It is a foregone conclusion that the August 5 general election will be won by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The question is not whether it can win the election but how big its victory margin will be? A two-thirds majority is the SLPP’s stated target. If not through the ballot, the two-thirds majority is for it to grab. The crossover queue is already long. The jostle to join the new government will begin no sooner the results are out.
A stable and powerful government is what Sri Lanka needs now as it faces two serious crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and the breakdown of the economy. Just as the pandemic and the economic crisis should be the foremost concern of the new government, democracy’s health also should be a major concern.
True, with the SLPP’s landslide victory, the required political stability will return to the country after the five-year sham of good governance under the previous government. With the required parliamentary majority, the new government will be able to take bold decisions to deal with the pandemic and revive the economy. But the government needs to remember that just as public health and the health of the economy, democracy’s health, too, is essential for speedy economic recovery and development. For democracy is much more than franchise and regular elections. With all its features such as good governance, the culture of shunning corruption, transparency, the rule of law, human rights and an independent judiciary and other public institutions, democracy lays a strong foundation for development not only in the economic sphere, but also in political, social, cultural spheres. Sri Lanka’s history of political violence and insurrections shows that an attack on democracy has led to political instability.
Yet, to deal with the pandemic, some countries have disregarded the vital role democracy plays in the development process. Emergency Covid-19 measures taken even by some European Union members such as Hungary undermining democracy have raised concern among some frontline EU nations, which this week insisted that the disbursement of the more than 750 million euro pandemic aid package should be conditioned upon a member-state’s democracy and human rights records.
Usually, in times of war or pandemics, human beings are hardwired to find refuge in a higher and stronger authority as part of their survival instincts. Thus it is no surprise that we find in Sri Lanka a general consensus that the country is fortunate to have a strong government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when the Covid pandemic hit. Many people say the country would have been in utter chaos, had the so-called good governance government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe been in office.
But this surrender to a higher authority such as a government should not come at the cost of freedom, liberty and democratic values we cherish. That goes against the grain of the unwritten social contract for democracy. In civil society, serious concerns are being expressed over the moves to abolish or amend the 19th Amendment after a new government is formed with a two-thirds majority. Despite its defects, the 19th Amendment has proved that it could be the Rock of Gibraltar in dispelling wave after wave of abuse of power by any arm of the government. We witnessed this during the 2018 constitutional crisis.
If the 19th amendment is to be amended, it should be amended only to add or strengthen its democracy-enhancing features. If it is to be abolished or amended to make the executive president all powerful without corresponding checks and balances, then we will be, politically speaking, going back to the dark ages. Will the new government explain how democracy could be served better by abolishing the 19th Amendment before it takes the drastic move?
Fears of democracy erosion have been aggravated with the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government being accused of taking the country towards a stratocracy or a military dominated administration. His supporters or strong government concept defenders, quoting Alexander Pope, may say that for forms of government let fools contend, whatever is best administered is best.
But before we by our silence, blind patriotism or the faith in the strong government concept unwittingly contribute to an unsavory outcome, we might well recall the United States independence hero Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote -- “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
In Sri Lanka, civil society activists are expressing fears over moves by the next government to undermine the democratic order that was built after the 2015 election victory of the alliance led by Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, despite the alliance’s questionable good governance credentials.
The Friday Forum, a grouping that brings together some of Sri Lanka’s eminent persons, has questioned the move to abolish the 19th Amendment and give the executive president more powers. This week, the Forum in a statement urged the people to ponder whether a system with concentration of power in one individual is the form of government they want the new government to introduce through a two-thirds majority.
On Wednesday, ten leading international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists expressed deep concern over what they call “a campaign of fear” that has intensified since the 2019 presidential election, and has cast a shadow over the 2020 parliamentary election campaign. They call on the Sri Lankan government to end the targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists.
The government may dismiss the statement as international NGO interference in internal affairs. But the fact that the country continues to come under criticism for lack of respect for human rights is a shameful indictment of Sri Lanka’s woefully inadequate political culture, the government’s disdain for democracy and indifference to the need to be counted among the nations that walk on the world stage with their heads held high.
The government should realise that in strengthening democracy, there are long-term benefits for the country and its people. Sri Lankan people have voted out governments that had moved towards dictatorship. It happened in 1977 and in 2015. It will certainly happen in the future, too, if a government shows scant regard to the need to strengthen democracy.
COVID-19 can be overcome once an effective vaccine or medication is universally available. But the politicians’ craving for more power will continue irrespective of the pandemic. What Sri Lanka needs is not a benevolent dictator or a dictatorial democracy. The country needs statesmen and stateswomen to usher in an all-inclusive democratic socio-political and economic order.