SRI LANKAN DEMOCRACY IN PRACTICE: 1997 – 2007
On 27th June 2007, Tony Blair leaves office after a little over a decade as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He leaves office a reviled figure, largely due to the widespread unpopularity of his decision to support the United States in the invasion of Iraq, and its continuing disastrous consequences. Nothing could be further from the aura of almost angelic invincibility that he exuded in May 1997 when he swept into office on a historic landslide and the worst post-war electoral reversal for the Tory party. It is ironic that Iraq should be Blair’s nemesis, given that it was in fact an extension of an interventionist foreign policy, a willingness to use armed force against gross human rights violations and in support of democracy that his government had implemented to international applause and much local gratitude in places such as Kosovo and Sierra Leone earlier.
Be that as it may, Blair is one of the most successful prime ministers in British history. He resurrected an antediluvian Labour party from electoral obscurity into one that accomplished an unprecedented three successive general election victories. He realigned forever the left-right axis of British politics and redefined its centre, through, to use a Giddensian Third Way locution, the Ã¢Â€Â˜triangulation’ of the best traditions of British politics in a combination of Peelite Tory reformism, Gladstonian liberalism and Labour-left communitarianism. Moreover, Blair’s government smoothly adapted the essence of the post-Thatcherite free market economic consensus, but broke the Ã¢Â€Â˜boom and bust’ cycle of supply-side economics. It also implemented an ambitious programme of reform in social services, education and health policy, and in the public sector in a way that has determined after its own terms the ideological and electoral competition on these issues.
Perhaps the aspect of his legacy that is least talked about, and about which he is himself strangely ambivalent, is Blair’s contribution to constitutional reform in the UK. The Belfast Agreement that brought an end to one of the most intractable conflicts in the world in the form of power-sharing in Northern Ireland is perhaps too great an accomplishment for one man to achieve, but Tony Blair can with justification claim a large slice of credit. In more tractable areas of constitutional reform, his modernisation agenda is incomplete no doubt, but his government introduced a devolution settlement for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; enacted a Freedom of Information Act, and introduced into UK law the European Convention of Human Rights in the form of the Human Rights Act. In the context of the unwritten British constitution, these are tectonic changes indeed. These reforms have and will continue to revolutionise British politics and public law for generations, overturning Victorian anachronisms such as the doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament, refining and bringing into modernity others such as the Rule of Law through enhanced fundamental rights protection and the institutionalisation of open government, and would serve to promote a more liberal constitutional dispensation through moving Britain in a perceptibly federal-type direction. That Blair has left an enduring imprint on the ancient British constitution is thus unassailable.
Within ten years, such a tremendous record of success has not been sufficient to keep Tony Blair riding upon the waves of popularity that brought him to power: his own party as well as the electorate expect him to go. Indeed, as Blair ruefully found out and others before him have, the merest hint of overstaying one’s welcome is fatal in British politics.
This is not a parable on the fickleness of the notoriously unbridled British media exercising power without responsibility or of an ungrateful public, echoing Enoch Powell’s gloomy prognostication that all political careers end in tears; it is rather, the reflection of the central logic, the cultural essence of a liberal democracy at work. Without any written constitutional rule limiting tenure, British politicians are kept in check, including on the manner and timing of their departure from office, by convention animated by public opinion and a fearless media.
This is a central characteristic of the vibrancy of liberal democracy in Britain, and it is pivotal to any political culture elsewhere that calls itself a liberal democracy or aspires to that condition. That the electorate entertains a healthy sense of irreverence and scepticism about political leaders is inherent and indispensable to democracy; it cannot function without this attitude. Tolerance of authoritarianism, the abuse of fundamental rights and the rule of law, the baneful consequences of leaders deluded with their own immortality and grandeur and the perpetuation of political dynasties are the paradoxically democratic consequences that follow from the absence of this public attitude of scepticism about politicians.
Machiavelli had an instructive observation on this point. Pointing to the institution of the emergency dictatorship in the Roman Republic, he argued, in an implied indictment of Florentines in his own time, that the abuse of such absolute power was prevented, not by the perfection of the Roman constitution, but by the Ã¢Â€Â˜incorruptibility’ of the public. In modern parlance, Machiavelli’s point is that the ultimate safeguard against anti-democratic abuse of power is not a paper constitution, but the disposition of the people to reject such behaviour. In other words, constitutional government is guaranteed to the extent, and only to the extent, that the people are willing to uphold it and deny democratic legitimacy to autocrats.
In Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in the old Empire, Britain left behind constitutional structures modelled on its own Westminster parliamentary system, with an expectation, perhaps also shared by the local grandees to whom power passed, that we would all get along imperfectly, but reasonably well, under parliamentary government and the separation of powers, the rule of law, seemingly cosmopolitan and well-educated elites and a serviceable economic infrastructure. Some ex-colonies, most notably India, came into their own in the post-colonial period, and entrenched not only strong constitutional States that managed democracy, but also achieved economic development through the promise and stability of constitutional democracy. Others such as Sri Lanka have been tragic failures.
If we consider the period of the last decade when Tony Blair has been doing the things in government just recounted, the depth of the malaise afflicting democracy in Sri Lanka becomes evident. One objection to this of course is the familiar point about the fallacy of comparisons between the First and Third Worlds. To acquiesce in this argument is to succumb to the bigotry of low expectations: our poverty and cultures disinherits us from aspirations to peace, prosperity and good government. Sri Lankan politicians are frequently in the habit of trotting out this argument, which their electorate, myopically and self-defeatingly, have only been too keen to swallow. Had Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar adopted the same attitude in 1947, there would not be such a thing as India: for all its flaws, a triumph of constitutional democracy, secular and federal unity in diversity, and increasingly a global economic powerhouse.
In 1997, we had already embarked on President Kumaratunga’s Ã¢Â€Â˜war for peace’ policy which ended in ignominy for the warmongers, in untold suffering for ordinary people and in the economy being brought to its knees and the unprecedented registration of negative growth in 2001. The ceasefire that resulted brought an absence of war and a semblance of normality after years, but since 2005 the agreement has been subject to systematic and deliberate erosion and is now a dead letter. In the South, this has been done by an elected government, whose popularity at least in the early stages, rose with every one of its blows against the ceasefire and its ratcheting up of the military ante. That the Rajapakse government was doing what many governments before had tried and failed, did not appear to result in any democratic social impulse that checked its insolent irresponsibility. Clearly, three decades of unwinnable conflict was insufficient for the Southern electorate to internalise the inescapable reality that peace comes through the political language of fairness, dignity and justice; not though attempting to bomb a section of their compatriots into submission.
Given the current state of affairs, one almost looks back with fond nostalgia for President Kumaratunga’s constitutional reform efforts. In 1997 her government produced a detailed set of proposals and in 2000, presented to Parliament a draft Constitution Bill. Both envisaged extensive devolution of power in a manner unthinkable by the present regime. Both of course were of limited application from a conflict resolution perspective due to non-engagement with the armed combatant on the other side of the ethnic divide, but the 2000 Bill collapsed in Parliament mainly due to Kumaratunga’s attempt through it to prolong her entitlement to office.
On the economic and peace fronts, most was achieved during the UNF interregnum of 2001-04, but the fact that subsequent elections have been lost by the UNP and its leader on such matters as charisma and not record, and failure in ethnic outbidding in the South points to the real dynamics of electoral competition in Sri Lanka.
The only successful attempt at constitutional change was the enactment in 2000 of the Seventeenth Amendment, with significant cross-party support and as a key initiative in de-politicising such State services as policing, human rights and public administration. Like the ceasefire, this has also now been rendered a dead letter in what can only be described as an intentional violation of the constitution by the refusal of the President, on spurious grounds, to appoint the Constitutional Council. Compounding this, he has demonstrated open contempt for the constitution by making his own appointments to bodies which require to be recommended by the Constitutional Council. Other governance related reforms such as a Freedom of Information Act went so far as to gain Cabinet approval in 2004, but have fallen by the wayside with little hope of revival.
In a nutshell, what has democracy and democratically elected governments achieved in Sri Lanka in the decade since 1997? We are back at war, the economy is taking an unbearable battering, the rule of law is collapsing, authoritarianism is setting in, perceptions of rampant corruption are widespread, and the human rights and humanitarian situation is in a parlous state. Peace and prosperity – the fundamental promises of the democratic form of government – are becoming unthinkable and seemingly unachievable. To apply Machiavelli’s argument to this miserable predicament tells us that we, the people, are as much or more liable for this present state of affairs as any politician.
It is clearly apparent that it is not only secessionist Tamils that are disgruntled with the State and its current agent, the Rajapakse government. That the JVP is attempting to harness economic and social discontent and to distance itself from the President is a reliable indicator which way the political winds are blowing in the South. The altercation in which Minister Chamal Rajapakse was embroiled this week in Wariyapola is a particularly apt illustration of Sri Lankan politics in action. As Michael Roberts has pointed out through the analytical tool of the Asokan Paradigm, dissatisfaction is registered and change initiated in our political culture not though the discourse and institutions of constitutional democracy, but inter alia through patron-client networks and often extra-institutional methods (especially in the context of institutional failure). The stoning of Chamal Rajapakse by fellow sons of the soil is therefore not merely the spontaneous airing of grievance; it is also an authentic example of democratic action and ultimately an allegory of attempted regicide. In the Asokan Paradigm, the King (the Chakravarthi) is removed not by impeachment through institutional mechanisms and constitutional procedures, but by a stab in the back by a courtier (a golaya).
The point is that a culture of liberal democracy defined as a set of values, principles, practices and institutions, does not exist in the life of the community in Sri Lanka. Democracy is understood merely as a procedural mechanism of occasionally deciding patronage allocation; its deliberative function is performed through negotiations between politicians and voters, not as such, but as patrons and clients. One result is a high tolerance of abuse and authoritarianism; but once that threshold is breached, the subaltern response is usually violent, and occasionally vicious.
This government has never been amenable to institutional politics and constitutional democracy, as the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapkase has made plain this week and before. Its recent actions show that, intoxicated by power, it may not be sensitive to dissatisfaction expressed even in its own discursive language of political negotiation, evinced by the Wariyapola contretemps. This, unfortunately, is history merely repeating itself. The Sri Lankan State has always seen its primary role as being the principal patron of the people, and when the gap between promise and performance widens, it turns predator as well. With the Rajapakse administration, we are now embarking on the latter, predatory, phase, and history abounds with reasons why we should fear for our liberty, limb and life. Given the debilitation and irrelevance of democratic institutions, the looming conflict between the State and its citizens will, as before, pan out in a lawless context of inflamed passions, grim determination and extreme violence. In this enactment of the commonplace drunken village brawl writ large, the wretched casualty will be the remaining remnants of democracy in Sri Lanka. Thus, whatever it is that is Tony Blair’s legacy in Britain, we at least know what Mahinda Rajapakse’s in Sri Lanka will be.