Today is the International Day of Democracy

 Excerpts of the speech by Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda at the launch of the book, Democracy and Democratization in Sri Lanka: Paths, Trends and Imaginations, edited by Professor Uyangoda and published by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS).

We at the BCIS began to conceptualize and plan this publication on the experience of democracy in our country at a time when the Sri Lankan people were on the verge of losing their democratic heritage. When the year 2019 began the threat of a hard authoritarian system replacing a weak and battered democratic order had indeed become alarmingly real. We at the BCIS Board of Academic Affairs and its Chairperson felt that an analysis of why a promising democracy at the time of independence had failed so abysmally is a theme warranting critical scholarly inquiry and explanation.

Thus, we launched this research and publication project on democracy and democratization in Sri Lanka in mid 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic of 2021 came while we had just begun our work. It interfered with our project in a variety of ways, including halting most of the research. More significantly, the pandemic had led to a new political process. It can be termed as accelerated backsliding of democracy spearheaded by one faction of the ruling elites. It appeared almost like the last stage of democracy.

But Sri Lanka’s democracy, even in retreat, has shown that it has had some magical capacity for surprises. And that is exactly what we witnessed during the spring and summer of 2022. Sri Lankan citizens suddenly woke up demanding more democracy than what the political elites were willing to concede.

During the aragalaya of 2022 the ordinary people, citizens without wealth or power, rose up demanding substantive democratic reforms. The ordinary citizens in their capacity as demos began to make claims to their ownership of democracy. They also highlighted that democracy in general and representative democracy in particular were in a deep crisis. It was indeed an attempt by the people – demos – to re-generate as well as re-invent democracy. That is why the citizens’ protest in 2022 deserves to be acknowledged as a significant turning point in the somewhat twisted process of democratization in Sri Lanka.

The events of 2022 provided new perspectives and critical insights immensely useful to our own work on democracy and democratization. It showed us that the ordinary people play a powerful role as an agency for democratization. Their faith in democracy is far greater than that of the elites who exploit democracy for predatory ends. That is the spirit with which these two volumes evolved.

I want to share with you what I as the editor see as unique about this book.

  • This is the first book-length scholarly work exclusively devoted to the theme of democracy in Sri Lanka.
  • All chapter contributors are Sri Lankan scholars who have been witnesses to the rise, decline and attempts at regeneration of democracy.
  • The analysis developed in the chapters do not belong to a specific disciplinary area of the social sciences, such as political science or constitutional law. There is a plurality of approaches from the fields of social sciences and humanities.
  • The book does not advocate or campaign for any particular version or variant of democracy. It argues for the plurality of democracy as a political concept and practice. Yet all chapter contributors stand for bringing the normative ethics of equality, freedom, justice and social emancipation back to the theory and practice of democracy.

Key Messages

What are the messages that these two volumes with chapters on diverse themes convey? Let me share with you a few of them that have a direct bearing on how we should view democracy and democratization anew.

  • Democracy, as an organizing principle of political and social life, has strongly local social and popular roots in Sri Lanka as it has been the case elsewhere globally: It is a historical fact that modern democracy in Sri Lanka is an aspect of the European colonial legacy. However, people of Sri Lanka from various social classes have appropriated it and made use of it for their own social interests. In this process, there has been a double transformation. While the local society and its politics has been altered by liberal democracy, the local society has also changed the idea of democracy with a substantive, though subtle, critique of liberal democracy. This has two theoretical implications. Firstly, the Sri Lankan people have not been passive recipients of a Western, European or colonial political idea. Secondly, they have played an active, agential role in appropriating and transforming that European idea. This book describes it as a creative process of “localizing democracy”.
  • Ideas and practices of democracy have preceded the invention of the language of democracy: Genealogies of the idea and practices of democracy predates its colonial origins in Sri Lanka and South Asia. The impulses and desires for democracy have always been there everywhere and whenever there were organized political power in the form of the state in pre-modern societies too. Historical and literary evidence in ancient and pre-colonial India and Sri Lanka show that the human desire for freedom from domination, independence, autonomy and justice have been integral to the social and political struggles within organized social formations. It has been so in the processes of state formation in ancient Sri Lanka and South Asia, as elsewhere. This is the primary historical essence of “universalism” of the idea of democracy. In other words, the idea and practices of democracy have been there in many forms in pre-colonial societies long before the language of modern democracy has been invented and the impulses for democracy rigidly formalized and frozen in meaning.
  • The ordinary citizens are more faithful custodians of democracy than the elites: Democratization is not a process confined to the activities of political elites as well as governments, as wrongly assumed in the mainstream democracy studies and assessments. The Sri Lankan case studies in the book show that democratization from below, at the level of the governed and the disempowered citizens, is most important in mapping paths of democratization in Sri Lanka. This thesis is valid to democracy’s liberal variant too. The book shows that the dispossessed and the ordinary citizens, rather than the elites, have had a greater stake at defending and consolidating democracy. They have done it through the struggles of resistance against the elite-led de-democratization. The elites have domesticated, tamed, abandoned and even became hostile to the liberal normative content of democracy. People have also collaborated with backed the political elites in the latter’s projects of de-democratization. However, in crucial moments of crisis the people, demos, have defended and deepened the idea and the normative content of even liberal democracy in Sri Lanka.
  • Elite capture of liberal democracy has made democracy thin: A lesson I have learned in the course of research for this book is that liberal democracy has the unintended consequence of dividing the population into two new classes in its own way: political elites and political non-elites. This has been a general pattern in other societies too. Sri Lanka’s process of elite-led democratic backsliding has been paralleled with the introduction of representative government early last century. Elites who benefitted from the electoral, representative democracy have appropriated the liberal democracy and used it as an instrument for consolidating their social, economic, political and familial power. Thus, the conception of democracy associated with ruling elites has been a thin and truncated version of liberal democracy. Its role in democratization has now come to an effective end. Sri Lankan people await a strong democracy in terms of its social roots and normative commitments.
  • Popular resistance to deprivations and unjust exercise of power has deepened the normative foundations of democracy: The instrumentalist use of representative and parliamentary democracy by the elites is only one side of the story of democratization. In contrast, there is a subaltern story of democratization too. The left parties, working class, peasants, the working people, women’s groups, ethnic minorities, and student movements have contributed substantively to deepening the idea, the meaning, normative goals and the social relevance of democracy. Through social practices of demands and direct political action for substantive equality and justice, they have shown how the limits of narrowly conceived and much abused representative democracy could be reformed. Thus, Sri Lanka’s democracy is not the monopolistic possession of the political elites. It is the inheritance of a plurality of non-elite social groups as well.
  • Continuing conflict between democratic backsliding and popular demand for more democracy awaits a deep-democratic resolution: Since independence, Sri Lanka’s democracy has evolved along two contradictory trajectories. The first is the path of democratic backsliding and de-democratization chosen by the elites. The second is the path of demanding and fighting for more democracy by the subordinate and non-elite social classes, trade unions and social movements, the civil society groups, and reformist elites. The conflict between these two opposing paths is a major facet of the crisis of democratization. Its resolution presupposes a project of re-democratization through radically substantive political and constitutional reforms.

What is happening to democracy?

 Let us briefly reflect on what is happening to democracy at present.  Sri Lankan democracy seems to have entered a new phase of forced retreat, engineered by the new ruling coalition. People who have yearned for the revival of democracy find themselves caught up in a new version of what our book calls the “de-democratization trap”. Its key feature has been the incorporation of ordinary citizens as disempowered voters to a deceitful social contract crafted by the political elites. As the citizen’s protests last year and this year have shown us, that deceitful social contract is now shattered. Citizens want to replace it with a deeply democratic and authentic social contract.

Meanwhile, there seems to be two processes of polarization of society into two hostile camps. The first is between the haves and have nots in the economic and social sense. The second is the growing enmity between the majority of the citizens who crave for more democracy and a minority of the elites who thrive on no democracy. The ways in which these polarities and contradictions will play themselves out are sure to shape the nature of politics in the months and years to come. Returning to open democracy, more executive, legislative and judicial accountability, re-democratization of the constitution, the state, the government, and parliament, guaranteeing of economic and social justice to the poor, the working people and the middle classes are essential pre-conditions for resolving these contradictions peacefully with no recourse to violence by any side. That is also a message implicit in our book.