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Sunday, 9 August 2015

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Signs of genuine Democracy?

A police officer apologises promptly to demonstrators who were accidentally sprayed by an anti-riot water cannon, a government ministry secretary is summarily transferred out of post and, two other, more junior, government officers are also transferred from their posts and, the country's streets and walls yet remain remarkably un-festooned with (illegal) election posters.

Is this 'Third World' Sri Lanka or, some developed democratic country? Citizens, looking forward to next week's elections, must now surely do so with some hope of new things to come rather than that sense of deja vu that citizens have lived with during successive elections over decades that routinely feature violence, fraud and abuse of power. Is the Prime Minister's recent promise of elections 'UK style' holding true?

These remarkable new features of Sri Lankan political life are concrete demonstrations of the value of laws and legislation, of the possibilities of practically useful and active bureaucratic machinery, of how politicians and government can create and activate new styles of living democracy. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution may have been ridiculously diluted in a most transparently opportunistic manner by power blocs in Parliament hostile to political reform. Nevertheless, the value of this piece of legislation, even if diluted from the more comprehensive reform package it was originally meant to be, is now shining through.

It is the 19th Amendment that restored power and administrative autonomy to the Elections Commissioner and his Department to a degree that he can notify the President - once the all-powerful office - and the President moves promptly to transfer a Ministry Secretary.

The President has acted in accordance with newly legislated requirements, but there have been numerous instances in the recent decade, especially, when the incumbent President has blithely ignored legal requirements.

Similarly, the Police in the Fort, Colombo, when they apologised to surprised medical students for accidentally spraying them with an anti-riot water cannon, were not abiding by any new law but merely behaving in a civilised and responsible manner within the ambit of existing laws that had long been ignored previously.

What Sri Lankans have begun to experience in recent months is that crucial conjunction of laws and voluntary best practices. It is not just obedience to the law but voluntary and spontaneous behaviour according to its spirit.

These developments last week are a fascinating revelation of how people, although long used to brutalisation and unthinking lawless behaviour, are beginning to function strictly according to their duties and, even better, going beyond duty to a more sophisticated level of civilised official behaviour.

Has Sri Lankan society begun enjoying the flavours and ambience of a genuine good governance?

Some veteran political activists, long engaged in pro-democracy action over the decades in the face of many discouraging down-turns in the past, may insist on a 'wait-and-see' approach. Given the bitter experiences of the past, this is probably the most pragmatic approach.

But citizens waiting to exercise their vote next week may be forgiven if they are thrilled with these small signs of a reviving civilisation. Perhaps the 'Wonder of Asia' is to come - minus the false exhortations and pretensions of those denizens who exploited people's hopes with empty sloganeering.

The newly empowered Commissioner of Elections must be congratulated for his 'no nonsense' approach to the conduct of the elections. New powers have not been carelessly used. Neither do we hear bombastic statements about the meticulous work of government officers administering the elections process.

The new 'best practices' are being practised without unnecessary fanfare, perhaps duly noted by the teams of visiting foreign election monitors.

Are we also experiencing a shift away from pretensions and false heroism? Readers and voters may wish to hold their breath rather than presume anything too soon. There are yet loud roaring noises by 'lions' and their sundry fellow-travellers. Hopefully, those 'tigers' of yesteryear will not think to copy such histrionics.

All citizens will look forward in hope that this new style of politics and government will be keenly experienced and observed by the emerging generations - the younger voters and future voters - so that their outlook will be more optimistic and visionary rather than cynical and stunted.

Civil society groups must take note of all these little upsurges in good governance and civilised politics so creative inputs could be given to ensure that these are not momentary flashes but will become entrenched in institutions and ways of political life. Both politicians and government officials will need to absorb these 'best practices' as normal functions and not exceptional behaviour. The education system may need to incorporate a curriculum that instils such modern civilised political behaviour in future citizens.

The new generations of the future will, hopefully, know of elections violence and abuses as features of a dark moment in our island's history.

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