The franchise and democracy – In theory and practice


by Dr U.Pethiyagoda.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and our Constitution declare the exercise of the franchise as a basic and inalienable right. Many writers have extolled it as a considerable virtue and a treasured right to be zealously guarded. Is it in fact so? Universal franchise is supposedly the ultimate blessing. This is presented as a self-evident truth – but as with many such, it could be grievously wrong. Practice, assuredly, should match theory.

The vote and democracy are inextricably linked. The latter, of course, is said to be the ultimate achievement in governance – in theory. This is the sanctioned management of our affairs. Churchill is reported to have remarked: "Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried". A terse definition of democracy is "the control of an organisation or group by a majority of its members". This presumes that the majority of its members knows best what is good for it. Evidence may argue against such a presumption. As H. L. Mencken would have it: "Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

A majority is the consequence of a vote. What does this majority mean? If a population is assessed in terms of any attribute – height, weight, income, education, character, intelligence or any other and presented as a graph, the figures arrange in a bell-shaped curve – commonly symmetrical. This means that the extremes are poorly represented while the larger number occupy the middle. Thus, in an elected population, the chances are that the discerning and the irresponsible, the brilliant and the stupid are all small in number. The moderates are more. Therefore, a majority by itself does not reflect the ideal. More seriously, the representation veers towards the mediocre and will progressively tend towards deterioration.

Since capability and competence are not important considerations, educational and integrity levels are severely wanting in elected legislatures. Maybe, we do not yet have geniuses or lunatics as a result, but progressive deterioration is all but inevitable. Simultaneously by increasing the perks of office, significantly more obnoxious characters will be attracted.

As some remedy, the ideas of a Senate or of National List Members was conceived to bring in talented but reluctant worthies into the all important tasks of State Craft. Few worthy concepts have been so brazenly, vulgarly, opportunistically, selfishly and obscenely misused. The razor has been in monkey hands! Proffered excuses for this gross aberration are no more than feeble!

Equal Choice

In theory, democracy respects the right of equal choice. Choice dictates difference. Political parties evolve, purportedly to provide this choice, largely couched in that delightfully vacuous thing called "policy"! The average voter is influenced heavily by what is promised as "creature comforts" – less influenced by lofty ideas of political and economic goals. The concerns are mundane.

The party manifestos which purport to provide plans are peppered with fairy promises for everything – food, health, education, security, communication, housing, land, wealth and prosperity. They rank as major, creative works of fiction. They are often sprinkled with choice tales of their rival’s failings. As some candidate is reported to have declared, "If my opponent stops telling lies about me, I promise to stop telling the truth about him!" Faced with a manifesto which is a patently complex wish list and a litany of hollow promises, the practical and prudent voter falls back on more credible criteria.

Caste, clan, religion and flexibility become more compelling than ability, education or integrity. Will he wangle a job for my son? A school for my kid? A hospital bed for my ailing parent and perhaps amenability to a ‘little something on the side’?

Every manifesto would be like the curate’s egg – good in parts. Why try to unscramble a scrambled egg? Thus, the divergence between the theory of democratic choice and the reality is profound.

To believe that a "representative" is, or can even be, representative is exceedingly naïve. Once elected, he most often scampers beneath the radar. Once he is acquainted with the heavenly trappings of office, lofty ideals turn to mundane thoughts on how to bleed the system, ensure continuance and eventual inheritance by a kinsman. That dear readers, is the painful truth.

Art of running circus

Vulnerability and pretext requires protective armour – hence vestments of "contempt and privilege of parliament" , "breach of privilege" , "honourable member" and finally "Votes of Condolence" are part of the ritual. Procedure overwhelms good sense. Little doubt that some are impressed, less doubt that many are not. "Democracy", as Mencken accurately declared, "is the art of running the circus from the Monkey Cage".

An essential feature of democracy is claimed to be the element of choice. Choice is meaningless unless there is difference. Hence, the need for a Parliamentary Opposition and regular debate. The chronically poor attendance (despite a totally unjustifiable attendance allowance) is impressive proof of what a charade the whole thing is. The Opposition appears to entertain the fiction that their job is to "oppose" – good or bad. A notable exception is when the proposal is to increase already excessive privileges or perks; then there is full attendance and unanimity manifests!

One of the most telling indictments of the supreme Parliament was a video clip doing the rounds. Easily recognised members of our august assembly were in post-prandial snooze while the Honourable Minister of Finance droned through his four-and-a-half-hour budget speech. The Budget is of course a most important (annual) event, as evidenced by the voluminous and expensively bound copies (presumably in all three languages) languishing idly on the desks of each "honourable"! Recently, an important financial bill exposed an inability to count 62 standees. A mere 163 worthies had found better things to do elsewhere! Ugly fisticuffs earlier resulted in just two persons being suspended for all of one week from Parliament (coinciding with a period of recess). Remind me tell the tale of the irate husband and the broken umbrella! One advantage of having a massive Cabinet is that a respectable number may able to drop by while passing Diyawanna on Cabinet Days! So, the franchise process is flawed and the product of the exercise, less than respectable.

What of the electoral process itself? Lofty entreaties to the public not to elect rogues, illiterates and criminals are widely followed by the nomination of just the people who fit the description! The voters are faced with the predicament of selecting "the least worst". Every type of skullduggery is perpetrated in seeking preference. Mercifully, only a few contenders get murdered or hurt, but there are many casualties among passionate supporters. At the end of the day, voters are presented with a scroll as long as a lungi. The layout is craftily designed to ensure many rejects and unintended choices. A slight slip in the upper section of the paper, and the whole thing is snagged! The Wayamba Poll was a hallmark example of deliberate perversion of the whole exercise. The process is thus profoundly, if not fatally flawed.

Dishonourable conduct

The products of the process could have done no more to devalue themselves! Dishonourable conduct, trivial pursuits and poor attendance are only a few symbols of abysmal performance. No economist has dared to attempt a cost/benefit analysis of what is politics or even governance. I do not believe that this could be an omission by a community ever ready to minutely dissect far less important activities. It looks more like design – like a kid scared to look under his bed! No one disputes that a man’s labour is worthy of just reward. But justice also demands proportionality . Some time ago, it was disclosed on the floor of Parliament that the Executive President of the time was costing the Exchequer twenty million, (repeat twenty million) a day! Can any service be worthy of that? The labour of 25,000 tea pluckers would cost the country less! A recently introduced (?) gimmick on TV titled, "The First Citizen’s Diary" is unwittingly a terrible indictment even if the current outlay was a mere 1%. We are a poor country, unwilling to afford ostentation. Is dignity possible without extravagance? This is not the only example. The obscenity of Parliamentary costs for such palpably low returns is a monumental scandal. What is hidden from the public eye is possible inspiration for icebergs!

An interesting case recently surfaced. An official on duty abroad has acquired a fancy jacket and sought to claim it on state account. One suspects that he was merely following precedent. After all schoolchildren get free uniforms, do they not? It is not beyond possibility that our MPP get their resplendent "Waula" kits too on State Account. Who knows – and who will tell? Among other stellar performances was the revelation that Basil Rajapaksa had left an unpaid helicopter bill of Rs.150 million. How he could have flown so much "on tick" is astonishing. An SLAF helicopter is said to cost Rs. 400,000 per flight hour. Thus BR (or his side kicks) have been aloft for 375 hours! How industrious on vital State business! It was also reported that a minister relinquishing his post, returned unused petrol vouchers amounting to several lakhs. This was hailed as an act of supreme integrity and selfless sacrifice! Nobody asked how a (mere) minister could have been issued such an abundance of petrol vouchers. Surely, should not the officers responsible for such munificence also be called to account? How many other perks (foreign air jaunts being an obvious one) are hidden from public view? Maybe, the public are unfairly suspicious and our politicians are paragons of propriety and thrift. Maybe someone in authority (and scrupulous honesty ) should provide evidence to dispel the popular fallacy that our few thousand politicians are voracious vultures.


Unfortunately, few actions of politicians are capable of endearing themselves. One recalls a brief and apt anecdote. After World War II , the Americans maintained a presence in vanquished Germany. They were roundly disliked by the locals. A US soldier asked an elderly lady, "Why do you dislike us so?" Pat came the reply, "Because you are overpaid, because you are over-sexed and because you are over here". Does this strike a cord?

The overall picture is bad. Despite all the hype, platitudes and clichés, the franchise is not the lofty jewel it is touted to be. It is somewhat akin to a baby’s soother. It imparts a false sense of warmth and comfort. The prospect encourages salivation. The exercise is a long process of suck. The influx is only of air. The result is flatulence – relieved by "you know what".

"Democracy" is an uncritical acceptance of an impossibility , although assumed to be the most benign effect of the exercise of the franchise. It assumes that there Is such a thing as a "peoples’ will" A thing about humans is that no two people are (or think) entirely alike. Consequently, reactions differ. This is a huge problem that confronts Economists, Political Analysts and Medical Practitioners where subjective (possibly erratic) reactions to a given set of circumstances (or symptoms) is ever possible. The best is an average expectation, which often is a small proportion of the whole.

Thus, the worth of the franchise and the expectations from democracy are spurious. The concept is flawed. The exercise is beset with numerous pitfalls. The result is skewed. The bodies produced are deficient, deceptive, dishonest and not honourable. Their intents are insincere, actions ineffective. The most telling negation of the whole theory of the franchise and democracy, was the violation of the "Appointed MP’s" List to bring in electoral discards. No valid explanation is possible – feeble excuses have been tried! Self correction is the only way but is the least likely. The huge responsibility for rectitude and reform that fall on the few exceptions are sadly ignored in the interests of personal comfort.

There seems little hope.

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