As we approach another cycle of elections, it is democracy that is at stake. And by democracy I do not only mean electoral democracy with the periodic moments of voting, even though that is also important. Indeed, it is electoral democracy that is finally shut down when there is a military coup or fascist takeover. Rather, I am concerned here about a broader understanding of democracy to mean the space and process for expanding our freedoms and ensuring equality.
Historically, it has been the left movements that have taken forward struggles for freedom and equality. Those struggles of the working classes organised into trade unions and political parties, problematic at times for ignoring the oppression of racial minorities and women, eventually coalesced into larger movements bringing universal suffrage.
Furthermore, the struggles of the left movements contributed to a major shift in the social contract between the state and citizens leading to the formation of social welfare states. In Sri Lanka, the Left not only contributed to instituting freedoms of expression and association, but also free education and healthcare bringing about greater equality.
In recent decades, the neoliberal attack on social democracy isclawing out the welfare state, while democratically won freedoms including the right to protest and question therulersare being undermined by authoritarian regimes of the neoliberal and populist variety. The central issue before us in the upcoming election is the future of democratic space.
Restoring or radicalising democracy
The Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe – currently at the centre of many leftist debates internationally – says this about democracy: “In 1985 we said ‘we need to radicalise democracy’: now we first need to restore democracy, so we can then radicalise it; the task is far more difficult.” (Inigo Errejon in Conversation with Chantal Mouffe, ‘Podemos: In the Name of the People’, 2016).
In Sri Lanka, the left since its great defeats four decades ago is in a debilitated state. The discrediting of the parliamentary left with the United Front Government experiment in the 1970s, the neo-liberal attack by the JR regime including the crushing blow to the trade unions during the General Strike of July 1980, the deflection of the left agenda by ethno-nationalist politics and the JVP’s uprisings, and the ideological setback with the collapse of the Soviet Union, have all greatly weakened leftist politics. And to make matters worse, the fragmentation of the left and crass betrayal by sections of the “old left” joining the MR regime over the last two decades have further undermined the role of the left in national politics.
Recognising these limitations of what remains of the left, there is still an important political and ideological role for a left agenda. Those of us committed to a left agenda should begin with a programme in the immediate future of restoring democracy. Weakened by attacks and lacking a coherent programme, we in the left should at least take up the ideological challenge of strengthening dissent. Restoring democratic space in time will create openings to radicalise democracy, including the drastic reshaping of the uses and direction of state power.
Elections and the political terrain
With the imminent announcement of presidential elections, Sri Lanka – with its long history of universal suffrage reaching back to the early 1930s – is understandably abuzz with moves to announce electoral programmes, candidates and coalitions.
But this enthusiasm needs to be tempered with the limitations and realities of electoral democracy; conceptualised as liberal democracy or bourgeois meaning capitalist democracy. A left agenda to organise a working class front, or for that matter a movement to reshape or capture state power, is impossible in the course of months and requires a programme of years if not decades of committed systematic work.
The danger with elections in liberal democracies, especially those held in recent times, is that those very elections have been utilised by right wing forces to consolidate an authoritarian regime at the helm of state power—some of these regimes are also capable of engineering a fascist takeover of the state. Such authoritarian regimes have shut down democratic space and future possibilities of organising progressive forces including a left programme. This could very well happen in Sri Lanka.
In this context, the implications of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy announced last week are yet to sink into the dispersed left. There is much talk among some leftists of ambitious and adventurous programmes in relation to the upcoming elections. In the process, we are forgetting the political terrain and the importance of preserving democratic space for sustained work in the future.
State and regime
Dismembered as the left may be, it has a crucial role of providing theoretical clarity and political insights about the workings of the state and the consolidation of regimes. Karl Marx, in perhaps one of his most important political works, ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, makes the conceptual distinction between the state and regime. His description of the clashes and fragmentation of the various political forces and social classes after the revolution of 1848 in France, and the ensuing two decade long consolidation of the Bonapartist regime in France, should be a grim reminder to us of how democratic states can be engulfed by the consolidation of authoritarian regimes.
In the upcoming Sri Lankan elections, leftist debates and dissent in the ideologically lop-sided public sphere will be crucial for exposing the dangers of a powerful right wing regime seeking to consolidate state power for the long haul. It is such ideological struggle by the left and public engagement with the broader population that can forestall authoritarian consolidation or a fascist take over. Furthermore, any radical democratic agenda of the working people for freedom and equality, including struggles placing demands on the state, should first recognise the importance of preserving democratic space. Indeed, radical democratic politics in the years ahead depends on the political space determined by the decisive presidential election to be held in a few months.
A recent example may suffice to explain what I mean by the importance of dissent. Soon after the Easter Sunday attacks in April this year, we saw tremendous mobilisations by the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist constituencies, where even those in Government retreated and took cover rather than confront the proto-fascist advancement of an Islamophobic agenda. The silence and cowing down of the Sinhala intelligentsia in challenging Sinhala Buddhist nationalism was both shocking and revealing of the tremendous shift in the political terrain. If dissent was, for the most part, shut down by a chauvinist campaign that did not even control state power, one can imagine the situation when a chauvinist Rajapaksa regime usurps state power.
Politics is about timing and context, and left politics cannot function in a vacuum and should come to terms with the political realities of our times. Defeating the authoritarian nationalist politics of the re-emerging Rajapaksa regime – backed by an array of right wing forces including sections of urban professional classes, retired military actors, and nationalist bureaucratic elements, and consolidated with a proto-fascist social base mobilising on an anti-Muslim platform – is a priority for preserving democratic space. Will the defeat of Gotabaya in the presidential election bring about a Government that carries forward a progressive agenda? Most certainly not. However, the hard work of organising a radical democratic agenda can be sustained only if the authoritarian agenda and its consolidation are defeated in the upcoming presidential election. Will the left rise to this challenge?