Reforming the state, as well as the practices of governance is a major political theme in Sri Lanka’s current Presidential election campaign.
The arguments for state reform are framed in the language of constitutional reform. The agenda for reform in governance is presented in the discourse of ‘good governance.’ Meanwhile, the theme of state reform at the present election campaign focuses mainly on reforming or abolishing the presidential system of government. Unlike in the previous elections, this time around, devolution is not a theme in the state reform agenda. Even the Tamil and Muslim parties are not pressing for such an agenda. This is a significant shift in the politics of electoral bargaining.
The theme reform in the practice of governance requires close attention, and this essay suggests some ways of addressing it.
Firstly, in conceptual terms, reforms in governance should be an integral component of a broad democratization agenda. What Sri Lanka needs in the present historical context is the re-democratization of the state and governance, which has suffered immensely under the Executive Presidential system as well as the Emergency Laws.
Secondly, reforms in governance entail institutional as well as personal dimensions of governance. While the first calls for the restoration of the democratic equilibrium among different branches and institutions of state power, the second presupposes how the rulers conduct themselves in the exercise of political power, which people delegate and authorize to them at elections.
The theme re-constitutionalizing the state away from its presidential form has been extensively discussed in Sri Lanka’s political debate since the early 1990s. To recapitulate the main arguments evolved in the debate, the existing Executive Presidential system has to be either abolished or substantially reformed in order to restore the democratic equilibrium of the state. The objective of this proposal is threefold. The first is to prevent excessive concentration of power in the office of the President and in the hands of the individual who holds that office. The second is to correct the structural imbalance of state power in favour of the executive branch of the state that has reduced both the legislative and judicial branches subservient to the executive. The third objective is to install a system of structural-institutional checks and balances and accountability so that the executive branch of the state will not again emerge as being able to exercise its unchecked power in an arbitrary and tyrannical manner.
The theme of restoring democratic equilibrium of the Sri Lankan state, presupposes a question that not only politicians, constitutional lawyers and academics, but also citizens can relate themselves to: What kind of a state do citizens of Sri Lanka want to live in? Is it a state which prides itself in its capacity and willingness to be tyrannical, or a state whose capacity for periodic democratic renewal is built into its constitutional foundations? Obviously, Sri Lanka’s future as a nation-state, capable of managing its socioeconomic development and transformation with the least political and social cost, lies in the second choice.
Governance issues are somewhat linked to the constitutional framework of the state. However, they are largely issues of political practice. And they are about the democratic quality of the manner in which rulers, or people in power, exercise state power. In Sri Lanka’s current context, reforms in governance revolve around the following question: Under what type of rulers do we, citizens of Sri Lanka, and our next generations, want to live?
Learning lessons from Sri Lanka’s political experience during the past several decades, particularly the past half a decade, can profitably inform an agenda for restoring democratic governance. Such an agenda might call for a new, and especially home grown set of elementary principles of democratic governance. Some key elements of these basic principles of democratic governance – ‘a home grown democracy’ - can be identified as follows:
i. Political power is a temporary responsibility entrusted to a ruler or a political party only for a limited period. The desire for political power should not be transformed into a greed for individualized political power without any limits.
ii. In office, politicians and ruling parties should not exercise political power in such a way that will make it difficult for them to leave power or to come to terms with even the prospects of electoral defeat. It is mostly excessive corruption, widespread abuse of power, personal aggrandizement, and cronyism that create such irrational attachment to state power. Less greed for power is, to use a term from the contemporary management idiom, a ‘best practice’ in democratic governance.
iii. Manipulation of political institutions is a usual political practice. However, democratically elected rulers should not undermine democratic institutions for personal gain, because they are there for the common good. Besides, democratic institutions are fragile. Once destroyed, democratic institutions may require even undemocratic and violent means for their restoration.
iv. Rulers should not employ corruption and fear as political weapons for personal and partisan political goals. Once employed, such practices tend to corrupt the entire body politic, destroy ethical bases of politics, and ultimately dehumanize the very profession of politics.
v. Breaking up of opposing political parties with material inducement has created a new culture of party politics in which crossing over to the ruling party has become a totally unethical two-way process.
Rulers should not undermine or try to break-up rival political parties for personal or partisan gains. Strong rival parties are important democratic institutions for healthy democratic governance.
vi. Rulers should take extra care not to personalize political power by bringing immediate family members to boost individual political fortunes. In some instances, rulers have brought family members to inner circles of power to address a deep sense of insecurity and as a measure for consolidation of power. However, what has undermined democratic governance since the early 1960s, is the prolongation of the family’s grip over state policy and state institutions, thereby turning the ‘family of the ruler’ into a ‘ruling family.’ Thus, separation of family and the state for the prevention of, to coin a neologism, the ‘familyization’ of the state and government, should be viewed as a cardinal principle of democratic governance.
In the current political debate, all these elements of governance reform are there, being articulated in a language of protest. This very rich political conversation should continue after January 8. Perhaps, the greatest contribution the present elections campaign has thus far made to Sri Lankan politics is the deepening of the democracy conversation, with the active participation of almost all citizens of the country.
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