It was indeed a pleasant surprise! Last week’s political developments tell us that democracy in Sri Lanka is regenerating its own, even after much of its attributes were dismantled by the current regime.
That unique ability is a special property of democracy, but it is a pleasant surprise to find it in our system, after it came under a sustained attack by a familial autocracy. But, make no mistakes, this is Asia’s oldest democracy, no matter it had ups and down in its chequered independent history.
The unassuming Sri Lanka Freedom Party General Secretary and a bunch of ruling party defectors have now proved that even in its weakest moment, Sri Lankan politics can withstand a sustained beating and re-emerge pretty much intact. They may also be trying to prove that not all politicians are spineless sycophants. That also is reassuring.
"Given the trajectory of political and economic developments in Sri Lanka during the last five years, this writer believed that it would become an authoritarian state with relative economic success under the familial rule of Rajapaksas, before the next generation of youth, better educated and better opinionated, thanks to the economic achievements of pro-growth authoritarianism of the regime would rise up against corruption and nepotism, bringing it down. That is how the autocrats from Indonesia (Suharto), Tunisia (Ben Ali), Egypt (Mubarak) and many others were thrown out of power."
This writer has long felt a sense of disenchantment, shared by millions of other Sri Lankans, with the country’s servile political culture. The extreme servility of the elected representatives towards the president and the first family and equally depressing cult worship, of an increasingly demagogic leadership by a large swathe of the public, simply did not make sense of the merits of electoral democracy.
Given the trajectory of political and economic developments in Sri Lanka during the last five years, this writer believed that it would become an authoritarian state with relative economic success under the familial rule of Rajapaksas, before the next generation of youth, better educated and better opinionated, thanks to the economic achievements of pro-growth authoritarianism of the regime would rise up against corruption and nepotism, bringing it down. That is how the autocrats from Indonesia (Suharto), Tunisia (Ben Ali), Egypt (Mubarak) and many others were thrown out of power.
Those regimes, to describe them in a lose term, are Sultanistic dictatorships.
The leaders there are not simply elected presidents, whose powers are checked by the judiciary and legislature. Their entire nations and state apparatus revolve around them--and possibly around their families as well.
But, in order to maintain power, those autocrats have to generate economic goods, which also mitigate, even temporary, the prospects of a popular revolt. And many of them had their blood relatives or close confidantes, appointed to run defence and internal security apparatus, which would crush the opposition, jail activists and disappear some others.
"Making them aware of the looming reality, before they make their political decision is the challenge before the Common Opposition. They have to rekindle the lost democratic fervour of the population."
In order to appease the powerful sections of the state apparatus, autocratic rulers turn the state into a cartel. Military leaders, political allies and other elites are made to understand that their financial and personal well-being lies with the regime. Retired general and senior cops may be given plum diplomatic postings, (while those who reneged are sent home). Political allies would be offered lucrative tenders while rogue ministers and parliamentarians would be assured of protection from potential legal actions against wrongdoings.
This is the general pattern of conduct in those regimes irrespective of their geographic location.
Also, those autocrats weave a complex web of interdependence of the interests of the regime and those of the members of the cartelised state.
This complex interdependence makes such regimes unbreakable. The cartel actors are not willing to upset the status quo-- not for patriotic or national interests, but for their personal interests.
That is exactly why the revolt by Maithripala Sirisena, SLFP General Secretary is unprecedented. It is also why the protest by Rajitha Senaratne, Rajiva Wijesinha, Arjuna Ranathunge, youthful Wasantha Senanayake and many others represents a rare glimmer of hope for the prospects of democracy in Sri Lanka.
Before he decamped from the government, Maithripala Sirisena also turned down the offer of the Prime Ministerial post. (Note the previous mention on how the cartel works to assure its preservation).
Such a gesture from the common opposition candidate tells us that at least some quarters of Sri Lankan politics still stick by their values, a residue of the by-gone era when politics was truly a public service.
By their act of rebellion, the SLFP defectors and many others who would defect in the coming days reassure us of moral standards of the holders of the elected office and by extension the merits of electoral democracy.
The erosion of trust in the political office which was observed in recent times is dangerous and could lead to acts of political expediency by other aggrieved actors or those with vested interests.
Also, the ruling party defectors themselves have rekindled the debate on the regressive 18th Amendment, passing of which, they acknowledged, eroded the semblance of democracy in Sri Lanka and eroded the independence of the legislature and judiciary. Such a display of public repentance would hopefully create a wider discourse on the repercussions of an amendment that was incorporated into the constitution to quench the thirst for absolute power.
In the past, autocracies had a long lifespan; Suharto, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Pinochet, all clung to power for over 30 years.
However, recent autocracies have a much shorter lifespan and a less smooth sailing. The Rajapaksa regime took its autocratic turn mainly during its second term.
During his second term, the Rajapaksas silenced free media through acquisitions of media institutions and coercion and coaxing of the media ownership and senior editors; orchestrated a mass crossover from the opposition by the use of monetary rewards; cartelised the regime and turned the office of presidency into an absolute ruler.
The autocratic phase of the regime is much shorter in relation to his predecessors in the Arab world and South East Asia. The revolt of Maithripala and the ilk may suggest that, it was all that Asia’s oldest democracy could tolerate.
As Parliament meets today, the likelihood of a mass crossover from the government is looming.
However, in general, cartels everywhere have amassed enough resources to retain potential defectors within ranks.
A political source tells me this time around the price tag of retention would be higher than rupees 30 million promised for each crossover MP, who switched sides to vote for the 18th Amendment.
Given the existential threat emanating from within, needless to say, the regime would go an extra mile to prevent its members from defecting.
So those who crossover today and in the near future, should have little interest in pecuniary rewards and also, should not have adverse files that could be used against them by the regime leaders at a time of their disloyalty. Therefore, getting a sufficient number of crossovers is a tall order, nevertheless.
My optimism, also, has its limits. No matter how principled the common opposition position is, finally it is the country’s voters who would have the final say. (Though first gun shots had already been fired even before the election campaign kicked off, I do not predict that the regime would resort to extreme violence and rigging in order to win the election. Such a practice is counter-productive to Rajapaksa)
However, the Sri Lankan electorate in recent times have become increasingly slavish, backward and regressive.
Their enlightenment is now a matter of urgency.
That is something that Maithripala and future SLFP defectors could do better than most others since, they would find it easier to relate to the grass roots. That would also be the acid test for the common opposition. They have the next six weeks to accomplish it.
The regime is corrupt, nepotistic and despotic. The country is heading towards a self-defeating confrontation with the democracies in the world at the UN Human Rights Council in March, which would have grave repercussions on the country’s economy.
All those are reasons worthy enough to reconsider a change in the regime. But, the Sri Lankan grassroots which has largely been insulated from saner discourse and been overfed with the government’s propaganda and conspiracy theories are oblivious to those facts.
Making them aware of the looming reality, before they make their political decision is the challenge before the Common Opposition. They have to rekindle the lost democratic fervour of the population.
In a personal note, now living in one party state of China, I feel a strange sense of pride at Sri Lankan democracy’s ability to rejuvenate.
Such a self-propelling capacity is acquired by the system through its decades, in fact, in Sri Lankas case, its over one and a half centuries of democratic existence and experiment. We have veered off the path some times, were engulfed in rebellions, and sometimes made a mockery of democracy, such as the 1978 Constitution and repeated amendments, many of which were incorporated to appease the personal political ambitions of J.R.Jayawardene.
Now, it appears that we have the best chance of fixing those mistakes and finding our rightful place in the free world. We better give it a shot.
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