A sortition proposal in Sri Lanka

Over the last few years, Sri Lanka has been experiencing a prolonged economic crisis which has come to a head in 2022 leading to a political crisis. The following recent piece by Chandre Dharmawardana, a prominent Sri Lankan retired physicist, published in several Sri Lankan websites, offers sortition as a way to resolve the political crisis.

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 (and not class conflict, nor 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.  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 ten percent of their officials by election, selecting the rest by sortition—a lottery, which randomly selected citizens to serve 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. Sortition 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 sortition. 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 have 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 sortition model has not yet received the attention of political and constitutional writers of Sri Lanka, although it holds the key to the current impasse.

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