Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

Representative democracy is still what is optimal for governance

Rohan Samarajiva (Read in Sinhala)

How are we to govern ourselves? This has been a perennial question. But the question has assumed increased salience in these sad and confusing times. Economic crises, first in 2008-09 and now, are bringing up questions of modes of governance in new and urgent forms all over the world.

In Sri Lanka, the legitimacy of the frequently amended 1978 Constitution, which was never very high, has reached a nadir. As a secretive committee of partisan lawyers works up the draft of a new Constitution, fundamental questions are being raised about the very nature of representative democracy.

One reason for the heightened interest in direct democracy appears to be the imagined potential of electronic modes of ascertaining the general will of a society, postulated as an ideal by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th Century. But drilling into the positions of those such as Jayadeva Uyangoda, Pradeep N. Weerasinghe, Dissanayake Dasanayake, and Tilak Dissanayake it appears that what is envisaged is the automation of majority voting on political, namely administrative and legislative, decisions. The age-old problem of what happens to minorities who must live under majority decision making is left unanswered.

Democracy is not majority rule

It is difficult to get everyone to agree on something, even in a small group setting. How could unanimity be achieved at the country/population level, when we cannot even achieve it in Parliament? A small faction or even an individual would be endowed with enormous power if unanimity is made a requirement. So, for all practical purposes, most decisions are made by majority vote, with exceptions made for important decisions such as the amendment of a constitution. Fundamental rights have been recognized so that minorities are not completely trampled underfoot by majorities.

Oppression or disregard of minorities is counter-productive in the long term, especially when they are reduced to permanent minorities whose views are never accommodated. This is where the notion of democracy as a conversation aimed at achieving consensus comes in. Instead of rushing to formulate options that may be put to a vote and decided on by a majority, the idea here is that all sides agree to make compromises in order to achieve rough consensus, not necessarily unanimity. In a speech to a graduating class at Howard University in 2016, President Obama explained it thus:  

 And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. 

He was speaking to current and future leaders of movements such as Black Lives Matter with a tendency to be uncompromising, from the perspective of a minority. But compromise is required by those in the majority as well. If they do not allow for the minorities to win partially, or on occasion, negative reactions ranging from surly resistance to secession are likely to result.

There is no single term for compromise in Sinhala, though I am informed there is one in Tamil. This may suggest that not much weight is given to the achieving of middle ground in Sinhala culture. However, anyone who has worked in any kind of organization or even in a family is aware of the practical necessity of compromise. In good families and organizations simple decisions like what to have for dinner or where to go for a company trip are rarely decided by majority voting or by an autocratic leader. Not everyone’s preferences can be accommodated, but in well-functioning families and organizations decisions are taken after consultation and conversation. Too much autocracy is not conducive to long-lasting organizations in this modern age.

Direct democracy

When the state of California faced a crisis of legitimacy in the early part of the 20th Century, a series of measures associated with direct democracy such as recall elections and propositions were adopted.

Since 1913 there have been 179 attempts to recall elected officials. Twelve recall efforts collected enough signatures to require the holding of recall elections; in six, the official was recalled and replaced. An example was the replacement of Governor Gray Davis by the actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. When faced with recall, the elected official has no alternative but to raise funds and campaign to save his or her job. This distracts from governing and also makes the official beholden to those who supply funds for the campaign.

Citizens of California can also legislate through propositions that are put to the vote. Most recently, the question of whether Uber and Lyft drivers are employees or contractors that is being debated across the world was settled by a vote on a proposition supported by Uber and Lyft. There was no room for negotiation and compromise as would have been the case had the matter been settled through normal legislation. The wording was decided by the affected companies who poured millions into the campaign. To change the rule, another proposition is needed; the legislature cannot amend it.

It is a pity that proponents of direct democracy promote measures such as recall elections without looking at actual practice. Even now, we have politicians who give priority to getting re-elected over governing. Even now, our political processes are corrupted by the excessive costs of campaigns. Why would we want to reinforce these bad aspects in the name of direct democracy?

Some critics of representative democracy go further. They want to dispense with elected representatives altogether by replacing current modes of legislating by putting legislation to the vote of the entire population using the imagined affordances of information and communication technologies. When pushed on the extraordinary power that would be wielded by those who formulate the options that are voted upon, some fall back on the use of citizen participation as a supplement to the conventional legislature. Would this proposed second virtual legislature have the power to override the first one? If it allowed the entire population to participate, what rules would govern speaking? How would decisions be taken? Is it purely advisory? We await answers from Dr Weerasinghe.

Another proponent of direct democracy, Dissanayake Dasanayake, advocates electronic referenda. When asked whether citizens would have the time or inclination to inform themselves on a plethora of issues and vote on them all, his response was that citizens could vote only on electronic referenda that they were interested in. Would this not leave the field wide open for special interests who could “pack the vote” on issues of importance to them? Decisions would be made by those with the wherewithal to drive voters to the polls.

The major issues with direct democracy are substantive, as outlined above. But the imagined affordances of ICTs need to be examined in depth too. The latest LIRNEasia survey showed that 44 percent of the 15+ population used the Internet in Sri Lanka in 2021. Obviously, this would have to be raised to 100 percent and upgraded for direct democracy facilitated by ICTs to work.

Now that many more people have been exposed to video conferencing, they can make up their own minds about how efficacious discussion on virtual settings is. When it comes to voting, problems of identity authentication would have to be solved. Again, those who have seen how examinations are remotely conducted in educational settings would have a sense of the challenges that are involved.

Beyond representative democracy?

There is little debate about the dysfunctions of the current model of political party based representative democracy. There is no internal democracy within parties, resulting in the offering up of flawed candidates, mostly men, and the exclusion of better ones. Unregulated campaign financing leads to massive advantages for incumbents and for corruption, or at least privileged access to law-making and executive processes by the moneyed few. Opaquely formulated manifestoes containing ill-considered ideas are used to override broadly consulted national policies and cause serious damage, as exemplified by the fertilizer and agro-chemicals bans. Representatives elected to formulate laws, do everything but pay attention to legislation.

We must, therefore, strive to remedy the existing systems. In particular, we must overcome the belief that democracy begins with the commencement of election campaigns and ends with the announcement of results.

It is true that citizens must make a living, support their families, and engage in a multitude of social and civic activities and that they lack the resources for full-time engagement in politics and policy making. But it is still possible to engage them in governance while taking into account the above constraints. One solution is to further develop public consultation processes, for example by compensating those who participate for the resulting loss of income. Some experiments have been conducted wherein citizens are brought in for policy consultations based on random sampling.

This conversation must continue parallel to the big issues of constitution making. But it is vitally important to fully assess all proposed remedies to ensure that they are no worse than the malady. The notion of democracy as a conversation that leads to compromise and decisions that all can live with must be foregrounded.