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, http://archive.island.
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.
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
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
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.