3 October, 2023


Democracy With Sri Lankan Characteristics

By Aravinth Kumar

Multi-party democratic rule in Sri Lanka and socialist rule in China commenced around the same time in the late 1940s. Both political systems proved to be complete disasters, stifling the growth and development of the two nations. Fortunately for China, the visionary Deng Xiaoping fully understood that the socialist system was failing his country and adapted “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In doing so, China went from a poverty stricken nation to becoming the second largest economy in a generation. In fact, it has transformed so rapidly that it has been predicted that China will have the largest economy by 2040 (if not sooner). Sri Lanka on the other hand has persisted with a flawed multi-party democracy, trapping itself in a cycle. If Sri Lanka has any intention of breaking this trap and emulating China, Sri Lanka too will need to adapt its “democracy with Sri Lankan characteristics”.

How has a multi-party democracy trapped Sri Lanka’s economy? Well, since gaining independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka’s democracy has charted the following disastrous political cycle:

  • An election is called. All political parties issue their mandate of what they wish to achieve if given power. Usually, these political parties offer a populist manifesto completely disregarding the impact on the economy (or national unity). During the campaign, political parties provide all thoughts of tangible goodies to entice the citizens to vote for them. As Lee Kuan Yew famously stated, Sri Lanka’s elections are an “auctions of non-existent resources”.
  • The people vote in a party which is usually either an UNP or SLFP led alliance. The party forms a government for a period of 5 years.
  • Once in power, the UNP/SLFP looks to pay back those who helped with their election win, as well as help family and friends. This is usually through providing jobs in the public sector thus depriving the state of competent individuals. Unaffordable populist measures as stated in their manifesto are enacted, such as public sector pay rises or fuel subsidies, requiring the government to borrow high interest loans creating economic instability e.g. balances of payment crises, increasing inflation and currency collapses.
  • In the rare case that a government does attempt meaningful development, be it from a change in law or a physical infrastructure project, the opposition parties will block it just to prevent their “enemy” taking credit for helping the nation to develop. In doing so, the opposition can then claim that the current government has done nothing of benefit and the people should vote them into power.   
  • With the economy suffering and the next set of elections around the corner, the government of the day starts scapegoating and trying to turn people’s attention away from their poor mismanagement by stroking nationalistic/ethnic/religious sentiment and/or (further) offering economically damaging policies.
  • With the government not having made any meaningful action to improve the country, come the next election, the people usually turn to the opposition (i.e. if it’s an UNP backed government then power shifts to a SLFP backed government and vice versa).

Whilst the above political cycle is somewhat generalised, on the whole, it is fair to say that for the last 70 years, Sri Lanka has mostly seen its economy move forward only to falter and move three steps back.  This is primarily down to the multi-party democracy practised in Sri Lanka which consists of three fundamental flaws:

  1. Firstly, it’s too short term focused. Governments are only interested in making quick short term changes which can be easily seen and felt by the citizens before the next round of elections. They therefore have no incentive to take any notice of the impact on the country or economy in the mid/long term.
  2. Secondly, the opposition will always oppose anything even if it brings benefits. Allowing their rival to develop the country would be like shooting oneself in the foot i.e. preventing them obtaining their primary goal; political power.
  3. Lastly, whilst citizens of a country demand improvements in their life, most are scared about the impact of major but necessary changes. Opposition parties latch on to this inherent fear and play the political card. There are numerous times when parties have tried to introduce well meaningful laws only to feel a hostile reaction from some in the voting public backed by opposition members. Wanting to retain power, many governments have scrapped and fallen to the demands of the people, which usually creates/furthers a negative impact on the economy.   

It probably explains why, of all the newly independent nations which have become developed countries in the last 30 years, such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea etc., none of them operated an open multi-party democracy like in Sri Lanka. In fact, it even fails in the countries which first embraced democracy! However, in such countries, which are usually already a developed nation, the model of democracy is not a major hindrance. This is mainly because significant changes are not required as compared to a developing country like Sri Lanka. Take for example the UK. There have been ongoing proposals to create a third runway at London Heathrow Airport. However, there is a large amount of opposition from certain citizens as well as some political parties. However, let’s assume building this runway is a good thing, not constructing the runway is not going to have a major impact as there is already two other runways in operation.  Additionally, there are numerous high class airports situated around the country including three situated in close proximity to London.

Now, compare this to a developing country like Sri Lanka where the need for infrastructure is vital.  Take travelling between Colombo and the second city, Kandy. Whilst there are methods of travelling between the two cities these aren’t on the scale as in a country like the UK. Travelling by public transport is not the most enjoyable trip, with the infrastructure old and dilapidated and buses/trains leaving at irregular times. If one where to drive this 71 mile journey, it could sometimes take the same amount of time as it would to fly from Colombo to Singapore! Thus, any improvements of either a road or a new rail link would create major economic benefits.

So, considering the benefits which can be gained, why has Sri Lanka not invested money into improving transport links? Answer: Sri Lanka’s multi-party democracy. Sri Lanka has two major parties that power has alternated between since independence. Both parties are keen to develop the country (or they state), yet at the same time both parties are keen to prevent their rival from being the one in charge of such development.

Thus, the intention of the SLFP/UNP when in opposition is to oppose just so credit is not given to the government of the day. A case in point is the construction of the Colombo Port City, a large 269 hectare of sea filled land being built by the Chinese at a cost of $1.4 billion. The project was initiated in 2014 by the previous Rajapaksa government with much objection by the UNP. So much so, that during the parliamentary election campaign in 2015, the leader of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe, stated they would stop construction on the grounds of environmental concerns. Whilst there was a standstill for a year after the UNP gained power, construction is back in full swing with the Prime Minister having made a site visit in the first week of January 2018. Funnily enough, even though Ranil Wickremesinghe had proposed scrapping the Port City project during the 2015 election campaign, it was actually he himself who had initially proposed the idea in 2002 whilst he was Prime Minster. However with the loss of power in the 2004 election, the actual credit for commencing the project was to be taken by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

This is not unique to just development but the same process occurs in other areas like the ethnic front. Most parties when in power have agreed to provide some form of power sharing with the minorities only for the opposition to scuttle the process, as the opposition aims to appeal to the majority vote. For example, in 2000, the SLFP drafted a new constitution offering devolution of power. This draft, prepared by G.L. Periris, was ripped and burnt by UNP members and there were calls from the UNP opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for the impeachment of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Roll forward, 15 years and the unity government under Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed a new constitution which shares similarities to the 2000 draft constitution. As expected in a flawed multi-party democracy like Sri Lanka, the proposal to introduce a new constitution has been opposed by the very members, like G.L. Periris, who helped draft and vote for the 2000 constitution!

Thus, at this point, it would seem that removing party politics is the requirement of the day. However, as seen around the world, even with a weak or no opposition, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can develop your country e.g. Mugabe’s authoritarian democracy or communist North Korea. A political system requires educated and visionary leaders who have a clear understanding of the needs for their economy/nation.

Take Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew who understood very well what his country needed and how to get it done. With the lack of an able opposition, Lee was able to push through hard to stomach but necessary changes. For instance, he closed and merged the only Chinese speaking university in Singapore, Nanyang University, with University of Singapore in 1980 to form the National University of Singapore with English as the medium language. Even with strong public protests from the Chinese majority (who form a majority of the voting public), Lee Kuan Yew pushed through the merger, understanding that there could be future social/racial issues as Chinese educated students would be unable to compete against English-educated graduates for jobs.  Whilst highly unpopular at the time, in the long run it proved to be highly beneficial to the Chinese community.

Contrast this to Sri Lanka under the previous authoritarian SLFP rule. With a weak opposition and a popular war winning leader in power, Mahinda Rajapaksa had one of the best opportunities of turning Sri Lanka into an economic power house. Whilst there were many commendable improvements in the country, there were also far too many misguided decisions. Take for example the millions in Chinese loans taken to build flawed development projects such as the “Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport” which has the infamous honour of being the “world’s emptiest international airport” and has helped put Sri Lanka into a major debt crisis. If a fraction of this loaned money had been spent on improving the highly congested and decrepit Bandaranaike International Airport, it probably would have generated enough return to invest in a second airport.

Sri Lanka has had democracy for over 70 years. However the system needs tinkering to be more conducive to where Sri Lanka’s economy is currently placed and more importantly the Sri Lankan political culture. People in a developing country think more short term, ignoring the potentially greater fruit from waiting or ‘suffering’ from changes in laws which those in countries like Singapore and South Korea dealt with. People have been easily manipulated by the party in opposition (applies to all political parties) who are only interested in gaining power. With all this in mind and the clear facts pointing to multi-party democracy for being the primary cause for Sri Lanka regressing since independence, I would like to put forward a conceptual framework of a “democracy with Sri Lankan Characteristics”.

The framework:

The country will be governed by a “National Chamber”. This chamber will be made up of 25 elected officials who will also act as a representative to each of the 25 districts of Sri Lanka. They will be in power for a period of 10 years before new elections are held. Each member will be allocated with one cabinet position. One of the 25 members will also be chosen as the President but will not have any powers which distinguish him/her from the rest of the members.

All potential members will be required to have as a minimum; a 2:1 from a reputable university, 10 years of non-political work experience in either the public or private sector and a completely clean history i.e. no criminal record. If the citizens feel a member has lost their credibility at any time during the 10 years, a certain number of signatures will need to be collected within say 100 days and if collected, a by-election will be called.

At the next level, there will be a “Council of Representatives”. The Council will be made up of 50 non-elected members of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public or professional life and have no conflicting connection with a member in the National Chamber. Members will be chosen to join by the pre-existing members of the Council of Representatives. The Council will be tasked with reviewing bills that the National Chamber approves, ensuring no bills have any corrupt activities connected to them. It will however not be able to prevent any bills passing into law. If members of the National Chamber deem a potential Council member has lost their eminence or integrity, the citizens will be provided a vote to choose to keep them or get rid of them. Also, like with the National Chamber, if the citizens feel a member is no longer trustworthy a vote can be called to remove such a member.

The final level of governance will be the “District Council”. Each district will have a council with the number of seats depending on the number of pre-existing “Divisional Secretariats”. All members to the divisional secretariats will be for a 5 year basis. The district council will have decentralised power. They will be in charge of ensuring the laws set out by the National Chamber are enforced. Each district representative in the National Chamber will be tasked with checking the enforcement. They will also relay issues which arise in the “District Council” during the National Chamber meetings. 

Whilst the above is not a comprehensive structure, it gives a rough start on building a democracy void of the fundamental weakness that currently exist i.e. being too short term, opposition parties opposing everything and playing the political card. If we can adapt our “democracy with Sri Lankan characteristics”, maybe we can see Sri Lanka emulate China and become a prosperous nation within our generation.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Aravinth Kumar’s “Conceptual framework of democracy with Sri Lankan characteristics”
    Over the last seventy years corruption, nepotism and culture of impunity has taken a strong foothold and clearly identifiable as one of Lankan characteristics.
    Sorry Aravinth your suggested model will not work!

    • 1

      Agree, v.good analysis but impractical solution.
      There is a possible solution as the main problem seems to be severe corruption and culture of impunity.
      1. All elected politicians have a maximum term limit of 8 years; i.e. 4yrs times 2; applies to central and provincial and municipal governments
      2.Ethics Commissioner to be appointed to monitor politicians.
      3.Remove all reference to religion in the constitution; all Sri Lankans should be made proud of their heritage.
      4.Perks to politicians should be within reason and decided by a salaries commission.
      5.The judiciary,law enforcement ,AG’s Dept need drastic changes to make them impartial and legal process speeded up. Political interference should be completely curtailed in these fields.
      These changes are significant to bring in prosperity to the people; change to the political setup and is doable.

  • 1

    Hit the nail on the head!! All political parties have only ever cared for themselves. We need a completely new generation of leaders who can implement something like this. Unfortunately all Sri Lankan politicians become corrupted with power so appears all of us will continue to be stuck in this cycle!

  • 4

    Aravinth Kumar,
    It is a good article. You have got clear understanding of the Srilankan political culture. In the period of seven decades of british introduced democracy srilankans were most successful in destroying true characteristics of democracy such as rule of law, rule of justice and strengthening family based politics. They wiped out the unity of the people with the emotional fake liberation of buddhist sinhala masses by eliminating the human resources & skills.
    The people in this country are kept in the dark and they don’t understand other than the threat to Lord Buddha. So the elections are to compete on the policy who will protect Lord Buddha by killing more of non-buddhists.

  • 0

    Democracy! yes. under the guise of democracy so many undemocratic things happen.
    The moment a party comes into power the promises made in the Manifesto is put aside and think of the next General Election and how to win. For this purpose they have to earn money and how best it could be done. Sinhal only, Buddhism the foremost place and all the popular vote ‘catching’ways are introduced. Half way through the government run out of funds and the public agitation begins. The ruling party says agitations are unfair but the oppositions promote this agitation as they call it ‘welfare’ measures are being cut and the poor can’t live. During this “holy period” unholy alliances are made and the country is robbed by shrewd politicians. Commissions are appointed to find out “CowtheyHora. The ‘truthful’ horas shout out Not Me sir and the opposition shouts Who Then Sir? Another commission is appointed and by that time the HORAS are identified they are not in the country, they goes missing and is time for the next election.. This is democracy in Srilanka.

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