Photo courtesy of The Island

The world is becoming less democratic and more autocratic (i.e. authoritarian). One of the best sources of information is the annual Democracy Report issued by the V-Dem Institute in Sweden. The Institute continuously measures the extent to which national governments are either democratic or authoritarian and the directions in which they are moving. Its 2024 Report tells us that on average the world has moved steadily in a more autocratic direction since 2009. In 2023, 42 countries were autocratising, i.e. were measurably in the process of becoming more autocratic. They account for 35% of the global population. By contrast, only 18 countries were democratising. They account for only 5% of the world’s population, and Brazil alone accounts for half of that 5%. The autocratising trend has attracted so much attention because, for the first time, there are strong signs of it among the world’s oldest democracies, notably the US, with some echoes in the UK.

But another of the world’s oldest democracies – Sri Lanka – is looking more encouraging. Sri Lanka’s democracy now seems to have firmer roots than between 2019 and mid-2022, when a major shift toward military rule seemed possible, or in later 2022, when it was widely believed that the aragalaya had ended and failed. It now feels that the aragalaya had rather morphed into a strong popular commitment to change the political system to produce a more genuinely representative and competent government. That perhaps should not surprise us. The majority of Sri Lankans seem to understand that their lives and livelihoods have been made much harsher through the actions of a political leadership that was seriously corrupt, deeply incompetent and yet another manifestation of the dominance of a small group of elite families.

Some of the most tangible evidence of a positive popular political mood comes in a couple of opinion surveys published recently by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). One is the March 2024 Confidence in Democratic Governance Index. Topline Report. Between 94% and 95% of their 1350 respondents agreed with each of the following statements:

  • All politicians should be audited and all their unaccounted wealth should be confiscated.
  • Elections should be held on time.
  • All politicians, including the president, should disclose their assets.
  • Holding those who are responsible for the economic crisis responsible.

That the majority of people agreed with these statements is no surprise. It is the virtual unanimity that is revealing. Long exposure to the consequences of incompetent and divisive governance by people chosen through elections seems not to have engendered deep scepticism about – or alienation from – democracy itself.

The CPA’s March 2024 Survey on Democracy and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Key Findings tells us more about the views of the same 1350 respondents. It more directly shows that popular support for democracy remains very strong: 77% of respondents agreed that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”. The CPA itself and the media reports of the survey made much of the fact that 9% of the respondents felt that “in certain situations, a dictatorial government can be preferable to a democratic one”. In fact, these levels of support for democracy and dictatorship are very similar to those reported by CPA for 2011, 2013, 2018 and 2022 and virtually the same as those reported from a different survey using near-identical questions conducted in 2004-5.[1]

Given the pain that elected politicians have inflicted on Sri Lanka in recent years, a marked turn against democracy might have been predicted. The fact that it has not appeared suggests that Sri Lanka voters distinguish between their more enduring and valued governing institutions and the ways in which governmental power has been exercised in recent times. The answers to some of the other questions in the 2024 survey seem to confirm that. From 2011 to 2024, trust in the army and in the courts has remained high and steady at around 80%. The levels of trust in the police are lower but have also broadly remained steady. By contrast, trust in political parties and parliament has wilted from nearly 60% in 2011 to around 20% in 2024. To a lesser degree, trust in national and provincial governments has also fallen away. The results of the opinion surveys conducted by the Institute of Health Policy underline the unpopularity of politicians generally. The February polling round indicated that even the most popular candidate for the 2024 Presidential polls, A.K. Dissanayake, had a net favourability rating of minus 19 points.

It seems almost contradictory that large majorities of voters should express both a strong attachment to democracy and a strong distrust of politicians, political parties and parliament. Are these polls misleading in some way? Have voters actually turned away from politics, voting or democracy to a much higher degree than these numbers suggest? I don’t think so. That apparent contradiction seems consistent with what is happening more broadly in the run up to the 2024 elections. First, the main contenders – notably the president, parts of the SJB and the NPP – are developing relatively coherent and substantive policy programmes around issues of economic policy and good government, only dabbling lightly in fantasies and barely stirring the pot of ethno-religious tensions. Second, as the polls show, the NPP is becoming a very attractive proposition. It has captured much of the spirit of the aragalaya. A virtuous circle is developing as, on the one hand, the NPP moves toward a coherent policy programme in which anti-corruption and decent governance feature prominently and, on the other hand, professional organisations, businesses, embassies and international organisations decide that they need to take the NPP seriously as the potential next government. A. K. Dissanayake increasingly has the demeanour of a national leader.

Without abandoning their deep scepticism about politics and politicians, many voters reasonably perceive that there is a least a chance that an NPP government would be different. It might just be able to govern competently despite near-total inexperience. And that inexperience can itself be seen as a positive. To paraphrase an old friend originally from an up country village who now lives in relatively prosperous retirement in Piliyandala: “I have had enough of all those leaders from old families who have been ruling, ruining and robbing this country for decades; I will be voting for the NPP”.

There is plenty that could go wrong. It is hard to be totally confident that the elections will actually be held in 2024. The country’s international debts have not yet been re-negotiated and there are valid concerns that any feasible deal will leave the nation with an unbearable repayment burden. But there does seem to be much more light on the political front than one would have expected a year ago. Why has the crisis taken a positive turn when it could easily have been very different? It is too early to judge with confidence but here are some likely aspects of the explanation:

  • Most of the population learned the right lesson from the 2022 economic crisis. It was principally the result of the governmental incompetence and corruption. Without that, the economic situation would have been difficult but manageable.
  • The aragalaya was of course an enormous inspiration for millions of people.
  • Perhaps more by luck than design, the JVP/NPP had a good aragalaya. They were very present but did not try to take it over and were not closely associated with its more militant or violent moments.
  • The armed forces backed off from using the violence that would have been needed to keep Gotabaya Rajapaksa in power in mid 2022. From that point, the shadow that the armed forces had previously cast over politics has steadily retreated.
  • President Ranil Wickremesinghe has kept China, India and the US in balance and in check. There is no strong expectation that any one of them will seriously try – and much less succeed – in influencing the elections.
  • The IMF, true to its contemporary character but very different from the stereotype, did not insist on a “slash and burn” operation to cut public spending and public sector jobs. To the contrary, it was the principle progenitor of the aswesuma programme, Sri Lanka’s first – if still rather ragged – major effort regularly to transfer serious amounts of cash to the poorest households. There have of course been protests against the IMF programme but without deep passion and, mercifully, bloodshed.
  • Above all, most Sri Lankans place a very high value on elections and some of their major governance institutions.

Here is one old democracy that might soon be giving the world a bit of cheer to balance the angst emerging from some of the others.

[1] State of Democracy in South Asia. A Report. Oxford University Press. New Delhi, 2008.