Party-representative vs participatory-representative democracy | Sunday Observer

Party-representative vs participatory-representative democracy

9 January, 2022

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” - George Washington

Most democracies in the world follow the model introduced by the founding fathers of the United State of America with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1788.

The fact that there have been only 27 amendments to that constitution over the last 234 years shows how comprehensive and far thinking the framers of the document have been.

Though most of the founding fathers did not agree with ‘factions’ and ‘parties’, people learned to accept them as an unpleasant reality of a democratic system.

However, definition(s) of democracy or the Constitutions of democratic nations don’t seem to dictate a role for parties in forming and sustaining a democratic society.

Perhaps to the dismay of the framers of the Constitution, who did not expect a division of citizens into parties, the system evolved into a two dominating parties and other smaller groups ‘independent’ from those parties.

International relations

Over centuries the rest of the world did not see much of a difference the way US conducted their international relations, though some decisions regarding certain domestic issues may have been different based on the party that was in power at that moment.

The ideologies of the two parties contained enough overlapping since both did not want to deviate from the vision founding fathers had for the country. Bipartisanship was the priority for the good of the country irrespective of the party that was in power. It worked almost like a multiparty democracy. Thanks to Donald Trump, the rest of the world got a chance to see that it was not the case anymore.

Sri Lanka completed its sixteenth Parliamentary elections within the democratic framework defined by the Constitution that has been amended nineteen times after its ratification in 1978.

The citizens who exercised their right to vote are happy that they did their duty in selecting the group of people who have volunteered to be a member of the Parliament that will have the responsibility of legislative procedures.

Sri Lankans have gone through this process fifteen times prior to this, since 1948. One may see this usual trend where the citizens are hopeful and happy immediately after the elections and then the happiness wears out gradually with the time only to reach the summit of disappointment usually in the middle of the five-year period during which they become hopeful again thinking that they get their next chance to exercise their right and change things around.

Democratic Constitution

They feel empowered by this right given to them by the democratic Constitution to change the Government if they don’t like it. More often than not they have done that- change the Government. Well, to be specific, they have changed the name of the party that the majority of the parliamentarians belong to.

But the governing system of the country has only been getting worse. They did it again for the sixteenth time, perhaps hoping that sixteenth time is the charm.

Interestingly enough, this is not unique to Sri Lanka. This is a common phenomenon in almost all the two-party democracies in the world where the voter who is disappointed at the end of one period feels that the only other choice is the other party.

Since we are dealing with millions of voters, there can be millions of reasons for this phenomenon. However, a careful analysis would show the importance of understanding the reasons for disappointments with one period and the reasons for not seeing any other alternative other than the two that have been tried and tested alternatively over and over again.

What we see today is the cumulative effect of all the Governments in the past together with the deterioration of the social and cultural values accepted by most people.

Similar deteriorations can be seen around the world where unceasing conflicts among classes, religions, races, within countries and armed struggles between nations.

Vast majority

A vast majority of the people around the world are by nature peaceful and do not enjoy such conflicts and have no desire to inflict such pain and suffering on others.

They would be happy if they have enough to eat, a place to live, sufficient clothing, good health, a reasonable way to make a living while contributing to the good of the society where they get to interact with likeminded people.

They also would like to quench their thirst for intellectual and moral development in a peaceful manner. If democracies work as people expect it to work serving the majority and the majority is peaceful, then why do we see continuous wars, conflicts, refugee crises, terrorism, assassinations, and all kinds of organised violence in the world?

Could it be that a minute fraction of the people who are clever propagandists are willing to resort to any such violence in order to reach their selfish goals. Have the people from the peaceful majority become involved in this game played by the minute fraction of these clever propagandists?

Would it be unfair to say that the failure to fulfill those peaceful desires of the public, at least in part, is due to the type of governing bodies they have chosen for the purpose? If political parties are used as the vehicles to become a part of such governing bodies, then shouldn’t the peace-loving public think carefully before they decide to support any of such parties?


A political party is usually formed when a group of like-minded people with a certain political ideology decide to form an organisation for the expression and registration of their principles and visions.

Others who decide to join would do so if they feel that the particular party would be able to represent their ideologies and visions for the country better than others. Party affiliations determined by other selfish factors would fail to serve the individual as a vehicle to express his/her political ideology.

Unfortunately, more and more political parties are being formed as factions or cults for the purpose of opposing some of the existing parties, often to accommodate the same people who have been kicked out of those existing parties.

Therefore, people who gather around such parties do so not to use it as the vehicle to achieve common goals for the country but to satisfy their egoic mind with revengeful thoughts.

Even though the majority of the world population consists of peace-loving people, extremely selfish motives together with human propensity towards division and conflict would be enough to fuel the animosities and violence between parties as well as between different factions within each party.

That perhaps is why George Washington, in his farewell address warned Americans about political partisanship and entanglements with European wars as the two greatest dangers to prosperity of the country.

He said that “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, would lead to a more formal and permanent despotism.

The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than the competitors, will turn this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

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