We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sri Lanka: Politicians Must Go

From Sri Lanka we hear of the common shortcoming shared by so many other governments, that of being systemically incapable of responding to the demands and the will of the people. This editorial demands a new constitution be written by a constituent assembly due to the fact that politics has become more of a rent-seeking venture than a system to protect and serve the population. However, it is also necessary to note that a new constitution does not necessarily in itself ensure a more transparent government or increased public participation, only through the dedication of a committed population will any society be able to completely revamp the system for effective and enduring participatory practices. -Editor

Needed: A Constituent Assembly and a new Constitution
"Let us all co-operate to give our people prosperity and a better future," stated Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake. Sixty years on, our politicians have yet to agree to co-operate to usher in prosperity. They are instead selfishly pursuing their own personal interest at the expense of the national interest. They have collectively ensured the ruin of this country, even the image and influence we had abroad fifty years ago has been brought down to near zero.

The original mistake that was made, to my mind, was when the Soulbury Commission did not take off from the Donoughmore Constitution but took the easy way out and conveniently introduced the Westminster model. The Donoughmore Constitution may have had its drawbacks or shortcoming but at least we had worked it for more than a decade and knew of its shortcomings; the necessary amendments could have been introduced and the system refined. Instead the Soulbury Commission threw the baby out with the bathwater. Its greatest merit was that cooperation and not confrontation was the basis of the constitution. The Soulbury Constitution introduced confrontation of a form we had never known before; after 60 years it has spread hatred and left this country divided at every level of society as never before.

What passes for Democracy in this country is a mere shell of the real thing; the kernel has been removed by our politicians over the years. The political culture of this country has been built on adversarial, confrontational politics without regard to the national interest. Our politicians have missed the wood for the trees. This is the unfortunate tradition which they seem to want to perpetuate. The cement that has held this form of confrontational politics together has been, the vulgar pursuit of political power, for with it goes the opportunity to mount the gravy train and get rich quickly. In the process have we not become a morally degenerate society? Could anyone deny that?

Politics in this country is today a blood sport-governed by the rules of the slum---where the criminal underworld rules and where the scum of our society predominate. Politicians were for some years the patrons of the scum but the wheel appears to have turned and the scum from the slums, with their values, have begun to lord it over the politicians. Some have even become politicians and we citizens are the victims.

The two main parties seek to outbid each other for the Sinhala vote. This has been why we have not been able to reach a national consensus on any major issue including, what we could offer the Tamil people. The consequence of this competition and the fact that hard-line ‘organised’ Sinhala groups were not prepared to share power in any effective way with the minorities (no proportional representation on an ethnic basis at national or cabinet level) has resulted in our present predicament. It should be mentioned that after the late GG Ponnambalam left the Kotelawela Cabinet, there was only Chelliah Kumarasuriyar in Mrs Bandaranaike’s government and Lakshman Kadirgamar in the last administration. Tamils have been significant by their absence. There was almost a permanent exclusion of the Tamil minority from power at all levels. This exclusion it was that resulted in the struggle for Tamil rights which has ended up in the insurgency. To flag another forgotten fact –the Tamil Congress stood for sharing power at the centre and the Federal Party for sharing power on a regional basis. After the Tamil Congress faded away, the FP came to the fore and after they faded away we have the separatist Eelam parties taking up the Tamil cause. These separatist groups emerged only because of the failure of the Sinhala parties to ‘accommodate’ the Tamil people and address their grievances and, more importantly, because of the refusal to share power at the centre or with the province or at district level with them.

We must reject majoritarianism, it is not democracy, and at the same time we must reject divisive racial or ethnic politics and ethnic political parties forever. Confidence building measures must be arrived at through the consensual approach. It is within a democratic framework, where power is shared and merit the deciding factor, that we can find the necessary space to rise again.

It is indeed time for a group of our constitutional experts to compare the merits and demerits of the Executive Committee system with that of the system we have at present. After 30 years of Cabinet government and 30 years of this post 1978 mixed system there seems little doubt that the two systems have only resulted in confrontation, consequent hatred, centralisation and concentration of power and has not worked to the benefit of our country. It is imperative that President Rajapaksa think in terms of establishing a Constituent Assembly to consider a new constitution based on the Donoughmore principle which would restore participatory democracy and true self government for the people of this country.

For the present the President would need to have the 13th Amendment amended to make a reality of devolution. There is no doubt that we would encounter many difficulties when it comes to the matter of sharing power, from sharing budgetary allocations and sharing resources, to deliberate attempts by vested interests to sabotage any peace process or agreement based on power sharing. We would need to create new institutions that would secure the peace---yes, radical new thinking may be needed but the price is worth it. For instance, since mono-ethnic regions would only exacerbate the ethnic problem, we must consider carving out new regions. Perhaps the country can be divided into three or four regions. That would make sense, instead of the present nine provinces, with nine governors and nine chief ministers and cabinets––a structure which is today an absolute liability.

We may be multi ethnic but we are one nation. In the words of a recent song "This land belongs to you, this land belongs to me so let us live in harmony". Sharing power has become vital to manage a society, nay a country, which is pluralistic and divided such as ours. The majoritarian form of democracy (it does seem contradictory for ‘majoritarianism’ cannot be democratic) did not make for decision making by consensus and this is where we fell short. If, on the other hand, we share power that implies that whatever segment with whom power is shared will have a significant say in decision making and with it a sense of autonomy.

Under the Donoughmore system legislators, regardless of their political party, shared in the executive function of government and thus avoided bitterness. They were all involved in administration too; this is important considering the nexus between the politician and the people. In this country, the people, particularly in the rural areas, take all their problems to the MP. Government would be brought close to the people and the elected representatives of the people would be far more sensitive to the needs and demands of the people. Under the Donoughmore Constitution governance became a collective effort and the responsibility of all those who had been elected.

In recent years we have seen Ministers Professor GL Peiris, Karu Jayasuriya and Dinesh Gunawardena all advocate the restoration of the Donoughmore system and the sharing of executive power not only at national level but at the local level, from the Provincial Council down to the Municipal Council and the Urban Council. I recall that Professor Peiris very lucidly spelled out the advantages that would accrue from the adoption of the Executive Committee system. I do hope that these three influential Ministers would, in the national interest, revive this initiative, for this system is very much in keeping with our cultural heritage and is absolute necessary considering the conditions that currently exist in our country.

We need to deal with the sense of alienation which has enveloped the minorities in this country; they feel they do not belong here; we MUST restore their confidence and sense of belonging and with it, the organic character of our society. This feeling of being alienated could be remedied only by bringing them into the mainstream. If for a start the system is introduced in the Eastern Province Provincial Council it would most immediately help diffuse the explosive situation that exists in the province, which outside elements could exploit to the country’s detriment.

I do hope this plea would find support among political parties and civil society.

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