The Sunday Leader

Pre-condition For Good Governance

  • Internal democracy in political parties and civil society

By Lionel Guruge

Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Alternatives

Establishing good governance in the country appears to dominate political discourse at the present. Ideals of good governance do not perceive government in a vacuum; they anticipate the convergence of a number of factors.The first of these that catches our attention is democracy. Bringing about good governance without establishing democracy, amounts to wishful thinking.


Internal Democracy in Society

In establishing democracy, we must primarily consider citizens who respect democracy and incorporate it into their own lives. Yet, it is also important to take that democratic system, and establish it as a common system within an organized structure. This can be called establishing internal democracy. A number of examples can be given of how internal democracy is exercised both at the level of a citizen and as an organized structure in the society.

In cases of various committees established with citizens’ involvement the concept of internal democracy has been taken hold of to a considerable standard. The best example of this can be funeral assistance societies.

Funeral aid societies have a constitution. Presentation of membership fees, accumulated funds,appropriation of funds for a members’ funeral assistance, presentation of an annual budget, requirements for membership, revoking of membership are all matters carried out with due transparency. The investigation and taking of disciplinary action against officers who step outside these procedures and, if necessary, stripping them of their offices and/or membership are all carried out with due process.We pay attention here to the members’ knowledge of the receipts and payments from the society’s accumulated fund.

Is it not a good example of the power of established social conventions on transparency that, for example, the public display of incomes and expendituresin a village society is ensured, even when it comes to the organizing of a New Year event? Moreover, does not the exercise of internal democracy witnessed by children in their school sports committees or History Society committees, for examples, set the precedent for them to incorporate the same internal democracy in their adult lives, too?

The concept of internal democracy is therefore strong in traditional society where members of any committees who are found guilty of corruption are treated with derision, condemnation, and are expelled with comments such as “that’s the one who was found to be a crook”.

In Sri Lankan village society, the habit of internal democracy is also traditionally found in the family unit. The members of a family have an idea of the income and expenditure of the head of the family, to the extent that a family, where the wife does not know of the husband’s income, will face many problems in terms of wellbeing. This, therefore, is a natural exercise in internal democracy within the family.


Internal democracy in Sri Lankan political parties

In spite of the above, there is hardly evidence left to believe the existence of internal democracy in the political parties of Sri Lanka.This is common to parties of all political ideologies, whether they are rightwing or leftist. The main responsibility of a political party is to contribute to the continued existence of democracy in a country. They are in fact collections of active citizens.

Their duty of establishing democracy cannot possibly be achieved if they themselves do not adhere to democracy within their parties: as the adage in folklore goes, it is absurd of an adult crab to advise its offspring to walk straight when the adult itself is walking in a slant. Thus, despite the very vocal chants from the political parties in our country about democracy, the fact that there is none who observe the same among themselves and the fact that there is a careful avoidance of discourse on this topic has to be noted.

Sri Lankan citizens regard political parties with a sense of wonder during election periods. The question naturally arises, in amazement, about where the massive sums spent were obtained from. During elections it is usually the tradition that the party organiser will find funds for the leader to spend quite lavishly.

There are a number of ways in which internal democracy can be maintained and strengthened in a political party; and in this regard there are a number of responsibilities of such parties.


1.    Political parties must continually inform their members: there should be a clear and open channel of discourse from the top down and from the bottom up, within parties. Decisions made must continually be notified to members and they should (be able to) question these decisions freely.


2.    There should be transparency in the financial dealings of parties: members should be informed about all receipts – from membership fees to any other incomes the party receives. It is important to study the extent to which Sri Lankan political parties cater to this moral right held by the members. The members do not know anything about the funds acquired by the party and the ways in which they are being spent. These matters have become top secret. Not only is it a right of the members to know this information, it is the political parties themselves who have the duty to notify members of this right. Financial aid is received from local and international sources for political parties. Yet, there is no annual account or audit of this expenditure. Therefore the party members do not know anything about their party’s funds.


3.    A continual discussion should be held among members on the political, economic and cultural problems and possible solutions for them. Relevant information such as the Government budget when it is presented, various economic reforms, draft bills being presented in Parliament, etc. should be given to the members promptly. A discourse should be brought about, channelling opinion from the higher levels to the lower levels and vice versa, regarding the various political factors in the country. The ideas and attitudes of members should reach the top


4.    Recognizing strengths and leadership qualities of party members and guiding and developing those qualities. Parties develop based on the people who possess varied strengths. The quality of a political party is the ability to recognise leadership by assigning various leadership training and responsibilities. Political parties should have in place a strong mechanism to promote such leadership.


5.    Obtaining the active involvement of party members. There are decision-making groups in political names variously called such names as “central committee”, “executive council”, “leadership council”, “supreme council”, etc. Party members have always had to bow down and accept decisions taken by these groups, even when they are completely unaware of these decisions at times. For example, the selection of contesting candidates nominated for the local authorities and for provincial councils, as well as for parliament, is carried out by one of the groups mentioned above, or the party leadership itself. This is completely against principles of democracy.


6.    Party organisers and candidates for local authorities, provincial councils, and parliament should be chosen according to the preferences of the majority party members. In reality, these selections are unilaterally made by the party leadership. Even though the selection of the party leadership itself is through a General Convention, it is doubtful whether the selection reflects the preference of the majority of party members. There is also the phenomenon of party organisers being “parachuted” from Colombo to Maiyanganaya/Hambantota to Gampaha/Polonnaruwa to Kandy etc, in an authoritarian act by some party leaders, without the consensus of the party members.


7.    The party convention should be called at the correct time. Party organisers should be decided by party members during the district conference. The party leadership should be decided only in accordance with the choice of the delegates elected based on majority votes.


8.    Giving equal and just opportunities to the people of the country through the party, even after the party comes to power. Party appointments/postings should be arranged through appropriate and justifiable methods in a transparent manner within the existing legal framework according to the required qualifications of the given position.

According to the prevailing election systems and the nature of the political culture in the country, candidates who acquire power through social recognition and financial success, come forward through majority votes.

Candidates who are less powerful in this sense find it difficult to obtain a majority vote regardless of how suitable he or she is for political life. This is a deathblow to democracy. Due to this situation, black-marketers and corrupt individuals, who nevertheless possess large amounts of money, have a better chance to gain the blessings of the people and become their representatives. Active, genuine, compassionate leaders who genuinely want to establish good governance and democracy do not get the chance to be elected as representatives of the people.

The composition of a legislature, where the intelligentis in the minority, and where the majority has earnedtheir place through sheer financial power with no other useful merit, has become the Achilles heel of good governance and democracy in our country.


The powers of the independent Election Commission should be broadened.

It is extremely important to consider these factors when establishing an independent election commission. During an election, there should be a limit to the amount of money that is spent by each candidate. Furthermore the Election Commission should require transparency regarding the maintenance of various funds by political parties.The maximum amount of money each candidate is allowed to spend during the various elections has to be fixed by the Commissioner of Elections.


A way to establish the internal democracy of political parties is to strengthen the Election Commission and to give it powers to control activities against democratic principles that take place within political parties.

However, democracy in a society cannot be ensured by establishing an Election Commission alone. That commission should also have the necessary legal mechanisms to ascertain whether political parties adhere to internal democracy.

Can political parties who act without considering these requirements understand the needs of a citizen in this country? That would be an unfortunate situation. The political parties in developed countries act in a manner respecting internal party democracy. In a recent incident, when the Australian Prime Minister was in power, he assessed as to whether he was suitable for party leadership and was selected; if this had not happened he would have had to resign. Similarly President Obama was selected by his party above Hilary Clinton through an internal vote. Even in India when Sonia Gandhi was selected the party secretary had requested any other names to be put forward.

It is the character of a backward political party that carries out underhand activities to undermine political parties with opposing views. It is also a character of backward political parties to offer financial and other bribes to the ministers of the opposition parties and to intimidate them. This goes against democracy. In the political culture of our country the sad fact is such practices are a continued threat to democracy.

The politicians of Sri Lanka have not incorporatedthe concept of democracy into their political lives. This is because they have received their right of representation through their party’s leadership, as opposed to earning that right democratically: they only require the support of the party members at the time of an election. This culture is against democracy.

At this stage when a new government is sowing the seed of new policies, it is important to build a discussion regarding the establishment of internal democracy in political parties, as a necessary prelude to good governance.

1 Comment for “Pre-condition For Good Governance”

  1. Kingsley

    I would add many more for good governance.
    Current parliament MP’s – 2/3rds do not have GCE A?L qualifications while 50% do not have GCE (OL) qualifications. This means the provincial administrations must be worse. Most of them are criminals, thugs, drug lords, underworld, illiterates masquerading as politicians – promoted by MR as well as other parties.
    1.It is important that all parties have a open criteria for candidates- promoting professionals and educated to represent people.
    2.Voter education for them to understand the qualities of candidates with decent track records, policies, sincerity,and not to vote for biggest cut-outs, biggest posters, candidates who try to bribe voters with gifts/ liquor/ rice packets etc, who have jumped parties just for financial gain, who have been on the wrong side of law, who violate election laws, involved in thuggary, who have dubious records etc.
    3. To have laws to control election spending to create a level playing field. ( as per above article) This may mean that all election propaganda material ( print/ TV/ Electronic) to be authorised by independent central agency. It is vital to prevent crooks spending hundreds of millions on election propaganda to ‘serve the poor’ but with an actual aim to plunder the country once in power.
    4. Curtail many benefits enjoyed by ministers and MP’s – such as multiple vehicles, excessive privileges, security. Do not let them feel above the law. Make them simple public servants. Do not let them zoom past other vehicles, let them know that they have to obey road rules and speed limits, let them know certain ministerial privileges ( i.e- official vehicle) are only for themselves only and not for their kith and kin,
    5. Independent authority to maintain parliamentary standards and code of conduct.
    6. Make ministers responsible to lead by example- Minister of Health- going to govt hospitals for treatment, Minister of transport- using national transport services at least at times, Minister of education sending kids to govt schools etc. If they do not do that, what is the purpose of them being ministers of that subject? Let them champion their subject area.
    7. Make MP’s and ministers to understand that doing politics mean serving people and not serving themselves.
    8. De link- the influence of MP’s controlling law enforcement in their local area via independent police commissions.
    9. To have an independent institution to maintain proper procedures for all govt projects, tenders etc. De link politicians influencing this process in any way but their input is only for policy decisions.

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