Crunchtime: Resolving Sri Lanka’s Political Dilemma

Chandre Dharmawardana, in The Island, 02 January 2023 where the preferred title runs thus: Using SORTITION to prevent electing of same crooks to parliament”

The terrorism of the LTTE ended in May 2009, and most Sri Lankans looked forward to a dawn of peace, reconciliation and progress.  Even Poongkothai Chandrahasan, the granddaughter of SJV Chelvanayagam could state that ‘what touched me the most that day was that these were poor people with no agenda ~ wearing their feelings on their sleeves~. Every single person I spoke to said to me, “The war is over, we are so happy”. They were not celebrating the defeat of the Tamils. They were celebrating the fact that now there would be peace in Sri Lanka’ (The Island, 23rd August 2009,

The dilemma faced by SL

Unfortunately, instead of peace, prosperity and reconciliation, a corrupt oligarchy made up of politicians from the two main parties of the period, namely the UNP, the SLFP, the JVP, their associated business tycoons and NGO bosses have evolved into a cabal of the rich who have hogged the power of parliament among themselves. The party names “UNP, SLFP, JVP” etc., have morphed into other forms, while the leaders concerned have changed adherence to the parties or made alliances with the ease of changing cutlery at a sumptuous banquet.

Periods of civil strife are also periods when corrupt cutthroats thrive, with illegal arms and money in the hands of those on both sides of the conflict who made a career out of the war.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLFP and its allies defeated terrorism and were given a strong mandate by an electorate tired of war to “go forward” in 2010. Unfortunately, as in most cases of “rapid reconstruction” in the wake of a war, the gangrene of corruption of a long war also continued hand in hand. Expensive infrastructure projects, highways and symbolic show pieces that earned lucrative commissions to those in power and to their hangers-on got priority over hard-nosed development projects.

Although the country called itself a “democratic socialist” republic, an essentially libertarian Ayn Randian-type political philosophy coupled with neoliberal economic policies reigned supreme with the Rajapaksa-led governments as well as governments led by the UNP-Sirisena-led SLFP etc., even if this reality was not always articulated clearly. Thus, while public transport, education, public health and alternative-energy projects were neglected, import of luxury goods, highways for wealthy commuters, private hospitals, fossil fuels and organic food for the elite were encouraged by the libertarians. These expensive projects were funded by loans even in the international money market, as long as such monies were available. Public borrowing itself was converted into various types of bond scams.

  Ironically enough, both right-wing Rothbardian-type economics as well as extreme left-wing “progressive” economics agreed on printing money with no restrictions, to maintain a false standard of living beyond means.

Not surprisingly, the country had to come to a screeching halt when it became insolvent. Only the rich oligarchs had the means to continue to function as before, and unambiguously assume the levers of political power. Consequently, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the scion of the Sri Lankan libertarians is now in the saddle.  Political turmoil is temporarily abated as the power of the political machinery is also in the hands of the same elites who control the economy.  While this may be “good for the market” and possibly for the economy in a narrow sense the word “good”, it hides a highly unstable situation where a large majority of the population has become impoverished and desperate. A highly nationalistic army stands by with many of its major figures bought into the elite sector while the common soldiers remain part and parcel of the impoverished peasantry.

The dilemma faced by the country is to defuse this untenable situation by re-distributing political power so that a sustainable economy that ensures at least the basic needs of every one is achieved. The economy of a very small country is completely subject to the vicissitudes of international markets within completely open libertarian policies. Such policies may be very advantages for powerful countries bent on expanding their markets or acquiring sources of raw materials, but not for poor nations.

The key to having some capacity for controlling one’s destiny is to have an economy that is relatively independent of external market forces. Economists have not yet recognized that energy availability (rather than “class conflict”, or the “freedom” of the market) is the motive force of socio-economic evolution – a fact first enunciated by Ludwig Boltzmann in an address to the German Mathematical society. Boltzmann was an outstanding theoretical physicist of the 19th century. Energy availability can be converted into agricultural and industrial productivity, leading to prosperity and well-being. However, none of the political parties that currently exist in Sri Lanka, sunk in corruption, wheeler-dealing, blinded in ideology, communalism etc., and having scant regard for democratic values or the welfare of its citizens is likely to present a political program that will help the country.
In any case, no one trusts them.
In fact, the existing political parties will field the same pack of rogues as candidates for any forthcoming election. The people themselves have little faith in elections, or in politicians, with confidence in public institutions now at a very low ebb. ten percent of their officials by election, selecting the rest by sortition—a lottery, which randomly selected citizens to serve
So, apparently, there is no point in having elections!

A solution to dilemma

The need to go beyond the model of elections to ensure democracy has been recognised since the times of Athenian city states. The democracies in ancient Athens chose only as legislators, jurors, magistrates and administrators. Aristotle argued that sortition is the best method of ensuring a democracy, while elected officials become part of oligarchies where the wealthy and powerful manipulate the election process.

 Since competence and honesty are characteristics that are randomly and statistically distributed in a society, selecting a set of members of parliament by lottery would provide a representative, fresh “sample” of the voting population. They are not beholden to “party organisers” nor have they come to power using wealth, stealth and thuggery needed to run for office now a days.

Many societies down the ages have experimented with sortition. The councilors of the Italian republic of Genoa during the early renaissance were selected by lottery. Montaigne and Tom Paine had written in favour of using sortition to strengthen democracy.  More recently Burnheim in Australia had proposed what he called “demarchy” where random selection of legislators is used.  Callenbach and Phillips proposed a Citizens’ Legislature in the US.  Sortiton was advocated by the main candidates of the recent presidential election in France in 2017 and used at some levels of electioneering during the first round of the presidential vote. The topic has become mainstream and scholarly works are easily found, though neglected by Sri Lankan writers.

In the case of Sri Lanka, it would be appropriate to select, say half the legislature by sortation. Of course, every one selected by lottery may not want to become a politician even for one term of office. Hence one may choose, say 400 candidates by lottery and a further selection of those who wish to serve can be made. The sortition-selected MPs should have the same entitlements and salary as for an elected MP. If they already hold a job in government, they would leave the job for one term of office, and revert to their previous livelihoods, or contest as members of a political party. That is,  they will be replaced by a new set of MPs selected by sortition.

All this requires constitutional amendments. A country that could amend the constitution even to accommodate influential individuals can surely amend it for the sake of public good? Unfortunately, the sortation model has not yet received the attention of political theorists and constitutional writers of Sri Lanka, although it holds the key to the current impasse.



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7 responses to “Crunchtime: Resolving Sri Lanka’s Political Dilemma

  1. sachisrikantha

    Harking back to the glory days of Athenian city states, to the needs of the 21st century is silly. Prof. Chandre had failed to read history properly. Athenian city states had slave holders, slaves and ‘unwanted’. What was the status of women, in those Athenian city states?
    I’d suggest Prof. Chandre should read, Bertrand Russell’s classic, ‘Power – a New Social Analysis’ (1938).

  2. Chandre Dharma-wardana

    Coincidentally, the Harvard Political Review has an article on the topicality and relevance of sortition just now (dug out for me by Pratab Siva), and so I submit that sachisrikantha can re-assess what is relevant and topical and modify his opinion which is, I think, patently incorrect..
    Indeed, the Athenians had slaves, just as the US founding Fathers like Washington had slaves, and India (also even Jaffna) even today exploits lower castes. In each case, the power brokers considered that the franchise should be limited only to their own class or caste, e.g., see the submissions by Ramanathan to Whitehall against the Donoughmore commission proposals for universal franchise. Ramanathan wanted manu Dharma included in the constitution. GGPonnambalam, the Kandiyan leaders, and many others among the Colombo elites at the time also held that only male landowners with a certain level of wealth should have wealth. House-boys and “servants” in Colombo homes, irrespective of ethnicity or even caste, but dependent on class are another example. So, what people regard as just and democratic are very contextual.
    Interestingly, sortition has been tried successfully in EVERY century in a variety of societies. The Harward Political Review gives more examples.

    • Sachi Sri Kantha

      I’ll respond to the comments of Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana briefly.
      I ask, why bring in the activities of Pon Ramanathan (who had died in 1930) and G.G. Ponnambalam (who had died in 1977)? This is most inappropriate of a scholar in the caliber of Prof. Chandre. Neither Ramanathan nor Ponnambalam advocated sortition model to solve the perennial problem of Sri Lankans.

      Let’s limit our discussion to Athenian democratic model of sortition, which you had originally suggested. A quote about a model by biophysical chemist Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), a 1967 co-Nobelist in chemistry is appropriate here. According to Eigen, “a theory has only the alternatives of being right or wrong. A model has a third possibility: it may be right, but irrelevant.”

      The sortition model, proposed by Prof. Chandre may be right, but irrelevant to the 21st century. This is my point. The first sticking point, is the population expansion. During the 4th century BC, the population of Athens and its suburbs is estimated to be 250,000 – 300,000. According to the wikipedia article on ‘Athenian democracy’ []
      “some 30,000 would have been the adult male citizens entitled to vote in the assembly”. That is, one tenth of the total population exercised the sortition model. Is it feasible to the 21st century Sri Lanka? Even Colombo’s population exceeds that of the Athens of 4th century BC?

      • chandre+DW

        Reply to Sachi Sri Kantha (SSK),
        Thank you for your comment.
        In SSK’s first comment, he had brought up the role of slaves and women in Athenian society, but seems to forget that we too have slaves and treat women as second class citizens. However, this is irrelevant to the issue of how to choose representatives for those who are deemed to have the right to choose, namely, the “citizens” of the Athenian state or any other state. Aristotle suggested that instead of electing the law makers, a majority should be selected by lottery.
        Those who are deemed to have the right to vote is highly contextual and socially dependent. Athenians never thought about the “rights” of slaves or women. South-Asian societies and Islamics, orthodox Jews etc., even today subjugate women even idelogically, while in the West the public ideology has changed since Voltaire. I pointed to the case of Ramanathan, surely a highly educated man and elder statesman of the time. He nevertheless demanded that the Manu Dharma should be incorporated in the Ceylon constitution. I also mentioned that George Washington and the US founding fathers who actually wrote the US constitution and talked of the rights of man saw no contradiction with having slaves! I also mentioned the opposition of most Sri Lankan Elites of the time to the universal franchise proposed in the Donoughmore constitution (see Dr. Jane Russell, Communal Politics Under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1948, Published by Tissara Pakasakayo) So, I had not singled out Ramanathan.

        In each age, when elections were held, the electors were just the privileged class, while “those excluded did not matter”. However, in each such case, instead of election, some mixture of sortition and election (0 to 100%) was possible.

        That is true even today, as seen in the article in the Harvard Law Review that I saw only after I had sent my piece to the Island sometime before Christmas (when Pratab Siva drew my attention to it). Otherwise I would have given a link to that in my article. I also find that the Hanna Arendt Institute has been having many workshops on sortition as being very appropriate for modern times. There is even an academy of “sortiton”!
        Many other academic institutes have jumped the bandwagon.

        Also, there are many many scholarly books:

        The Political Potential of Sortition: A Study of the Random Selection of Citizens for Public Office; Paperback – Illustrated, Aug. 28 2009
        by Oliver Dowlen (Author)

        Sortition and Democracy: History, Tools, Theories Paperback – Illustrated, Jan. 2 2020
        by Liliane Lopez-Rabatel (Editor), Yves Sintomer (Editor)
        Part of: Sortition and Public Policy (11 books)

        So, the main argumentS of SSK, namely, that what I wrote is irrelevant today, and that I should read Bertrand Russell’s book on Power (Indeed I read it in the 1960s), are invalid, as far as I can judge.

      • Touche CHANDRE D …. Commenting here as “michael roberts, a mixed-blood thuppahi person born in the Fort of Galle amidst many Muslim Moors, Burghers and Sinhalese and the occasional Ceylon Tamil family.

  3. Daya Wickramatunga.

    We all thought the end of the civil war would bring about peace in the country and the politicians would make every effort to bring about reconciliation and good relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Nothing of the sort took place. Instead massive infrastructure projects were undertaken, which brought huge commissions to those in power, which ruined the country’s Economy.

  4. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Thanks a lot for additional references on sortition model of government, provided by Prof. Chandre. I do not wish to pinch on the enthusiasm shown by the learned Professor. IF and WHEN sortition model is adopted in Sri Lanka and becomes a feasible path to solve the problems of the island, I’ll concede that Prof. Chandre is a prophet. Are there any examples that sortition model been practised at the national level, with a population of more than 5 million recently?

    My postulate is, this will never happen, if we learn the history of governments in Asian countries.

    This is where, my reference to Bertrand Russell’s ‘Power’ book is appropriate. Now, 85 years had passed since Russell wrote his classic (and it was before the independence of almost all the Asian countries, after the 2nd World War). But, what he wrote remains true, even now – though we have a ‘democracy by election’ enamel polished over. People routinely vote to elect their monarchs ‘democratically’.

    This is what Russell wrote: “…absolute monarchy, as the oldest, simplest and most widespread of the constitutions known in historical times. …This form of government has prevailed in Asia at all times, from the beginning of Babylonian records through the Persian monarchy, the Macedonian and Roman domination, and the Caliphate, to the days of the Great Mogul…It is evident that this form of government is one which men find natural.
    Psychologically, its merits are clear. In general, the ruler leads some tribe or sect to conquest, and his followers feel themselves partakers in his glory….”

    In the post 1945 period, India’s monarchs were Nehru family. Pakistan’s monarchs were Bhutto family. Bangladesh’s monarchs were Rahman’s family. Singapore’s monarchs were Lee family. Sri Lanka’s monarchs were Senanayakes, Bandaranaikes and Rajapaksas. Philippine’s monarchs were Marcos, Japan’s monarchs were Kishis, Yoshidas, and so on in other countries like Malaysia.

    Russell didn’t fail to include the demerits of monarchy as well.

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