Meritocratic Democracy | Sunday Observer

Meritocratic Democracy

12 July, 2020

We have been conditioned to accept democracy as the best form of government where people of the state elect representatives to form a body which presumably would lead them to prosperity and happiness by governing the affairs of the state through a truly democratic way.

  Our journey through ancient kingdoms to British aristocracy came to an end in 1948, giving birth to a plutocracy where the country was governed by the  wealthy elite under the cover of a democratically elected Parliament.  Currently, the process seems to be working in reverse order where rejecting elitism is popularised and getting elected through  the so-called democratic process is the easiest way to become wealthy.  One of the main feel-good factors of democracy is that each and every voter is made to feel knowledgeable and empowered.  But in reality they do not even realise to what extent they have been misled by the candidates until they start seeing all the corruption and abuse of power by the elected officials of the Government.  It certainly is not a difficult task to brainwash a group of people who have been subjected to at least 13 years, from age 5 to 18, in parroting  and conforming.


For democracy to work positively for all the citizens, the voters have to be well educated about who and what they are voting for.  Voters are expected to be independent thinkers who are willing to put the country first before their selfish needs.  Those two reasons themselves would be enough to figure out why democracy has not helped Sri Lanka much over the years. The majority rule only works if individual rights are also protected and respected.  It certainly wouldn’t make any sense to have 90 lions and 10 deer voting on what they should all be having for dinner.

  Winston Churchill  once said: “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried”.  What is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people for the people gradually has become one of the wealthy and powerful one per cent  of the people, by that one per cent  for that one per cent. 

We try our best to follow a democratic process when selecting Deans and Vice Chancellors of universities and chair persons of committees and even political party and trade union leaders. 

The candidates for those positions usually have to show their eligibility by showing their qualifications, expertise and experience in all such organisations though it may not always guarantee a win for the best out of the lot.

 Even the fact  that  if they don’t always follow the principle and or any particular expertise is disputed they at least pay lip service to the ideal.  But there is no such rule or traditional expectation of proving eligibility or qualifications for candidates for public offices.  Yet, the governments consisting of such elected members will be commanding over the process of designing and implementing legislation affecting all such institutions. 

Therefore, it will not be contradictory to the usual practice of the democratic ideals if some minimum standards and qualifications are required for one to be a candidate to become a representative of people both at local and national levels.  Perhaps a basic degree with a minimum of two years experience as an intern at an office of an elected member of the Parliament and five years  experience as a civil servant wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Selection process

There can even be a selection process with a national exam which tests the candidate’s political science, sociology, foreign policy knowledge and an interview testing  language abilities. 

The emphasis will be on achievement and recognition and not on the ability to win allies and/or the popular vote.

 Then the Government will consist of people selected for candidacy on merit and elected by people who have carefully analysed the candidate’s plan for their future.

 Then the dream of the people would be to see the elected members of their governing bodies work for them as true professionals.  Meritocracy is a political system in which economic goods and or political power are vested in individuals on the basis of talent, effort and achievement rather than wealth or social class. 

Since our society is very well seasoned for selecting / electing people for advancement on the basis of talent, knowledge, effort and achievement from their school days, it will not be difficult for them to amalgamate some of the meritocratic behavior into the existing democracy.  

As in every sector of the society, one can find the whole spectrum of people, among politicians too.

 From those who are totally dedicated to the people and  the country’s development and most generous, to those who are totally dedicated to their own development and  most selfish.

The  majority would be in the middle with a mix of the two qualities, generousness and  selfishness, in varying proportions. 

 The present day elections have become just popularity contests without much substance.  One can become popular by doing good things such as working hard to make others’ lives  better, earning a good reputation while showing their commitment and trustworthiness rather than making empty promises and appealing to others’ own prejudices.  Meritocracy may tend to take the power out of people and place it on the ruling individual leaving an opening for another form of  the abuse of power.

 It is also heavily influenced by the education system where equal access to quality education for all the citizens is needed to guarantee that the candidacy will not be limited to the rich and powerful.

Therefore, instead of considering meritocracy and democracy at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, it is probably more meaningful to think about a meritocratic democracy as an alternative to the malfunctioning system we have today. 

The writer has served in  the higher education sector as an academic for  over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected])