By Sasanka Perera –
The Changing Face of Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka (1994-2010) by Laksiri Jayasuriya. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2012 (second edition). Pp. Xxvii; 225. ISBN 978- 955- 0762- 15- 6. Price: LKR 600.00
When I was reading a recent journalistic rendition on the politics of Sri Lanka, I was reminded how crucial facets and moments in our recent turbulent past which many of us have lived through and become victims of have been taken for granted by many of us. More often and even more sadly, we have also allowed ourselves to lapse into a sense of structural amnesia without reference to that not so distant past and its consequences in the present. In some cases we meet people in Colombo’s cocktail circuit who had helped orchestrate much of that chaos and they would engage in mundane conversations with no reference to the un-illustrious history they have authored. For many ordinary citizens, this state of being unmoored from the past as well as from the present is a convenient state of existence in the face of extreme conditions over which they have no control. For me and for many others I know, this sense of amnesia and the relative dismantling of the country’s collective conscience is an uncomfortable reality. It is indeed sad when such lapsed memory has to be re-injected into our conscience through something as mundane as a written text. I felt the same sense of déjà-vu when I was reading through Laksiri Jayasuriya’s book, The Changing Face of Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka (1994-2010). It does not inform us of anything new in the strictest sense of the word, but nevertheless forcefully reminds us what we ought to know about electoral politics in Sri Lanka, but have by and large opted to forget for the sake of convenience in the context of post-war militarist euphoria and rhetoric of reconciliation devoid of substance. It is a simple narrative that brings readers up to date through six chapters, numerous figures and a clear reading, the dynamics, the intrigues and the consequences of electoral politics in Sri Lanka. The update from the first edition mostly emanates from the addition of an important chapter (chapter 6) on the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2010. Though with a declared focus on the electoral politics of the period between 1994 and 2010, the book in fact offers a much longer historical trajectory and contextualisation of electoral politics from about 1931 onwards when universal adult franchise in Sri Lanka was first established, through important developments in the 1970s via chapter 1 as well as chapter 6. In this sense, the book offers a fairly comprehensive history of electioneering in Sri Lanka from the initial stages right up to the present. In effect, the text reads like sad story of a great dream that was lost due to the fallibility of individuals who came into politics after the 1970s and the relentless compromise of ideals for short term personal gain. It is a political tragedy of our times. In that context, Sri Lanka’s path to political civility has veered from the ideals of democracy to the pathos of familial oligarchy.
My review will focus on the last chapter which discusses where electoral politics have brought the Sri Lankan polity through a difficult journey which Jayasuriya has outlined from 1931 onwards. Much of the dismantling of democratic practices and institutions in Sri Lanka took place since the post-1977 period as well as the post-civil war period in the context of which a “culture of violence, anomie and impunity” emerged and was institutionalized (139). Jayasuriya notes that the “new political order that emerged in 2005 with the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government has served to consolidate the illiberal political culture and institutions that evolved” since 1978 (139). He notes quite rightly that despite the end of civil war in May 2009 and the revoking of the state of emergency in 2011, the continued use of ‘emergency laws’ facilitated the “growing militarization of civil society and hostility to political and social pluralism” (139). As Jayasuriya’s book illustrates quite well, elections are not simple democratic rituals of innocence and utopian idealism that end with electing individuals to centers of power. In fact, the politics of consolidating power and the possible dismantling of democratic institutions and practices begin soon after the actual electoral process has ended. If the statistics Jayasuriya presents show the way in which people voted, how and why, the reading of what this means indicates the long-term consequences of electoral calculations of political parties as well as decisions of individual voters and scheming politicians.
In the context of the amalgamation of forces outlined above, Jayasuriya suggests that the 2010 parliamentary and presidential elections established what he describes as a ‘hybrid regime’ similar to the models that have emerged in South East Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia (140; 169). Quoting Levitsky and Way, what Jayasuriya means by this terminology is a regime that “is a mix of authoritarian and democratic elements where formal democratic processes combine with a strong incumbent party that seeks to limit the organizational capacity of the opposition” (169). As Jayasuriya further notes, “although formal democratic institutions such as the legal system and the electoral process are functional and operative, we note, however, that they can be skilfully manipulated in gaining power and maintaining regime dominance” (169). This observation succinctly places in context the current political climate in Sri Lanka. The net result of this electoral process and its manipulation, as suggested by Jayasuriya is the emergence and consolidation of a veritable ‘one party government’ where the dominant party (which in this case is the Rajapaksa-led SLFP government) due to a large parliamentary majority at its disposal “accompanied by a weakened opposition, gives the government of the day complete access to, and control of, key state institutions and resources which are used to entrench the dominant party” (168). This state of affairs that Jaysuriya has outlined has already become part of contemporary Sri Lankachilling political reality by the time the book has become available in Colombo bookstores. This is most evident in the manner in which the Chief Justice was impeached and dismissed via a process that can only be described as less than a ‘kangaroo court’while regime-sponsored thugs roamed the streets. With that action and the manner in which the rulings of the Supreme Court were summarily and disdainfully dismissed indicated how ‘the hybrid regime’ had ensured the official transition of Sri Lanka from dysfunctional democracy to familial dictatorship.
Though it is very clear what Jayasuriya means by ‘hybrid regime’ and the terminology is used in some political science discussions, I am somewhat discomforted by the choice of this particular terminology. In contemporary social sciences, particularly in sociology, social anthropology, cultural studies as well as feminist theory (just to mention only a handful of disciplinary domains), the word ‘hybrid’ is used in a celebratory idiom and sensibility to denote something ‘positive’ which in this case certainly is not. What Jayasuriya describes via this concept is a convenient and callously calculated amalgamation of dictatorial and seemingly democratic practices while both are packaged for the purpose of achieving one specific goal: the entrenchment of undemocratic forms of governance. I would have been far more comfortable with a term like ‘mishmash regime’ or ‘pseudo-democracy.’ But this is not a major issue I want to spend time on in the overall context of the book.
Drawing from the models proposed by Scheurmann, Jayasuriya proposes that the present Sri Lankan regime has distinctive features which includes the “personalistic character of Presidential legitimacy [which enables] the Executive to cultivate a seemingly direct and immediate relationship with the electorate” via all forms of media (168). Moreover, these “forms of presidential governance are associated with an obsession of personal glorification in consolidating a ‘charismatic leadership” (168). We see clear evidence of this obsession everywhere in present-day Sri Lanka in the discursive spaces of state owned electronic and print media as well as privately owned media which state structures have affectively colonized and also ubiquitously in public space and the general landscape of the country. So nowadays it is quite normal to see larger than life banners at different locations all over the country from where the president beams upon lesser mortals on the ground; playgrounds, cricket stadiums, schools, streets and mega auditoriums named after the president; everything from traffic lights to schools, military monuments and bus stands seem to be initiated according to a ‘concept’ of the president, members of his family or political kin; and the list so on. It appears that only the president and his familial and political kin are in the business of thinking and generating wisdom in the country today. Quoting Scheurmann, Jaysuriya further explains this scenario as a “quest to find a secular replacement for the magical or divine powers once attributed to monarchs” (168). In this situation, it is hardly surprising to find billboards in Colombo with images of well-known ‘hero kings’ of Sri Lanka distant past in the background and the president in the foreground and in the middle of the frame seemingly leading the kings of yore and to hear at least one commentator suggesting that the president is a direct descendent of the Buddha himself. It seems to me that Jayasuriya has found a very apt case study in Sri Lanka’s recent electoral politics to contextualize what Scheurmann had outlined as a general model in his 2011 essay, Presidentialism and Emergency Government. As a result of this relentless tinkering with democratic institutions and practices in the country, Sri Lanka is ranked quite low at 109 with regard to democracy out of 150 countries in the most recent World Democracy Audit while it is ranked at 117 on press freedom (169-170).
What does this state of affairs that manifest when one reads Sri Lankan electoral politics once institutionalized in the name of democracy now mean? In the overall context of his presentation and reading, Jayasuriya also provides the answer to this fundamental question. He suggests: “Regrettably, the prospect of a One Party State with a highly centralized Executive Presidential form of government in a militarized state forebodes ill for a robust multi-party pluralist democracy” (170). In this specific context, Jayasuriya identifies two crucial eras of concern: 1) the abuse of human rights as a result of impunity granted to public officials “in the security forces to act outside their professional jurisdiction” (170); 2) this militarization also leads to blurring of civil-military roles’ (170). Both manifestations are very clear in contemporary Sri Lanka as evidenced from forced disappearances and murder of political opponents despite the end of war as well as the overt military participation in everything from town and urban planning to selling vegetables to running wayside cafes in the north as well as ‘leadership training’ courses compulsorily offered to university entrants in military camps.
In the final analysis, it is clear that at the beginning of electoral politics in the country and well into the mid 1970s, it was possible to witness a “blossoming of ‘party politics’ in a bipolar party system” (141). However, the dream of democratic politics that was initiated by the early generations of Sri Lankan political leaders and achieved up to a point, has been steadily dismantled since the late 1970s; this unravelling was initially begun under the able guidance of J.R Jayawardene and then continued under every single president thereafter in different degrees (except D.B. Wijetunge, the accidental president who offered a momentary breathing space for the spiralling Sri Lankan democracy). Within the script of this political tragedy enacted not only by professional politicians but also by academics, university vice chancellors, ordinary thugs, religious leaders and many others, the oligarchic familial politics of the present regime which Jayasuriya describes well in the last chapter of his book is merely the final and the most dangerous moment in this downward spiral.
*The reviewer is Chair and Founding Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi
Text added by Colombo Telegraph;
About the Book
Sri Lanka has been through turbulent times, overcome by a devastating civil war, yet able to sustain a system of parliamentary government. According to Professor James Jupp of the Australian National University, a leading analyst of Sri Lankan politics, ‘this is a rare fact in the modern world and unique for a relatively low income society’. This study recounts a critical phase of Sri Lankan electoral politics from 1994 to 2010 that includes five General elections and four Presidential elections. The new politics of Sri Lanka is marked by an increasingly fractured party system that is driven by symbolic cultural issues and the tensions inherent in the mixed executive system that has emerged over the past three decades. The dynamics of the alliance politics of this period framed within a Presidential Executive system of government represents a decisive break with the liberal social democratic state that existed for several decades as a legacy of the colonial past. This new edition importantly examines the illiberal political culture of the new regime that emerged following the end of the civil war in 2009 and the national elections – Presidential and Parliamentary – of 2010. This volume will be essential to anyone interested in Sri Lanka’s unique experience over five decades as a model third world democracy.
Professor Jayasuriya has marshalled the facts and statistics for a complex period and analysed these with an interdisciplinary prospective.
Dr Nimal Sanderatne
Former Director of Economic Research, Central Bank, Sri Lanka.
This work is thorough, informative, and free of partisan bias … there is no comparable on this important subject, which has wider implications beyond the borders of Sri Lanka. I thoroughly recommend this analysis to all who are interested in the politics of ethnically diverse complex societies.`
Dr James Jupp, AM FASSA
Australian National University (author of Sri Lanka: A Third World Democracy).
About the Author
Laksiri Jayasuriya A.M;PhD(Lond) is an Emeritus Professor .and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia (UWA). Until his retirement from the University of Western Australia he the Foundation Professor of Social Work and Social Administration at the University and was also the Hon Director of the Centre for Asian Studies Prior to coming to Australia, he held the Foundation Chair of Sociology and Social Welfare at the University of Ceylon, Colombo.. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Social Sciences, and a recipient of a Hon D.Litt. from the University of Colombo, and the University of W A (UWA.)
Among his extensive list of publications the most recent include: Taking Social Development Seriously: The Experience of Sri Lanka (2010); The Legacies of White Australia (co-editor) (2002); and Transforming a ‘White Australia’: Issues of Racism and Immigration (2012).