there are others that do not come immediately to mind but if citizens observe political processes carefully and understand the importance of process and procedure they will easily detect abuse.



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