Photo courtesy The Malaysian Insider

You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
James Madison, 4th President of America


The current presidential election in Sri Lanka is mainly focused on making a pathway towards good governance by assuring the victory of the common opposition candidate. Good governance does not come by itself. It cannot be imported from elsewhere or implanted by military means. It has to grow from within by gradually institutionalizing and constructing political processes and spreading the universal values that are intrinsic to good governance. Respect for diversity, pluralism, tolerance, justice, freedom, human rights and non-violence are universal core values that need to be embedded in a system of good governance.

There are hopeful signs that the prevailing autocracy in Sri Lanka could be brought to an end at this week’s presidential election. At the same time the promised march towards implementing new constitutional reforms, establishing bourgeois democratic rights and freedoms, participatory democracy, controlling nepotism, fraud and corruption, and building unity through recognition and respect for Sri Lanka’s national and religious diversity needs to begin immediately.

This is only the first step, for elections do not automatically lead to peaceful transfer of power. They do not necessarily lead to conflict situations. A peaceful transition will depend on the socio-economic, political and institutional conditions of a country. When electoral process or its outcomes are contested, the probability of challenges and protests is very high. Such contentious elections will carry high risks for the future of society.

Previously, Sri Lanka has witnessed contentious elections and referendums full of violence, corruption, legitimacy challenges, malpractices, election law violations and street protests. Problems of electoral malpractice and violence may lead to major challenges to the legitimacy of stakeholders, electoral procedures and the outcomes; erode confidence among people and authorities conducting elections; and provoke protests against the outcomes that may lead to emergence of conflicts and violence.

Current situation

The current repressive environment in Sri Lanka has compelled many individuals, groups and organisations to come forward and support overturning the autocratic executive presidential system. The exercise of executive presidential powers has become increasingly unaccountable, non-transparent and incongruent with peoples’ wishes. The executive presidency was introduced in 1977 to cater for the establishment of a neo-liberal economic agenda and the structural reforms required to accompany it. With the opening up of the economy in 1977, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist currents felt threatened and this led to another upward jump of nationalism, thus intensifying competition between diverse national bourgeois groups for the capture, maintenance and expansion of the markets that have been under their control.

The resultant nationalist dynamics led to the alienation and exclusion of non-Sinhala communities from the national decision-making processes that adversely affected their future and economic well-being. Today, this alienation and exclusion has reached peak proportions. The tragic devastation caused during the past six and a half decades of autocratic rule have motivated people to take a stand against the abuse of power, deprivation of human and democratic rights, concentration of power in the hands of a single family enclave, corruption, politicisation of the bureaucracy, militarisation of civil society and ramping up the autocracy of the ruling family. If the diverse spectrum of people gathered together with their representatives could make a constructive contribution to re-establish bourgeois democratic norms, while giving prominence to the needs and aspirations of its inhabitants, this new dynamic may very well be utilised for building a new society that will be more inclusive, harmonious and cohesive.

Socio-economic and political dynamics

Mitigating against this dynamic is the inconvertible fact that market forces have become more powerful, bellicose and ruthless in making use of nationalist ideologies to cover their aggressive political and economic market manoeuvres. The introduction of a neo-liberal economy in Sri Lanka in 1977, one of the first economies to do so in the world, has rapidly contributed to increasing this ruthless and suicidal competition.

A major attraction in the current presidential election campaign has been the cross-overs from the current regime to the opposition and vice versa. In Sri Lanka today, the head of state and his kith and kin behave like royals. Like in feudal days, they buy or offer privileges such as jobs, land, money, security, impunity etc. However, this largesse can be taken away any time one crosses over to the opposite side. Repressive regimes like the one in the island use their servile feudo-capitalist mafia to drown societies in a fear psychosis. To achieve this, they take away the human rights that people should enjoy as individuals and communities under a bourgeois democratic set up.

Conspiracies of western intervention and the perfidious aims of some of the diaspora are brewed from the thin air. Yet, the ‘royal’ clan, and those who serve them wholeheartedly continue to own and expand their capitalistic interests and privileges by establishing, consolidating and expanding their investment in business, housing and property both local and overseas, particularly in the western world. To safeguard such interests and privileges, the clan needs an autocratic constitutional structure with executive presidential powers and the dismantling of independent institutions like the judiciary, law enforcement, elections commission, and national audit.

This is not new to Sri Lanka, but the scale of it is. Historically in Sri Lanka, ethnic based political parties increasingly prevailed when colonialists handed over the control of reins in 1948 to the national bourgeoisie. Election campaigns held since the colonial days, encouraged political parties to present their policy platforms to build their support bases. Particularly since the 1950s, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim parties appealed to their particular ethnic base, and to make them strongly attached to their respective parties. In emerging bourgeois democracies like Sri Lanka, rhetorical political campaigns that involve their own ethnicities, influence their voting behaviour. This causes more citizens to start identifying themselves as members of an exclusive ethnic group.

Ethnic mobilisation by opportunistic bourgeois leaderships appears to have largely contributed to the construction and redefinition of ethnic identities in Sri Lanka. Citizens become vulnerable to the manipulation of these leaderships. The other factor that led to such ethnic formations is their exclusion by the majority population. Elections provide political opportunities for maximising marginal mobilisation of ethnicities. Socioeconomically excluded persons are more vulnerable to such ethnic mobilisations. The resultant ethnic bias have become so influential in the casting of votes during elections.

For good governance to be successful, it needs to be diligently nurtured when young and carefully maintained when mature to counter such decadent political tendencies. In almost all western countries the right to vote was provided after the establishment of sophisticated political systems, with powerful civil services and entrenched constitutional rights. These societies cherished the notions of individual rights and independent judiciaries. In Sri Lanka, this is not the situation. Hence, good governance needs to be designed carefully to harness human creativity but also to check their perversity. In addition, such mechanisms have to be maintained in good working order.

Bourgeois democracy clearly suffers from serious structural problems. People elect representatives who pull the levers of national power for a fixed period, but this arrangement has been under threat. Globalisation and neo-liberal economics have drastically changed national politics. Politicians have no control over trade and financial flows to global markets and multi-national institutions. They may find it impossible to keep promises they have already pledged to the people. Global financial entities such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and states like China and the European Union have extended their financial and economic influence over many nation states. In such an environment, dealing with socio-economic and political issues within the domain of a single country become extremely difficult, but their importance is paramount.

The biggest challenge to good governance comes from the voters themselves. As Plato has explained, citizens in a democracy live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment. This pleasure is continuously interrupted by the unbalanced budgets and recurring financial crises in debt-financed socio-economic set ups. At the same time, bourgeois democracies have many strengths, being able to elect amongst a variety of political tendencies the best leader who they feel reflects their interests and concerns. This makes it better than autocracies. However, to succeed young democracies need to be built on firm foundations.

Many democratic experiments have failed recently because their emphasis had been on short-term electoral gain. The power of the state needs to be checked. Individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise need to be guaranteed. If a regime can control the armed forces even after losing an election, it may prefer to fight back using them. Such a process is not credible, and will not reinforce democracy. However, if there is a multi-party system in which the losers of an election may have a chance of winning in the future, then such a process can restore self-enforcing democracy.

Autocracy and international support

Regimes advocating economic development first, and then democracy have received ample international support. This has been so, particularly for countries offering international assistance in promoting neo-liberal market reforms. Such international support has reinforced systems of autocracy in the process. On the other hand, promotion of good governance does not go hand in hand with regime change as some western neo-liberal regimes propose and carry out. Use of military force to remove or retain a regime is inconsistent with the values of democracy and has proven to be counter-productive. Such action plays into the hands of autocrats who resist necessary democratic reforms by evoking sentiments against perceived foreign interventions violating their sovereignty.

International donors place undue emphasis on countries that have recently come out of armed conflicts to first achieve stability and reconstruction, and then democracy. This approach has frequently entrenched the socio-economic and political interests that have been the original cause of such conflicts. Such trends make advancing good governance much more difficult. Many such regimes have started imposing tight control over civil society in the name of ensuring security, political stability and non-interference in the country’s internal affairs. These regimes place unlawful restrictions on civil society activism, constrain and silence their activities, and harass and intimidate individuals and groups who want to enlarge the democratic space of a country.


Democracy is justifiable if it yields good outcomes and becomes self-enforcing, which is not necessarily the realpolitik in the world today. For this to happen, the incumbents need to hold regular, competitive, fair and free elections and comply with their outcomes. In the recent periods of our history, parties once elected, have been found to waver whether to hold elections or not, or they manipulate the timing of elections so that they can re-acquire power. So elections are held well before the end of a term. This may provide cues on whether to rebel against such maneuvers or not. When citizens observe various signals coming out of a regime, their psyche become confused as to whether they should pose a credible protest, if the regime evades its responsibility of holding elections or giving up power if voted out in an election.

As previously discussed, many diverse peoples, groups and organisations have come forward to support overturning the autocratic executive presidential politics that have become increasingly incongruent with peoples’ wishes. These diverse groups may represent different political interests and ideologies and have their own long term strategic political objectives. Most of these groups may have in their minds the long term interests of serving the country according to their world outlook. Their priority would be to satisfy the interests of their stakeholders in the best possible way they can. However, these diverse groups need to unite together by developing a series of common minimum program modules that they could all agree upon in moving forward towards a better and fair society.

In conclusion, robust and participatory constitutional and legal reforms would promote long-term stability, and would tend to keep a country and its peoples united. If the incoming regime would be able to work in tandem with the country’s diverse socio-economic, political and national-cultural forces in developing and implementing genuine and appropriate legal frameworks in the interests of the peoples of Sri Lanka as a whole, this would bolster the struggle for good governance, rule of law and democratic practices and the fight against corruption in managing it. Yet, all political forces and diverse groups behind the intended change need to remember that their democratic temper will be tested in formulating policies to address the national question. Their policy positions on the national question are wide ranging. Finding a consensus on this issue will involve extreme patience and understanding on the one hand and hard headed bargaining on the other, in doing so keeping the best interests of all communities at heart. If all the political forces and groups could work together constructively in a participative manner, they would become the harbinger of a better, fairer and peaceful Sri Lanka!