When Democracy and Constitutionalism Clash…

Pure democracy is a system of government suitable only for angels – ordinary mortals cannot handle it – Rousseau

Democracy – a word that has been thrown around a lot in the past month in Sri Lanka. Studying the current political discourse in the country, democracy has been propagated in two different ways. To one camp it is the protection of the constitution and the rule of law. To the other camp, democracy is simply and solely ‘the voice of the people’ – thus the call for elections above everything else. 

In fact, the greek word demokratia literally translates to ‘rule or power of the people’. And as widely cited in academic discourse democracy is defined as ‘popular political participation’. 

So, what does it mean for the people to rule? It means that everyone should govern; that the will of the people should be consulted in crucial decision making; in deciding general laws and matters of general policy[1]. One way to determine the will of the people is through their elected representatives[2]. In our political context the people have already decided who would represent them for this political term, therefore ousting those who have already been elected, and demanding another election prematurely is quite simply going against the will of the people, i.e. democracy. 

Picture Source: https://manningclark.org.au

Our fault is that we take these definitions at face value. Yes, democracy puts majority rule and participation at the centre, however it cannot be considered in isolation from the other principles of democracy such as ‘equality, freedom, consensus, coercion, competition, pluralism and constitutional rule[3].

In defining democracy scholars identify two dimensions of democracy[4]: 

1. electoral process 

2. and the protection of civil or political liberties

Beetham [5] goes beyond this to also include:

3. an open and accountable government

Therefore, constitutional requirements are a necessary component of democracy, although some critics argue that there can be tension between constitutionalism and democracy [6], as seen in the current political crisis of our nation. Similarly there are other political principles that  operate at variance with the democratic principle: political stability, justice, nationalism, the environ­mental imperative and efficiency[7]. Although there is no trade-off principle to guide us during conflicting principled demands, one way is to ensure ‘consistency’[8], which is why at this juncture acting according to the constitution is the best way to avoid further escalation of the political crisis; the constitution is a way to limit the power of any given majority'[9].

Holmes[10] quite rightly argues that whilst some rights are rooted in a desire to protect democracy such as the freedom of speech and the right to vote, rights can be antidemocratic in a sense that

“they interfere with democratic processes for reasons that are independent of a desire to preserve the functioning of democracy”[11]

Consequently, democracy is not necessarily a good thing, especially when it interferes with political stability. Therefore, when there is a clash between democracy and political stability, we must be aware that democracy can be diluted in the desire to realise other political ‘gains’. Therefore it should not be pursued in isolation of other political principles that preserve political stability in a country. 




[1] Lively, J. (1975), Democracy. Oxford: Blackwell. 
[2] Rousseau, J (1993). The Social Contract and the Discourse. 
[3] Sartori, G. (1987). The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.
[4] Bollen, K.A. (1980). ‘Issues in the Comparative Measurement of Political Democracy’. American Sociological Review; Bollen, K. (1993). Liberal Democracy: Validity and Method Factors in Cross-National Measures. American Journal of Political Science; Gastil, R.D. (1991). ‘Freedom in the World: Political Rights and Civil Liberties’. Freedom House; Hadenius, A. (1992). Democracy and Development. Cambridge University Press.
[5] Beetham, D. (1993) Auditing Democracy in Britain. Democratic Audit Paper No. 1. Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, Colchester/Charter 88 Trust, London. 
[6] Brennan, O. and Lomasky, L. E. (1989) ‘Introduction’, in O. Brennan and L. E. Lomasky (eds), Politics and Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Elster, J. (1988) ‘Introduction’, in J. Elster and R. Slagstad (eds), Constitutionalism and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[7] Saward, M. (1994) ‘Postmodernists, Pragmatists and the Justification of Democracy’, Economy and Society. 
[8] Barry, B. (1965). Political Argument. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
[9] Holmes, S. (1988) ‘Precommitment and the Paradox of Democracy’, in J. Elster and R. Slagstad (eds), Constitutionalism and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer­sity Press.
[10] ibid
[11] ibid

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