When Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated Sarath Fonseka in 2010, a senior member of the UNP, responding to claims by a set of fellow UNPers that Fonseka was robbed said, ‘It’s OK to claim anything because rhetoric is part and parcel of politics, but there’s something wrong when you start believing your own propaganda!’
‘Democracy!’ was the clarion call of Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign against MR. Much was promised. So far, the only victory in this regard is the 19th Amendment, and even this is, but a shadow of what was pledged. If there is a greater sense of freedom and more reasons to hope that things would get better, such sentiments are offset by clearly evident resistance to such things from the regime itself.
This Government is two-faced about a lot of things. “Out with nepotism!” was a slogan that was followed by numerous affirmations and even celebrations of nepotism. “Media Freedom” was promised but there has been direct and subtle subversion. The echoes of the cry ‘An end to corruption’ had hardly died down when the Central Bank bond issue blew up in the new Government’s face. ‘No more wastage!’ screamed those who would quickly turn out to be wastrels. There has been a lot of huffing and puffing over the Right to Information Act, but W. A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank who is by no means a ‘Rajapaksa stooge’, has pointed out some embarrassing exclusions which he claims to ‘a defeat of public aspirations for transparency in the Central Bank’. We haven’t noticed even a sigh, leave-alone huffing and puffing, over electoral reform.
And these are (still) the early days. To be fair, however, most of the criticism of this state of affairs has come from people whose moral right to object is questionable, given culpability in similar acts of omission and commission during the previous regime. The cries of horror and/or the guffaws are not prompted by a desire to drive reform in the promised direction. Rather, it is to ridicule and undermine.
Perhaps we have a political culture that is at odds with the spirit of democracy, a state of affairs created and nurtured by all, politicians as well as voters. Not to say of course that democracy is necessarily superior to other forms of governance, considering the hypocrisy it comes coated with in a capitalist system and how it sugar-coats all manner of oppression (which of course are not described as such).
In April 2011, the first time I had an informal conversation with the former President, we spoke about certain pertinent elements of the political culture. The following is an English translation of that conversation (which was in Sinhala).
‘You said that politics is a marathon and not a 100-metre dash in response to criticism of your son Namal’s ascendancy, but Namal is doing exactly that – a 100-metre dash!’ I said.
‘Well, he has his ways, his speed. I told him not to get involved in the party’s youth activities, so he started his Nil Balakaaya [The Blue Brigade]. He started Tharunyayata Hetak [A Tomorrow for the Youth] while still at school. But I’ve told him that he has to respect the party seniors and to address them as “sir”,’ that was MR’s response.
‘Well, he does address the people who surround him as “sir” but they treat him as though he is their superior; it’s all very feudal!’ You are correct, it is feudal. What can we do about it?’ and he laughed the laugh of a politician who had an excellent sense of the realities he found himself in and of the dimensions or change-potential.
The other day, a senior professor in the field of law lamented that people seemed to have lost interest in democracy. What’s probably true is that democracy or rather democratization in the context of the January 8, 2015 political ‘transformation’ was never a serious national need. What the majority voted for was not democratic change, but the defeat of a particular individual who they believed was no longer suitable to lead the nation. That’s not a ‘for’ vote but an ‘against vote’. Not ‘For Maithripala’ but ‘Against Mahinda’; nothing about ‘democracy’ in that overall decision.
Perhaps this explains the manifest sloth on the part of this Government in the matter of democratization. Deep down they probably know that people really don’t care about such things and don’t see a relationship between democracy and general well-being. Given the realities of capitalism and the necessity of anomalies for its perpetuation and indeed even the necessity of conflict, all of which override on a day-to-day basis the fairytale of democracy that will not fill stomachs or bank accounts, one cannot blame the people.
So there’s a lot of laughter about the size of the Cabinet, the slip-ups of ministers, the non-implementation of pledges and the daily confirmations that things have not changed. The problem however is not that Sri Lanka is not really a democracy. What’s problematic is not that we are for all intents and purposes a feudal society, but that what we have is a particularly pernicious form of feudalism. Sri Lanka is (and has been) a Kakistocracy.
Kakistocracy is a term coined way back in 1829 as a counterpoint to ‘Aristocracy’. It is drawn from the Greek ‘kakistos’ which means ‘worst’ or ‘evil’, i.e. a superlative of ‘kakos’ (bad). Indeed, some etymologists hold that it is related to the general word for defecate, ‘caco’ or ‘kako’; a base word for ‘excrement’ in many Indo-European languages (Greek kakke , Latin cacare, Irish caccaim, Serbo-Croatian kakati, Armenian k’akor, and the Old English cac-hus which means ‘latrine’). So, Kakistocracy would be (if you want to keep things sanitized) ‘government by the worst/evil element of a society’. ‘Kakocracy’ is a slang version that describes pretty much the same thing and perhaps a more appropriate term in a Sri Lankan context, linguistically speaking.
It stinks, for sure. The question, then, is not only about the form of Government but a system or a social reality that puts kakistos in power. We can blame politicians or ourselves. We can blame an overall education/nurturing system or we can learn to learn something else in some other place in some other way so we are better informed and better able to resist Kakistocracy. One thing we could avoid, in the interim, is to indulge in and feed the illusion of democracy. We can begin by naming things correctly. We can start calling what we have what it is: a Kakistocracy.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer whose work can be found on his blog: www.malindawords.blogspot.com.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: malindasene