By Izeth Hussain –
I am writing this article in advance of the Presidential elections partly because whatever might be the outcome I believe that the fundamental problem confronting the Sri Lankan nation will remain just the same: the problem of restoring a fully functioning democracy. If President Rajapaksa wins with a comfortable majority we might expect a continuation of the trend towards an absolute dictatorship. On the other hand, if he just manages to squeak through to a marginal victory, we might perhaps expect a modification of the drive towards an absolute dictatorship. If Maithripala Sirisena squeaks through, or wins with a substantial majority as I have been confidently expecting, the prospects will be much brighter for the restoration of a fully functioning democracy. But we cannot be quite certain of that happy outcome. We must bear in mind an ugly fact: politicians are politicians, and the Sri Lankan breed of politicians has shown a proclivity to subject the fair damsel of democracy to brutal gang rape. So the struggle first of all to establish a fully functioning democracy, and then to keep it going, has to be unceasing.
I must make a clarifications arising out of the last paragraph. The emphasis in my term “fully functioning democracy” is on action, on what happens on the ground, not on what appears on paper in the form of a new Constitution. We can have what looks like a perfect Constitution, but it can be nullified in practice. To take an extreme case: the Soviet Constitution was admirably democratic, but the Soviet practice of democracy took the form of the Gulag which meant the incarceration and butchering of millions of innocents. That disjunction between precept and practice is to be expected to varying degrees in democracies that are not fully functional. A new Sri Lankan Constitution for instance could enshrine the right to information, but should anything like the Jay Gang of 1977 ride again we can expect the practice of that right to take the form of the administering of merciless whackings to anyone who insists on it.
I am not being cynical. I am merely noting well-known facts, from which I want to draw useful conclusions. It is a well-known fact that the appetite for power differs from the appetite for food in that the appetite for power grows in the eating whereas if you eat too much food, and go on eating, you vomit. There is a natural propensity on the part of the powerful to acquire more and more power to the extent that that might be possible. In traditional societies, both in the West and the East, the power of the rulers was constrained mainly by the religious order which conferred legitimacy in terms of the observance by the holders of power of values and norms derived from religion. In democratic societies power is constrained by the people. Rousseau thought that the British people were free only on the day of the elections, after which they reverted to being slaves until the next round of elections. As he was Swiss he thought that participatory democracy was the only authentic form of democracy, representative democracy being no more than a sham. He did not realize that under British democracy – despite all its imperfections at that time – the government’s power was indeed constrained in between elections by the power of the people. In practical terms, the Government’s power was constrained by the Opposition and the civil society.
I now want to argue that a vigorously active civil society should be regarded as one of the requisites for democracy. According to Western tradition the requisites for democracy are more or less as follows: periodic free and fair elections, a division of powers between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, with a wholly independent judiciary and a depoliticized administration, the rule of law, the free media, and a whole assortment of human rights. There is no mention of the role of the civil society in relation to democracy, probably because in the Western tradition the division of powers suffices to constrain governmental power. Actually it is the vigorously active civil society that constrains governmental power in the West.
The crucial importance of a vigorously active civil society for democracy can be illustrated by the contrasting travails of democracy in India and in Sri Lanka. In the second half of the ‘seventies Indira Gandhi imposed her Emergency and destroyed democracy, which led to a storm of protest across the length and breadth of India with thousands, indeed scores of thousands, going to jail after defying the Emergency. That abortion of democracy lasted just about a couple of years. It is a noteworthy fact that even under spells of BJP power democracy has continued to thrive, although the BJP ideology is neo-Fascist and therefore fundamentally antipathetic to democracy. I believe that the explanation is that India has an exceptionally vigorous civil society, no less than in the Western countries.
By contrast Sri Lanka’s civil society since 1948 has for the most part not been much more animate than a door mat on which the holders of power have wiped their slippers with impunity, and consequently Sri Lanka’s experience of democracy has been deeply chequered. We certainly had a fully functioning democracy from 1948 to 1956. But thereafter our democracy has been deeply flawed even at the best by the “tyranny of the majority”, privileging the majority ethnic group, which in some ways amounted to a negation of democracy. Our longest spell of anti-democracy was from 1977 to 1994. In the first half of the ‘nineties I wrote many articles on the need to restore what I called “a fully functioning democracy”. It is arguable that something like a fully functioning democracy was indeed restored after 1994, but since 2009 we have been clearly witnessing a drive towards absolute dictatorship. The ease with which the monstrously anti-democratic Eighteenth Amendment was passed showed a horrifying failure of the civil society. However, in recent times our civil society has shown an impressive dynamism, which means that one of the essential requisites for establishing a fully functioning democracy on an enduring basis is now at hand. Furthermore the minorities have joined the ethnic majority in the drive for democracy. Irrespective of the outcome of the Presidential elections, we can now meaningfully continue the struggle for a fully functioning democracy on an enduring basis.