What is the difference between a government and a regime? This is not an esoteric question as it might sound, but a matter of whole social contract that governs the relationship between the rulers and the ruled and the overall legitimacy of not just the government, but the state within and beyond its shores. The government can be described as the body with the power to make and/or enforce laws in a state. The regime, which originates from French, also refers to the ruling force, government, or a set of rules established by force. In modern usage, though both terms are synonymous, though the regime is used in pejorative to suggest the general lack of legitimacy of the state.
The fundamental difference however can be found in the workings of the government. A government is the institutionalization process through which laws are formulated and implemented. However, it does so through the coordination of the three main pillars of the government, i.e. the executive, the legislature and judiciary, each of which has powers to check the excesses of the other.
"The National COVID Task force is headed by the Commander of the Army. Any civilized state, it would have been a health official who would have led the government’s COVID strategy. The fallacy that military brasses are better equipped to handle civil matters has already been vindicated"
The fundamental difference between a government and a regime is that the latter does not necessarily have a well-defined separation of power or even when such demarcation exists in paper, judiciary and parliament tend to be co-opted or coerced into the whims and fancies of an all-powerful executive, a president, monarch, a military despot or an omnipotent standing committee of a party state. Such working arrangements, no matter how elaborative they are, like annual two sessions of China’s National People’s Congress and People’s Political Consultative Conference or Saddam Hussein’s elections, do not necessarily
The other, and the most obvious difference is how the rulers derive the right to rule. Monarchies that accrue it through the divine power of gods, or the military regimes through the barrel of the gun or the pro-growth authoritarian regimes through performance legitimacy are a different kettle of fish than those who are elected through popular vote through competitive multiparty elections.
In most accounts, the designation of a regime in its pejorative sense fits well into the political systems that lack popular legitimacy obtained through multiparty elections. But the usage of the term in reference to an electoral democracy could be problematic and may even imply the partisan bias of the user.
How accurate would it be to call the Manmohan Singh regime or the post 19A - Ranil Wickremesinghe regime? Though the intention is to invoke the negative connotation, the designation may not be representative of the implicit understanding of the term.
What about Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime?
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President by 6.9 million voters in a free and fair election, defeating the nearest competitor, the ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa by 1.5 million votes.Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), of which presidential candidate he was, swept the electoral map in the General election, winning almost 2/3 majority in Parliament. It would be deceitful to argue Mr. Rajapaksa is lacking popular legitimacy. He does have a hefty load of it.
However, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration is a test case of how a government degenerates into a regime, fast and steadily. Mr. Rajapaksa has a history of strongman and soon the popular legitimacy was misused to remove the limits of his power, subjugating the judiciary and other independent institutions. With the 20A, his government effectively became a regime. He might have held back on some of the excesses such as the removal of the term limits, but other developments have hastened the downward spiral of the constitutional legitimacy of the state.
"The worst of the government machinations on‘regimatization’ is now debated in Parliament. As I wrote last week, the Parliamentary resolution to dismiss over 75 court cases against government leaders, their inner circles and cronies would be the last nail in the coffin of the beleaguered judiciary of Sri Lanka"
The state bureaucracy is loaded with retired and working military men, a process that has led to both the subjugation of the traditional bureaucracy and the overall militarization of the state. The epitome of the militarization of bureaucracy is that the National COVID Task force is headed by the Commander of the Army. Any civilized state, it would have been a health official who would have led the government’s COVID strategy. The fallacy that military brasses are better equipped to handle civil matters has already been vindicated. At best, Sri Lanka’s COVID strategy has moderate success and even that is tainted by irrational policies such as mandatory cremation. The country has lagged in securing vaccines, the surest and most sustainable strategy. A proactive government might have aped the other well-to-do states, and placed the orders before other countries clogged the supply chains. The performance legitimacy of a proactive and innovative state does not seem to apply to the current government.
However, the worst of the government machinations on‘regimatization’ is now debated in Parliament. As I wrote last week, the Parliamentary resolution to dismiss over 75 court cases against government leaders, their inner circles and cronies would be the last nail in the coffin of the beleaguered judiciary of Sri Lanka.
If the MPs and Ministers can pass laws to dismiss court cases against them and their associates, a country does not need courts. The resolution tabled by Prime Minister last week, is therefore a mockery of the constitutional state of Sri Lanka and is a fatal blow to the separation of power.
A government, which is ruled only by one organ, and the rest being a mere rubber stamp of the Executive’s writ is a regime. Therefore, what Gotabaya Rajapaksa is presiding over is actually a regime, much less a government. In the latter, power is moderated, whereas, in the former, power is concentrated, multiplied and manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling cabal.
The degeneration of the constitutional state has far-reaching consequences, though, in the immediate terms, it might not seriously impact the popularity of the current regime. Yet, there are international consequences, which might come to effect sooner than later.
‘Birds of feathers flock together’. So do countries with similar internal characteristics and values. Democracies tend to gravitate to fellow democracies, while authoritarian states to their like-minded peers. Sri Lanka’s ongoing shift towards China and the countries of the kind of Uzbekistan and Eritrea that backed it at the UNHRC can explain this.
Also, democracies treat fellow democracies differently than they would do to an authoritarian state. As democratic peace theorists have argued democracies have not fought with each other during the last one and half-centuries, though they have waged wars and invaded non-democracies numerous times.
Short of war, democracies treat non-democracies, their leaders and bureaucrats differently. If the Rajapaksas ponder why the West, USA or even Japan are less forthcoming towards them, the answer can be found partly in the internal changes of the state structures that they imposed on their captive governments.
However, the latest resolution based on recommendations of a controversial presidential commission is a dangerous gamble. It would dissipate whatever the remnant of the legitimacy of the current regime and the regime leaders. Having inflicted such mortal damage to the Sri Lankan state, the regime leaders should not expect to be treated as equals in the international community. Nor should they be!
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