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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 876

Lowering the bars of democracy

By Raj Gonsalkorale

It is not too difficult to lower the bars of democracy and much harder to lift them. However, lowering of bars have their inherent dangers as there is a limit to how low one can get, as autocracy takes over from democracy when the bar gets too low. In Churchill’s words, blood, sweat and tears may be needed then to return to democracy.

Misconception about what democracy is and what it means to people probably contribute to the erosion of basic democratic values as the bars of democracy are viewed and experienced differently by different segments of society.

If at a fundamental level, democracy is seen as doing public good and good governance, the ultimate test for any democratically elected government lies in how effectively it promotes public good, which consists of freedom and good governance. The major problem for a democratic government then anywhere anytime is the challenge of combining freedom with good governance.

While freedom and good governance should be applied universally in any democracy, unfortunately it is not. This is partly because what is freedom and good governance to one segment of the society differs from another based on their hierarchy of needs.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow first introduced his concept of a hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" and his subsequent book Motivation and Personality. This hierarchy suggests that people are motivated to fulfil basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs.

This hierarchy is most often displayed as a pyramid. The lowest levels of the pyramid are made up of the most basic needs, while the more complex needs are located at the top of the pyramid. Needs at the bottom of the pyramid are basic physical requirements including the need for food, water, sleep, and warmth. Once these lower-level needs have been met, people can move on to the next level of needs, which are for safety and security.

There have been criticisms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs stating that they are not universal and may vary across cultures due to individual differences and availability of resources in the region or geopolitical entity/country. Some have said needs cross boundaries and do not necessarily reside in one level or another. Studies done in the USA at different times during the last 50 years and more recent studies done in some Middle Eastern countries have shown needs of people to be different.

If studies were conducted in Sri Lanka say in the 1960s, in 1990s, and presently, one can be certain that needs of people from a collective sense would be different. 1990s and would have been a period when everyone would have listed security as a prime need while now, with peace achieved, security as it was relevant then, would attract less importance now.

The hierarchy of needs also vary across age groups as there would be across different socio/economic groups. The displaced persons from the North and the East of Sri Lanka would have markedly different needs as they would be worrying about how they can progress from the galvanized iron sheds they have been given as their shelters while even some of the poorer people elsewhere would have a different set of needs.

In Sri Lanka, some may argue that the present government has given the people some freedoms but has failed to give good governance and that the rule of law is conspicuous by its absence or its deterioration. They would also argue that calls on the rulers to mend their ways and to bring greater transparency and responsibility to their affairs are dismissed as international conspiracies against democracy and Sri Lanka, meaning their government.

A situation often cited in Pakistan, as quoted by political analyst Hussain H. Zaidi, may be quite relevant in Sri Lanka as well. That is the view that Parliament is sovereign and therefore any checks on its powers are unconstitutional and unwarranted. Zaidi goes on to cite the views of many government politicians in Pakistan that the political system rests on the principle of the trichotomy of powers providing the legislature, the executive and the judiciary their powers and functions defined in the constitution and that it will amount to constitutional impropriety if any organ oversteps its jurisdiction and interferes in the functions of another.

They infer that the judicial activism by the apex court is undermining the authority of parliament and the executive and thus weakening democracy. At a time when democracy is struggling to take root and the government is grappling with the grave menace of terrorism in the country, the argument goes; judicial activism is making the writ of the executive weaker.

No doubt, the constitution of establishes the principle of the trichotomy of powers, but it does not provide for complete separation among the three organs. For instance in Pakistan, parliament is empowered to fix the number of judges of the Supreme Court and under the 18th amendment both parliament and the executive have a role to play in the appointment of the members of the superior judiciary. On their part, the courts can determine the validity of laws passed by parliament as well as the acts of the executive.

Zaidi goes on to say that Article 175 (2) provides that no court shall have any jurisdiction except conferred on it by the constitution or any ordinary law. However, in case of a dispute regarding the scope and limits of the jurisdiction, the same is to be settled by the judiciary, and ultimately by the Supreme Court, as this involves interpretation of law and the constitution. But it does not mean that the judiciary`s power to interpret the constitution is untrammelled. Rather it is also limited by the constitution.

It was held by the Supreme Court in State versus Ziaur Rahman and others (PLD 1973 SC 49) that “In the case of a Government set up under a written Constitution, the functions of the State are distributed among the various State functionaries and their respective powers defined by the Constitution…. It cannot, therefore, be said that a Legislature, under a written Constitution possesses the same powers of `omnipotence` as the British Parliament. Its powers have necessarily to be derived from, and to be circumscribed within the four corners of the written Constitution.”

Zaidi states that the present members of the superior judiciary stand apart from their predecessors by virtue of their robust judicial activism. While there is a drawn-out debate on the legal and political merits and demerits of the judicial activism, the people by and large are seeking judicial intervention as the two organs are not minding their job. Even recently the prime minister commenting on the possible return of former president Pervez Musharraf remarked that the latter would have to face the chief justice of Pakistan in case he returned to the country.

Zaidi concludes saying “Notwithstanding all the respect and appreciation that the judicial activism deserves, it is no substitute for political activism. An independent and strong judiciary is a sine qua non for a strong democratic order and judicial activism is important for keeping the executive from overstepping its authority and settlement of public disputes. However, in no society, judicial activism has been the agent of political or economic transformation. It is always the political process, slow and faulty though it may be, which has effected such transformation. Hence, one should be mindful of the fact that it is political activism and not judicial activism that holds the key to a positive and meaningful change in Pakistan”.

Reading through Zaidi’s comments, one wonders whether one is in Pakistan or Sri Lanka!

The rulers in Sri Lanka appear to have well understood the hierarchy of needs of Sri Lankans, and therefore their perceptions on freedom and good governance. They have analysed that the rural or non- urban sector of Sri Lanka, amounting to about 70%, if not more, of the population, have needs, concerns and priorities that are different to those in the urban sector.

Political governance, democratic no doubt, because democracy itself means different things to different people, has been managed more to suit the rural and non- urban sector whose needs are, in the words of Maslow himself, are in a different paradigm to those in the urban sector. The writer classifies and includes the intelligencia and the more internationally exposed and politically conscious populace to reside in the urban sector.

The ruling party analysis probably extends to knowing which sector provides the currency for them to remain in power, votes, and judging from successive election wins at Presidential, Parliamentary, Provincial council elections, there is no doubt their analysis and strategies have been well founded. A weak Opposition, barren of any alternative ideas about a more democratic political structure and governance model, has given the ruling party virtually a blank cheque to remain in power for a considerable period more.

Dharisha Bastians writing in the Colombo Telegraph (Midweek Politics: Apathy In The Aftermath) states “Many political analysts feel the aspirations of a majority of Sri Lankans do not include democracy, civil liberty and the rule of law. Sri Lankans live a charmed life, only really burdened by economic and bureaucratic concerns, concerns that some analysts say, could be abated by one stroke of the Executive’s pen. Some theorists believe that it will take economic prosperity, for a people to begin yearning for different things – liberty, justice and righteous governance. And then given a choice, a people will always choose “freedom over tyranny, democracy over dictatorship and rule of law over the rule of the secret police.” Perhaps Sri Lankans do not realise, at this juncture of their history, that the choice is theirs”.

While one would find many areas of agreement with what Dharisha has said, it needs to be noted that the concept of democracy, civil liberty and rule of law, in particular democracy, under which civil liberty and the rule of law is governed within a democracy, is understood and applied differently by different segments of the populace. This is not the same as saying “a majority of Sri Lankans do not include democracy, civil liberty and the rule of law”.

The challenge for those who argue that the current rulers are usurping democratic principles and values is to find ways and means of reaching out to a majority of Sri Lankans whose concepts and understanding of democracy is different to some of us.

Dharisha is correct in saying “What the majority do not seem to be understanding and anticipating, is that what is not very applicable to them today, would be so in time when their economic standards have risen and their needs are different to what they are today. What they also don’t seem to be anticipating is that it could be too late to change course when they arrive at that realization, and as has happened in some other countries, they may achieve them through violence and bloodshed.

As Dharisha has said, the choice is ours, and in terms of the majority referred to, the challenge for those who foresee further erosion of democratic principles and values is to articulate these dangers in a manner that will be understood by that majority.

Dharisha has also perhaps unwittingly based the conclusion of the article on the hierarchy of needs articulated from a broader perspective by none other than Abhram Maslow himself.

The importance of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is to frame discussions and political strategies in such a manner in order to influence an audience (whether one or one million). One must first consider the Maslow Level the target audience or group is residing on to develop an effective strategy to influence them. This is especially important to avoid putting one’s own values on others. This may be people from other political groups, races, religions, or countries.

It is clear that the ruling party has done this well and the Opposition led by the UNP has failed abysmally. They have been ineffective due to their failure to understand their target audiences and their hierarchy of needs while the ruling party has mastered this understanding to remain in power by nothing but democratic means.
Considering the impotence of the Opposition and various civil society groupings to lift the bars of democracy, it is clear the lowering can only be arrested from within the ruling party itself. The President, who enjoys a huge popularity rating in the country (some say as much as a 70% approval rating), and whose wishes are doubtlessly the commands of his troupes, should lead the way and lift the bars of democracy as he and the ruling party well know they are not just governing for the current generation but many future ones as well.

The President must also know that the enormous powers vested in the Executive Presidency would be disastrous to the country if they are held by the wrong person. The country may not always be blessed with Sheep in Sheep’s clothing.

They must also surely know that the needs and priorities of a politically dominant sector that keeps them in power today would be different when their economic, educational and social standards are lifted by their very policies, no doubt well founded ones at that.

Checks and balances are a cornerstone in any democracy irrespective of the meaning of democracy to different people. The three pillars of a democracy, the Judiciary, the Executive and the Legislature, must have their own functions and responsibilities, and their independence, but they should also have the power and the ability to perform a checks and balances role on each other. That is the essence of a democracy.

Activism in one sector to perform this vital role should not be regarded as undemocratic or unconstitutional, as it is in fact a means of safeguarding democracy and the constitution itself.

It is not too difficult to lower the bars of democracy and much harder to lift them. However, lowering of bars have their inherent dangers as there is a limit to how low one can get, as autocracy takes over from democracy when the bar gets too low. In Churchill’s words, blood, sweat and tears may be needed then to return to democracy. Such a situation would not be wished by any Sri Lankan.

- Asian Tribune -

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