Photo AP Photo/Sujeewa Kumar via The Guardian

The phrase ‘regime-change’ is often used to describe the dramatic result of the presidential election on 8th January 2015, both in the sense of a democratic change of government, as well as at a deeper level, to denote the electorate’s expression of a choice between two competing conceptions of the Sri Lankan state. The country rejected the Rajapaksa model and endorsed the common opposition’s promise of a radically different vision of Sri Lanka. With the main part of the common opposition’s promised reforms enacted in the form of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in April, the electorate will be asked to endorse those changes and the promise of more, or to reject both, in the parliamentary elections in two weeks’ time.

While this might have been expected to be a contest between the UNP and a post-Rajapaksa SLFP, the former President’s refusal to go gracefully into political retirement has meant that, for the second time this year, the public will be faced with a similar choice as in January with regard to expressing its will as to what kind of entity the Sri Lankan state should be, and in what directions it ought to constitutionally evolve in the future. This is therefore not merely a question, as in a routine general election, of which party and which set of competing health, education, development, and economic policies the electorate prefers. It is certainly deeper than the question of whom as between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa is more popular as a prospective Prime Minister.

As with the remarkable societal conversation that occurred during the presidential election campaign, this time too there is evidence that, beneath the inevitable partisanship and heated competition, there is a certain seriousness underlying the public discourse about the future of the country. Sri Lankans realise that this is an election that will decide the very nature of the state and its path of political and economic development for the foreseeable future. It is important therefore for us to be clear about what exactly are the two main competing visions that are on offer. There are of course more than two, including most importantly, the federal vision offered by the TNA. These minoritarian constitutional perspectives raise more fundamental questions for the state than armed secessionism ever did, and therefore it is a set of questions that deserves separate treatment another day.

I think that the approaches of the UNP and its allies on the one hand, and that of the UPFA on the other, can be characterised in terms of two theoretical models: the former a republican re-articulation of Sri Lankan statehood; the latter offering what can be called an ethnocratic state which reaffirms the cultural and political primacy of the majority community. In other words, the choice in terms of the models of state on offer is between a republic and an ethnocracy. In what follows I would like set out what I mean by these two models, in the hope of providing some illumination to the way we conceive our choices on 17th August.

Mahinda Chinthanaya as Ethnocracy

There is nothing in the UPFA manifesto, or the views expressed by its political leaders and intellectual exegetists, to suggest that what it offers for the future is any different to what went before under the Rajapaksa regime. In fact the entire UPFA campaign is built on the restoration of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cabal of fellow-travellers to power, and thereby the reinstatement of the authoritarian state and the political discourse of confrontational nationalism that characterised that regime. More deeply, what the UPFA stands for is the re-establishment of the ethnocracy that it was building when it was rudely pushed out of power by the Sri Lankan electorate.

An ethnocracy is a type of state that combines the practice of majoritarian democracy with the ethnicisation of politics. It arises in plural polities in which one dominant ethnic group, which asserts a primacy within the historical and territorial space of the polity (and therefore claims to the ownership of the state), seeks to enforce a hierarchy of ethnic relations as the very basis of the constitutional order. Ethnocratic regimes appropriate the state and use its resources for the advancement of the dominant group, which necessarily involves the subordination and sometimes the violent suppression of minority groups. The resulting resistance by minorities may perversely take an ethnocratic form itself (of which the LTTE was an archetypical example). The cultural resources of ethnicity provide the animating values of politics in ethnocracies, not secular values of constitutional democracy. They may vary in the level of oppression used against minorities, but they usually allow some forms of political representation and rights to minorities, while denying the most fundamental of the minorities’ rights claims. They are not unelected dictatorships, but ethnocratic states legitimise their authoritarian control over the plural polity by recourse to ethno-cultural populism and democratic majoritarianism. Due to the fundamental injustice upon which the constitutional order is built, ethnocracies denude their own control aims by being chronically unstable and conflict-ridden.

The Rajapaksa regime displayed all these ethnocratic characteristics. Its main basis of political mobilisation and regime legitimation was a chauvinistic version of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. The political, cultural, and historical claims of the majority nation supplanted the civic conception of an inclusive Sri Lankan nation. Secular law was increasingly replaced with ethnic politics, including monarchical traditions of political power, in the way state authority was organised and exercised. The nation-state defined this way was constructed unambiguously against minority claims to equality and autonomy. The resulting tension and conflict-potential were addressed via increasing control and militarisation. A political constitution derived from the mytho-historical worldview of Sinhala-Buddhist nativism constantly superseded the surviving remnants of legal modernity as reflected in the text of the legal constitution. Monarchical motifs from Sinhala-Buddhist historiography were widely used to rearticulate the nature and purpose of presidential power.

The regime also went further than nationalism in its sheer extractive appetite. Clientelism and corruption were pervasive, facilitated by the breakdown of the rule of law and the arbitrariness of family rule. In short, the Sri Lankan state, which despite its many limitations – including most importantly its congenital incapacity to accommodate minority claims – had maintained a formally constitutional and democratic character, was transmogrified into an organised cartel for the furtherance of the economic interests of the ruling family and its wide network of clients. If the ethnocratic aspect of the regime provided it with populist legitimacy, it was this latter dimension that eroded its electoral support even within its core constituency. It is the factor of corruption and excess that mainly explains how a nationalist and populist President dissipated a majority of nearly two million votes within four years of his last election in 2010.

The Nineteenth Amendment may have curtailed the powers of the presidency, but those changes would make little difference consequent to a return of the UPFA under Rajapaksa, because legality and constitutionalism have little role to play in the political style and notion of state authority that it and he represent. The legal constitution would always be subordinated to the political constitution derived from authoritarian instincts and majoritarian nationalism, and in this way, the Sri Lankan state would revert to what it was under the Rajapaksa regime, notwithstanding the democratising legal changes introduced by the Nineteenth Amendment.

The common political and civic opposition’s programme was sufficiently attractive for a substantial segment of Rajapaksa’s core constituency to desert him in the last presidential election. This illustrates the limitations of populism and nationalism as mobilising strategies and ideologies, but what it also demonstrates is that there is something about the ideals of republic democracy that is quite deeply rooted in the Sri Lankan polity. Rajapaksa-style strongmen might enjoy their moments of glory, but unlike in other parts of the global south, our polity is too politically developed for this model to take root, especially when the strongman in question does not have the capacity to understand that even in an authoritarian state, regime stability and continuation depends on a judicious mix of coercion and compromise.

The alternative vision of the country offered by the common opposition won the day in January, and in the forthcoming election, the UNP and its political and civil society allies seek a mandate to consolidate and build upon the changes they have introduced since the last presidential election. Although they have not argued their vision in these terms, I contend that the model offered by this coalition of forces represents a strongly republican model of democratic state.

Yaha Paalanaya as Republicanism

Republicanism is a set of ideas and practices concerned with the common good, which is opposed to political tyranny and corruption, and which foregrounds the concept of civic virtue as the defining feature of a well-governed polity. There are three principal elements to the ideal republican state. These are: anti-monarchism and popular sovereignty; the notion of ‘non-domination’ as the basis of freedom; and the value of accountability and its institutional design. Understood in this way, what is important is not the formal constitutional self-description of the state, but how its substantive political institutions function in actual practice. Thus, for example, monarchical presidential states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, may make much of the fact that they are formally republics, but in fact they are normatively less republican than formal constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom.

A republic is of course the binary opposite to a monarchy as a type of state. But more normatively, republicanism represents the view that the ultimate power and authority to govern a polity – sovereignty – emanates from the people (therefore, ‘popular’ sovereignty) and that it is created, exercised, and reproduced in an on-going political relationship between the people and their governing institutions. It rejects the view that sovereignty vests in a hereditary office, or originates in some metaphysical source.

Second, the idea of non-domination is a complex and multifaceted concept, but for present purposes what it means is the rejection of all forms of arbitrary government, the corollary of which is the assurance of accountability of government to the people. The scope for arbitrariness is reduced in a republic by the provision of robust mechanisms to ensure limits on the extent of governmental power, procedures to confine and structure its exercise, and most importantly, the space for citizens to continuously have a say in the process of government. The principle of non-domination thus carries three consequences: (a) open government and freedom of information, so that government in the public interest may be ensured; (b) civic virtue, or a citizenry concerned with ensuring the common good and assuming some personal responsibility towards realising it; and (c) equality, which is again a complicated concept, but here understood as the assurance of basic legal, political, and socio-economic conditions in order that citizens can play the role expected of them by the republican ideal. Finally, there is little value in merely declaring these normative values and aims as desirable goods if there are no means by which they can be actualised. Republicanism therefore pays serious attention to how institutions might be designed so as to ensure accountability of government.

Even though it has not been explicitly defended as such, it can plausibly be argued that the common opposition manifesto for the presidential election and the UNP manifesto for the parliamentary generally conform to the requirements of this conceptualisation of the republican ideal. The 100-day programme was entirely about institutional reforms that were aimed at realising the republican norms outlined above, and equally important is the deliberate change of leadership style. The new President has been at pains to demonstrate the public service dimension of the institution, in contrast to the ostentation and grandiloquence of his predecessor. Due largely to the intransigence of Rajapaksa’s parliamentary majority, the Nineteenth Amendment did not fully meet the abolitionist potential of the common opposition manifesto, but its central premise was the rejection of the monarchism associated with the presidential institution under the 1978 Constitution, exacerbated by Rajapaksa’s Eighteenth Amendment. The UNP manifesto for the parliamentary election promises to implement further reforms to the executive that would approximate to the abolition of presidentialism, and together with other governance reforms, these changes would take Sri Lanka closer towards the ideals of republican democracy.

Substantively, what the pruning of presidentialism entails is the expansion of democracy, through better checks and balances, lesser arbitrariness, and more space for participation and consultation. Not only is the executive to be reshaped, but Parliament is also to be strengthened, by improving its scrutinising capacity through a reform of the committee system. The Nineteenth Amendment aimed at both political and legal accountability by removing the blanket legal immunity of the president and by making the executive responsible to Parliament. It has already made the right to information a fundamental constitutional right, and this will be enhanced in the future by the enactment of freedom of information legislation.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration demonstrated an important symbolic commitment to equality in its economic policy as reflected in the interim budget of January and its cost of living reliefs. Some of the fiscal measures introduced in that budget – such as the one-off tax on certain categories of businesses that were clear beneficiaries of Rajapaksa largesse or the so-called ‘mansion tax’ that targets the same group – have been controversial, but might be defended at least in principle on grounds of republican equality. The central big idea underlying the UNP manifesto is the notion of the social market economy. The principle underlying this model of economic organisation is fundamentally republican, in seeking to ensure the balance of economic interests between society and market, or in other words, embracing both the wealth-creation of market capitalism as well as reaffirming the quasi-communitarian republican commitments to some form of social equity. This might prove a tough balance in practice, but it is at least plausible in theory.

The government elected in January was also based on a commitment to some form of political equality, which is important in two ways. Firstly, in appealing to the notion of a political community that has the capacity for constitutional renewal and to self-correct the democratic sanction for authoritarianism, and secondly, in eschewing the ethnic hierarchy denoted by the ethnocratic model, and appealing to the minorities to join the common purpose of rebuilding the post-war nation on a basis of pluralism and equality. The latter aspect will not satisfy – indeed is wholly inadequate – as a policy response to the sub-state nationality claim asserted by the Tamils, and the federal autonomy within a united Sri Lankan state as the institutional form of its practical expression, that the TNA manifesto puts before us. But it does denote that, at least symbolically, the post-Rajapaksa state is at least minimally responsive to the claims of minorities, and that contentious issues may be addressed through negotiation and discussion rather than rejection and repression. In recognising the plural character of the Sri Lankan polity, the new dispensation impliedly recognises the validity and legitimacy of minority claims to accommodation. That is a promising start, and a decisive renunciation of Rajapaksa ethnocracy.

The reference to ‘maximum devolution within the unitary state’ in the UNP manifesto has to be understood in this context, and while unfortunate from the perspective of Tamil claims to accommodation in particular, we have to understand it as a strategic bulwark against the Rajapaksa threat on a vulnerable flank. I am hopeful that future constitutional discussions on devolution and power-sharing will not be excessively hindered by a fundamentalist conception of the unitary state, and that all parties will, pragmatically and thoughtfully, focus more on substantive matters of self-rule and shared-rule rather than symbols and terminology.

In this way we can see how sharply differentiated was the choice between the two models of polity and state that were offered by the respective presidential candidates. It is therefore a matter of historic significance that in January 2015 the electorate chose to regain the dignity and self-worth of citizenship implied by the republican model, and reject the authoritarian domination, the lack of accountability, and the political injustice of an ethnocracy in a plural society represented by the Rajapaksa regime. For reasons already mentioned, the same choice confronts us on 17th August. And for the reasons canvassed in this essay, it ought to be a no-brainer.