Photo courtesy of Daily Mail

Samuel P. Huntington, an eminent American political scientist, predicted in his work “Democracy’s Third Wave” that there could be reversions in democratic countries due to unfavourable conditions to sustain democracy, resulting in a third reverse wave of democracy.[1]

He categorised democracy into the first wave of democracy (1828-1926), first reverse wave of democracy (1922-1944), second wave of democracy (1943-1962), second reverse wave of democracy (1958-1975) and the third wave of democracy (1974 – ). Assessing the Sri Lankan status quo, it can be determined that Sri Lanka is in a worrisome state of heading towards autocratisation also known as the democratic backsliding. In the report by V-Dem Institute, “Autocratization turns viral: Democracy Report 2021”, it depicts that despite Sri Lanka gradually transforming the regime type from an electoral autocracy to an electoral democracy from 2009-2019 being one of the countries achieving greatest gains for democracy, from 2020 onwards Sri Lanka is one of the highest riskers of democracy backsliding. In fact as per the pandemic backsliding data analysis by V-Dem from March 2020 to June 2021, Sri Lanka ranks 1st out of 144 countries in the Pandemic Backsliding Index, 2nd out of 144 on the Pandemic Violations of Democratic Standards Index, and 60th out of 144 in the Liberal Democracy Index. These numbers are alarming to anyone that is aware of the universal value of democracy and the danger of its precariousness.

Huntington defined Sri Lanka as a second wave backslider that had failed to redemocratise. Considering the indicators that he used to measure democracy, which were open, free and fair elections; limitations on political power; institutionalisation and stability and electoral competition and widespread voting participation, it can be derived that he identified Sri Lanka as a backslider due to the adaption of socialist governance, establishment of the executive presidency with centralised powers and decline of voter participation during the continuum of internal conflicts. With the transition of Sri Lanka’s regime from an electoral autocracy to an electoral democracy from 2009-2019, it can be inferred that Sri Lanka hit the third wave of democracy, but is now on the reversal, missing out on the benefits of the wave for a considerable period of time.

Huntington expressed that systemic failures of democratic regimes such as to ensure national security could revert to an authoritarian regime. Similarly in Sri Lanka, the Easter Sunday attack was the key trigger to elect an overtly authoritarian candidate as Gotabaya Rajapaksa who assured a disciplined, efficient and a secure society. The attack and the failure of the coalition government to ensure security led the majority of voters to decide that security supersedes democratic freedoms and rights. In a country like Sri Lanka where people have constantly lived with the trauma of violence and conflict it was deemed to be a good enough reason. Sri Lanka is known for its habitual rule by emergency where it has become the normalised approach to control any situation. On the other hand the authoritarian personality of  President Rajapaksa is evident in both his manifesto and statements made after coming into power, where he once claimed “I do not envisage public officials, lawmakers or the judiciary to impede me implementing this commitment.” The 20th Amendment to the Constitution was hurriedly passed amid the pandemic eroding separation of powers, checks and balances and further buttressing executive powers. This deadly combination of rule by emergency and inherent authoritarian mentality have exacerbated the process of autocratisation.

Many emergency regulations imposed during the pandemic were not in accordance with the Siracusa principles of being proportionate and legitimate to control the situation. The decision makers took advantage of it to unfairly curtail the rights of the people, especially freedom of expression and freedom of association. It was a tragicomedy to see police notices restricting criticism of the government and the restriction on Muslim burials where it had no interconnection to controlling a disease. Even if it can be justified to restrict association to control the pandemic, the double standards in allowing free association to the privileged in personal events, funerals and other leisurely activities and using the regulations to particularly ban protesting depict that it was mostly a case of curbing dissent. The pandemic further acted as a medium to accelerate the police abuse of unlawful arrests, extra-judicial killings and torture. The militarisation during the pandemic was a major contribution to erode democracy as it went beyond assisting in operations or logistics to crucial decision making superseding the field experts. This led to nonsensical restrictions on freedoms and rights of the citizens that had no relation to protecting public health. These kinds of arbitrary actions by the government and other law enforcement authorities have significantly contributed in ranking Sri Lanka as the first in pandemic backsliding.

Huntington recognised that the interventions by  non-democratic foreign powers had contributed to the first and second reverse wave and thereby it could lead to the third reverse wave as well. He particularly expressed concern over Chinese authoritarianism; it is critical to analyse the impact of the China factor on Sri Lankan democracy at this time when its influence remains the highest. A report by the International Republican Institute titled “Chinese Malin Influence and the Corrosion of Democracy”, which is a case study of 13 countries including Sri Lanka, said that the Chinese Communist Party manipulates the information space in changing internal narratives of their relationship with a country and in its political environment. The report further shows that its “support for illiberal actors, the presentation of its model as a superior catalyst of industrial development, and its export of authoritarian tools and practices have the undeniable effect of eroding democratic norms in many countries.” As an example Sri Lanka has reportedly turned to China to obtain mass online surveillance systems and their technical assistance. The recent bill on the China-backed Port City that was passed by the Parliament was claimed to be oppugnant to the constitutional democracy of the country by diluting the concepts of rule of law and separation of powers.

It was Huntington’s view that there is an important correlation between democracy and the economy. He claimed that “economic development makes democracy possible; political leadership makes it real.” With the ongoing food and economic crisis in Sri Lanka it is problematic whether democracy is possible in Sri Lanka and it contributes to further backsliding as people will not be bothered about democracy when they are busy making the ends meet. While the government is bound by the directive principles of state policy to strengthen democracy, it has to be understood by the voter that democracy is the only form of government that allows change when the rulers fail. Failure of a government does not equate with failure of democracy, which probably led India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to state, “Democracy is good, I say this because other systems are much worse”. Any form of statement or action by politicians or the government that is antithetical to democracy has to be regarded as antithetical to the public. If not we might soon experience the horrifying case of the complete downfall of Asia’s oldest democracy.

[1] Samuel P. Huntington,‘Democracy’s Third Wave’ [1991] 2 JD 12, 17