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‘Me, the people’

Image courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appears in DailyFT.

 

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

‘Hope in Darkness ‘- Leonard Cohen

When ‘we the people’ is replaced with ‘me the people’ there is no denying that democracy is in grave jeopardy. Autocratic governance is around the corner.

For the leader to deliver, all obstacles must be removed. The rationale of all populist leaders is that they and they alone speak for the people.

Sooner than later populism must have its inevitable tryst with authoritarianism. It is only a short walk from “we the people” to “me the people”.

“Yes, we did a lot in the first 100 days. But as per my standards, I am not satisfied,” was the portentous pontifical preamble with which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa started his recent interactive exchange with editors of media institutions, soon after dissolution of parliament.

Deepest truths are found between lines. The overarching perspective was on matching performance with promise.  The argumentative emphasis was on explaining why it was essential for him to obtain a 2/3rd majority at the next parliamentary election.

The President’s wide-ranging discourse covered the essentials of efficient governance. His laser sharp focus was on the 19th amendment. His views on the 19th amendment and the independent commissions set up under its provisions were unhesitatingly censorious and at times hypercritical. The performance of one member of the Independent Elections Commission appeared to have distressed the president.

The wide ranging pre-elections backgrounder had one purpose. It was to explain why he needed a two thirds majority in the next parliamentary elections.

The President felt shackled by the 19th amendment. “People voted me with high expectations to deliver as the Executive President. If the President can’t deliver what the people want, what is the use of the Constitution,” Rajapaksa said.

He is right about the 19th Amendment imposing some restraints on the untrammeled powers of the executive presidency created under the 1978 constitution that replaced a titular president with an executive president.

But we must differ on the purpose of a constitution. Organized society perceives constitutions as instruments serving a higher moral purpose that encompasses social justice, equity and the rule of law.

We cannot go back and change the beginning. Yet, going back to the beginning may help us understand our present predicament and, perhaps, change the ending.

The office of the executive presidency of the 1978 constitution was tailor-made for J.R. Jayewardene. The 1977 general election gave the UNP a 5/6th majority. The first executive president, J.R. Jayewardene converted his 140-seat majority obtained with 50.92 of the total polled at the 1977 parliamentary elections, into what he called an executive presidency. He claimed that the only thing he couldn’t do was to make a woman a man or vice versa. He didn’t tell the whole story, though; he made the parliament an impotent talk shop.

What J.R. Jayawardena did with his 5/6th majority was akin to what Napoleon did when he crowned himself and declared that the republic will now have authority from above and trust from below. “I saw the crown of France, laying on the ground, so, I picked it up with my sword” said Napoleon.

The 5/6th parliamentary majority was the sword J.R. Jayawardena used. What he picked up was a crown, trait that runs in the family, judging by the way his nephew runs his party.

In 1982, when parliamentary elections were due, J.R. Jayawardena had no sword to retain his crown. Proportional representation regulated the pendulum of public opinion. The irrational swing between sense and nonsense was no longer possible. J.R. Jayawardena was forced into the aberration of a rigged referendum to retain his crown.

The 17th amendment and the 19th amendment are quasi corrective measures to make a monarchical presidency have at least the semblance of an accountable presidency.

The 1978 Constitution is a democratic aberration; it is a travesty of democracy. One need not go far to find proof:  the 1978 Constitution abolished by elections.  D.E.W. Gunasekara, the occupational communist, entered parliament to replace the quintessential communist Sarath Muththettuwegama.   Can you contemplate a more abominable aberration than that?

For better or worse, we are “stuck” with this constitution as amended by the 19th Amendment. And we must preserve our democratic freedoms. The constitution resonates in people’s mind not as an instrument to aggrandize a president but as a means to preserve our liberties and to strive for a better way of life.

The citizen is the most distinctive component of a democracy; not the president. All regimes have constitutions and rulers. Only a system ruled by citizens is called a democracy.

In a modern political democracy, the rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives. That is why the next parliamentary election should not give a two thirds majority to the president or his party.

A hybrid of a presidential and parliamentary system such as ours has two forms of accountability: vertical accountability and horizontal accountability. The Executive President is elected by the people in the expectation that the elected president will be responsive and accountable to the people. It is the distilled essence of vertical accountability. In the case of a plural society such as ours, vertical accountability presupposes inclusiveness.

Democracy demands accountability to the majority and protection to the defeated minority. That civic norm has vanished after the adoption of the 1978 constitution.  The idea of impeachment embedded in the constitution is a clear reminder of the concept of vertical accountability. The institutional polarization that occurred under the 19th amendment is a matter to be celebrated as a triumph of democracy. It is not a signal inviting the withdrawal in to either an efficient autocracy or crony kleptocracy.

There is a human face to political polarization. The popularly elected leader can turn out to be a menace to democracy; not because he is intrinsically wicked, but because he is human.

The 19th amendment has its inadequacies. But it restored civic engagement of the citizen in a quasi-monarchic bazar run on patronage. The 19th Amendment has done enormous good. It has exposed the role of money in our politics. It has allowed us to discover who the political class listens to. It has exposed the economic interests of organized groups who shape state policy.

We must not be dazzled by the promise of governance by technocrats. Technocrats look for what works and not for what is good or just. What works and what is effective must not take precedence over what is legitimate and what is equal.

Democracy is ‘rule by the people’. The people must always have the freedom to reject what they disagree with. Rule by the people is not ‘will of the people’ defined, shaped and altered by ‘me’.

 

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