Democratization is, certainly, a non-linear process. In Sri Lanka, since the introduction of the universal franchise in 1931, and more often since the Independence in 1948, the democratic process saw numerous ups and downs. However, on each occasion of its misfortune, it also displayed a unique self propelling capacity. The latest spectacular show of that propensity was in display in Maithripala Sirisena’s election win at the crucial presidential election held in January this year. Bruised and under sustained attack for over a decade, democracy in Sri Lanka propelled to the fore, taking all observers by surprise. ( Now, perhaps the latest parallel to that may be Saturday’s sensational test win against India at Galle - after lagging behind throughout the match plus a depressing world cup and a Pakistani tour to Sri Lanka)
Whither democracy in Sri Lanka?
The general elections on Monday will test that unique property of democracy once again. The conduct of the election itself, so far, is considered freer than in the past, as acknowledged by the election observers; the choice on Monday would be between whether Sri Lanka would consolidate on its democratic transition or would fall back to the not so democratic recent past.
In general, politicians of all parties pay lip service to democracy. However, the real difference lay in deeds, rather than in words, and the actual commitment to those professed values was always in short supply.
However, at no time in the recent past was that contrast between words and deeds so plain. It is as plain as the polarity between the 18A to the Constitution and the 19A; the former cemented the autocratic hold of an already powerful and increasingly authoritarian president, and the latter dismantled that authority, empowering the independent institutions and strengthening the rule of law.
Rather than a multitude of promises contained in election manifestoes, it is this tested commitment (or lack of it) that would have the most significant impact on the future of democracy in Sri Lanka. This election would reveal how far that commitment has been acknowledged by the Sri Lankan voters.
Is ethno-nationalism a supplement to democracy?
Second, the election would either prove or falsify another line of argument, one often articulated by all sorts of people: the political divide between the Sinhalese voters in villages and their urban counterparts and the ethnic minorities. There appears to be a belief (or misconception) that the Sinhalese villagers who form the largest demographic bloc in the Sri Lankan electorate could be bought into by a whiff of ethno-nationalistic rhetoric. By extension, the argument implies that the average village voter is primitive. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father was one who confessed his doubts in the merits of the man one-one vote system, exactly on the similar grounds.
In Sri Lanka, like in all other parts of the world, those inherent weaknesses in the electorate have regularly been exploited by politicians. That also explains why President Maithripala Sirisena finally had to put his foot down and tell his predecessor and the leader of his own party’s election campaign, Mahinda Rajapaksa to desist from inciting communalism. Communalism is an effective, though sinister, means to clinch political power in Sri Lanka, and many other parts of the world.
However, while ethno-nationalism remains a potent force, its significance as means of voter manipulation could have reduced during the last couple of months after the forces of ultra nationalism lost their grip in the state media. It was not long ago that the state media stooped to the lowest possible denominator to whip up ultra nationalism on behalf of the then regime.
A moderating voice in the state media has a moderating influence on the wider electorate. Add to that, there is also a sizable portion of the captive audience of ultra-nationalism that is bound to be enthralled by the recent democratic experience. And a series of recent revelations of past abuses and allegations of corruption could also have made them question their faith in ethno-nationalism. Those developments are bound to strengthen the appeal of democracy to this segment of the people.
However, the proof of pudding is in the eating. Today’s elections would reveal how the voting patterns have changed and their impact on the future of democracy in the country.
A third political force?
Third, this election would determine the future of the JVP as a decisive third force. Under Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the JVP has moved away from its earlier pseudo ethno nationalism to a conciliatory multi ethnic line, which makes it easier for the party to argue on other issues it has championed, such as good governance and civil rights. It could well have won some of the dissatisfied SLFP voters, a significant portion of the floating voters and probably the largest share of the first time voters. All that would come handy on Monday.
However, JVP’s economic policies, which are plagued by the entrenched drawbacks of its socialist ideology would be a major handicap in its appeal to a more diverse group if it is to move further, rather than confining itself to the role of a king maker in Parliament. However the impact of those drawbacks is not immediate as the party itself has confined its goals to winning seats sufficient to be a third force in Parliament. Also, for the time being, its economic policies may not dissuade a sizable portion of the electorate who are nonetheless obsessed with the redistribution of wealth rather than wealth creation. Other more idealistic folks who vote for the JVP do it because they think that the party and the cadre are incorruptible and genuine. They also know deep down in their hearts that economic policies of the JVP have no immediate impact since political power is still a long shot. There is little evidence to dispute both.
"Rather than a multitude of promises contained in election manifestoes, it is this tested commitment (or lack of it) that would have the most significant impact on the future of democracy in Sri Lanka"
The Rajapaksa factor
Fourth, this election would assess the efficacy of the Mahinda Rajapaksa factor as a winning force. MR’s nomination has already caused a major rift within the party and forced the SLFP to defend itself and its election campaign from allegations of abuses in his past. Whether his candidacy is an asset or a liability for the SLFP is in dispute. The electorate will give a definite answer to that puzzle on Monday.
"In general, politicians of all parties pay lip service to democracy. However, the real difference lay in deeds, rather than in words, and the actual commitment to those professed values was always in short supply"
Finally and most importantly, the election would decide the nature of the political structure Sri Lanka would have for the next five years. The obvious two choices are an uneasy cohabitation between President Sirisena and his predecessor whom the president had ruled out appointing as the prime minister or a national government headed by the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. That decision would be a decisive factor for the political and economic stability of the country.
As far as the SLFP is concerned, the prospect of a major internal rivalry is looming large, irrespective of the election result. However, the election would decide whether that clash would spill over into the management of state affairs, thereby crippling the entire government structure. Sri Lanka, surely, does not need a repeat of a confrontation akin to the one among CBK presidency and Ranil Wickremesinghe administration in 2004.
By tomorrow afternoon, we would know answers to all those questions
Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter.