By Kumar David –
The promise of good governance (yahapalanaya) has become a stick with which to beat the government. The Joint Opposition does not miss any opportunity for ridicule; editorials echo. There is truth to the groan that achievement falls short of promise; but it is also true that governance is better than in Rajapaksa times. An executioner’s dagger has given way to imperfect democracy; no more do white vans ply their frightful trade. Pervasive top-down corruption has waned; even critics do not accuse Sirisena and Ranil of personal corruption (the bond scam is an unexplained exception); cabinet norms are remote from Rajapaksa era rule by robbers. True a goodly portion of the rogues jumped ship and it is hardly an achievement that this government is not as appalling as its predecessor.
Nonetheless the risk of back sliding is ever present. In this piece I will to point to danger markers using examples from elsewhere. This is not an idealist critique that fails to take cognisance of what can and cannot be done. For example I recognise that Sinhala reality constrains devolution and that a secular state is infeasible in societies where the people’s consciousness is primeval. These are burdens any modernising project will have to haul around like a ball and chain. I can recall from my young days the LSSP’s liabilities in its now long forgotten gilded age.
Still, there is always something that can be done. This essay explores failures in state building in other parts of the world and ekes out a lesson or two. What can we learn from Iraq, Syria and Venezuela? Though in a different league, partisan politics is pushing America towards the abys of structural meltdown; this topic merits mention too.
Iraq and Syria
One can go back to George Bush and the 2003 invasion, or further to Baathist dictatorships, US imperialism’s greed for oil and imposition of subservient tyrants and monarchs, or one can go all the way to 1916 and the Sykes-Picot ‘line in the sand’ carving up the Middle East. A Lankan tale of woe too can have its ‘once upon a time’ anywhere between 1505 and 2009 and still make sense. There is no natural starting point, so why not start with the here-and-now. An indisputable here-and-now truth about Iraq-Syria is that faith in the ability of the state to survive or the capacity of governments to govern has evaporated. In a decade will either exist as a nation sate in its present form?
Take Iraq; corruption and incompetence are at staggering levels; the state is dysfunctional, literally; basic services have collapsed. Endeavours to create a cabinet of technocrats buckled due to in-fighting. Parties to the mêlée and conflict between and within communities and foreign ‘fixers’ include America, Iran, Grand Ayatollah Sistani (Shia ‘archbishop’), and Muatada al-Sadar, the radical Shia cleric whose storm troops control the streets of Bagdad. ISIS, stand-in for unrepresented Sunnis brings up the exterior-rear. Power blocks around Ministers plunder their fiefdoms but cannot be removed due to the balance of power between contending forces – sounds familiar? Conflict between communities is called sectarianism over there (between majority Shia and minority Sunni religious sects, though the Kurds are another issue). We call it communalism; four communities, Sinhalese, Ceylon Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils are the dramatis personae who too obey the laws of prejudice rather like falling apples obey the laws of gravity.
There are three defining dimensions to the catastrophe in Iraq; sectarian conflict among the people, foreign meddling and third a populace that has no experience or appreciation of democratic practices. Fortunately Lanka is relatively free of the second and third but the first we have groaned under for more than half a century. We should not be complacent that nemesis was averted for ever in 2009. If the underlying fears of the minorities are not addressed, tragedy will return in many shapes. The true obstacle to conciliation is the intransience of the people themselves, not extremism of leaders which is but a reflection of the doggedness of prejudice among the masses. Plato despised democracy; if he were here today he would say it paves the way for Lankan chauvinists and American Trumps.
The entire Middle East represents versions of the Iraqi ingredients – dictatorship, conflict between communities and great power intervention. War deaths in Syria in 2016 average 50 a day; hospitals and civilians are routinely targeted. The Regime, Russia and the US blamed; Assad’s attacks on Aleppo, the biggest city gave rise to international outrage but ceasefires breakdown again and again. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, are accused of countless violations. And so it goes on. Though it is extreme to compare the Middle East to Lanka at this point in time it is not alarmist to fear catastrophic outcomes anywhere in the world when underlying ills are not addressed.
What went wrong in Venezuela; after all, the Chavez regime set out to improve mass living standards, devolve power to the grassroots and enhance popular democracy? But now 400% inflation is forecast for 2016; public servants are allowed to work for only 2 days a week to save electricity and shops close at 7 pm for the same reason. Initial impeachment proceedings against Nicolas Maduro drew 1.85 million signatures in six days, nine times the 200,000 needed. After they are verified by the electoral commission the opposition needs to collect 4 million signatures to launch a referendum proper and then obtain 7.6 million to remove President Maduro. Now the oil tap is turned off. The state has broken down, its structures are dysfunctional.
Why did this happen after a relatively bold and well intentioned start, flush with oil revenue? Stated in five words: The government’s damnable economic incompetence! A lesson for simpleton leftists is that a government may be leftist, people oriented and rosy with socialist intentions but if economic decision makers are morons it will be disaster. However well-intentioned woe betides inept regimes. Venezuela’s descent into the abyss proves that competence cannot be exchanged for socialist enthusiasm.
America and the rest of the world
Sri Lanka does not exist on a separate planet; the world is more integrated than ever before; if we do not take note of how the world is changing – and I have little confidence that the people of our Island will – we are in for a rough ride. Still I guess “it is a far, far, better thing” to go to our end with our eyes open than deluded by nationalism and religiosity.
I am indebted to a piece in the Guardian of 19 May by Jonathan Freedland (“Welcome to the Age of Trump”) for some of the ideas that follow. First a quote:-
“(T)o reckon without a trend visible across the democratic world; populists and demagogues are making extraordinary strides, the examples too numerous to list. The world’s largest democracy, India, is now led by a Hindu nationalist with an authoritarian streak. In Turkey, Erdoğan, whose AK party won a sweeping victory, is more dictatorial with each passing year. In France, Marine Le Pen and her nativist Front National denounce a political establishment which “has betrayed the white, non-Muslim people”. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán makes a similar pitch. German regional elections produced a surge for a party making the same case: the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The tune is echoed by the Danish People’s party, the Swedish Democrats, which has roots in neo-Nazism, the party formerly known as the True Finns as well as the People’s Party of Switzerland. In Holland the notoriously anti-Muslim Geert Wilders is dominant. Britain has its low-tar version in Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party which garnered four million votes at 2015.”
The question all this implicitly poses is whether the pursuit of democracy is worth the candle. A 2011 survey found that 34% of Americans want “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections”, the figure rising to 42% among those with only secondary education. So does one in three Americans prefer a dictator? Like the Europeans they feel betrayed and the palpable measure of betrayal is the economy. You read it everywhere: The rich get richer and everyone else goes to the bottom. A staggering 55% of Americans are poorer in real terms than they were 15 years ago while the top 10% got 75% richer. Is it surprising that many have lost confidence in the norms that underpin liberal democracy?
“Oh death where is thy sting?” Well St Paul should take a peek at the rising death rate, the final arbiter of life, of less educated middle-aged white Americans – see chart. It provides ghoulish evidence for Trump’s appeal. The system (capitalist system) is in decay driving even white workers to the wall. A friend demurs: “There is nothing wrong with capitalism per say, morons running central banks and governments are blundering” he says. I could buy this if calamity was confined to one, two or three cases, but it is endemic so it has to be systemic.
Is any of this relevant to Lanka apart from the truisms that Americans, Europeans and the whole blooming lot of us live on the same planet and if they sink they will take us down with them? Well yes, there are goings-on in Lanka that are an eerie rerun of the mayhem the Republican Party (GOP) incited during the Obama presidency. Create bedlam in Congress, block anything and everything this hated black man attempts to do, encourage the nut-cases in the Tea Party (TP) to incite havoc. Donald Trump (DT) is just the expected conclusion of this process.
Two forces in Lanka, the Joint Opposition and ethnic-religious extremism, which will countenance no resolution of minority issues, are our version of Europe’s far-right and America’s DT-TP-GOP alliance. Let me not end on a sour note; all bookies currently offer 4:1 odds against a Trump presidency and there is a better than 50% chance that our chauvinists and the Joint Opposition can be routed. Even Europe may swing right for a period but it can never again return to fascism.
If Lanka is to make an ell of progress it must cut the Gordian knot, renounce the past and turn to a new direction. Old categories, unitary, federal, language, religion, political tradition, have all to be jettisoned and replaced by a utilitarian and pragmatic attitude to statecraft and policy. “Fat hopes” you mock me! Well my way has hope; your way is to rot in the same foul old broth!