Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Since the introduction of democracy in the Maldives, the government has been facing a continuous barrage of petitions with demands varying from building harbors to removing strict bosses and investigating alleged corruption. But are petitions part of democracy?
In its long and perhaps extravagant list of fundamental rights, the Constitution of Maldives does not include petitioning. So, it’s not a right. However, Article 19 allows people the freedom to do anything that is not banned by a specific law. So, petitions are lawful.
Is there a role for petitions in the democratic setup? The Constitution gives sweeping powers to the executive to take decisions. It also gives the executive the power to hold referendums to get public opinion on important national matters. In other matters gathering public opinion is left to the discretion of the executive, presumably through the interactions of ministers with the public and through routine bureaucratic reporting systems.
Do petitions reflect public opinion accurately? This is doubtful because petitions are usually organized by a small but vocal minority. The others simply sign the petition to oblige the organizers.
In advanced democracies, political parties do not organize petitions. However lobbyists and NGOs do so to garner support for their causes. Thus petitions sponsored by political parties are perhaps unique to the Maldives. Perhaps this is because some of the local political parties are little more than NGOs, with little if any political base. Why the state must spend millions on ‘political parties’ which do not even contest a single Majlis seat is a different story altogether.
The question is, do petitions advance the course of democracy? Or, do they hinder true democracy by advancing narrow interests?