By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Sri Lanka is the oldest democracy in a region of the world covering two continents, including the planet’s most populous; Afro-Asia. Sri Lanka is now, and arguably has been for some time, an illiberal or authoritarian democracy. It is an illiberal democracy is transition to something else; something densely darker. There are two clear drivers in that direction: the 20thamendment to the Constitution which makes for hyper-centralization of power, and the process of militarization.
Sri Lanka is in transition from an illiberal democracy to autocracy/ despotism/tyranny either of a civilian-military sort which appeared in some Latin American states decades ago or a military-backed Presidential autocracy such as the dictatorship of President Marcos of the Philippines.
An outright Myanmar-type junta is a possible outcome in a worst-case scenario.
Autocracies are an exception in today’s world. In successive waves of democratization beginning in the 1970s in Portugal, and the 1980s in Poland and the Philippines, they have been pushed back through a combination of popular unrest, triggered either by economic crisis or some morally outrageous incident, and external pressure, ranging from solidarity through Congressional cut-offs to coercive interventionism.
The zenith of the historical process led to the famous thesis of the end of history, by which it was meant that though liberal democracy would be challenged by parochial foes, it could no longer be challenged as a model which claimed universality.
Crisis Of Neoliberal Democracy
What was not anticipated is that liberal democracy would be challenged from within, most dramatically in its metropolitan centers, not only by neoconservatism but worse, by ultranationalism, most notoriously in the case of the Trump presidency. The process of an internal, ultranationalist counter to liberal democracy commenced in places as diverse as Eastern/Central Europe which had been the exhibits of the revolution of democracy against socialism, and in Israel under Netanyahu. Ethno-religious ultranationalism, even nativism, became the trend, in several cases (not Israel) fused with autocracy.
Netanyahu exported the counterrevolution against President Obama’s progressive liberalism, to the USA itself, feeding into the rightwing counterrevolution that dated back to the backlash against Bill Clinton’s presidency and manifested itself in the Tea Party Movement. It now seems to have captured the Republican party itself. Gotabaya Rajapaksa lived through that process in California. He and his wealthy Sri Lankan friends, including ex-military men, were very much steeped in rightwing Republican ideology and politics. That was the birthplace of the GR Presidency project.
What the liberal democratic ideologues had not anticipated, though the better ones protested and prophesied as things became obvious (Joe Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Jeff Sachs) that the adoption of neoliberal economics had ripped society apart to such a degree, that it has generated a neoconservative, ultranationalist, populist backlash that would threaten liberal democracy itself. There had been another way to go, and the person who first pointed the correct way was the man who perhaps more than any other, had morally and ethically catalyzed the peaceful overthrow of the socialist one-party model: Pope John Paul II. Having overthrown the old enemy of the church, Communism, he swiftly pivoted to a blistering critique of free-market fundamentalism (and visited Cuba, exhibiting great friendship with Jesuit-educated Fidel Castro).
Western liberal leaders weren’t listening. Liberal ideologues and policymakers had another way to go to avoid disaster. Had they dusted off TH Green and LT Hobhouse, or re-read JS Mill, or still more simply, understood President FDR’s Four Freedoms, they would have discovered a socially more responsible and progressive liberalism. Instead, the liberal democrats preferred the economic theories of those who were far from liberal democrats themselves, ranging from Hayek to Milton Friedman. The latter and his acolytes actually applauded and advised the most notorious military dictator of our lifetime, Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, when he seized power in a bloody military coup, overthrowing elected President Salvador Allende.
Things echo and re-echo in history. It is no accident that the United Nations World Social Summit in Copenhagen 1995 was spearheaded and chaired by Ambassador Juan Somavia, a close associate of President Salvador Allende. (I was privileged to work closely with him when he was Director-General ILO and I was elected Chairman.) The declaration is perfectly compatible with that of the SAARC Independent Poverty Commission appointed by President Premadasa as SAARC Chairman a few years before. The Copenhagen Summit and earlier Pope John Paul II, not only clearly warned about the turmoil that economic neoliberalism had unleashed but also pointed to the solutions. It is the failure to implement this program that left the door wide open for ultranationalist populism to win working class votes and areas in the UK and USA.
Lankan neoliberal democrats never stood for the implementation of the 13th amendment, not even the full implementation of the 13th amendment. They never defended really existing devolution which Vijaya Kumaratunga advocated and for which he and 117 members of his political party paid with their lives. Instead, they strove for a new constitution which went far beyond the 13th amendment. This wasted the time and sociopolitical as well as ideological capital of the Chandrika presidency.
Sajith & ‘SLPP Lite’
Lankan neoliberal democrats are uncritical of ex-Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s snide remarks on Sajith Premadasa and socialism, while ignoring the categorical statement by the architect of the open economy, Ronnie de Mel, holder of a first-class honours degree in History from the prestigious old university of Ceylon, and honored guest of Gordon Brown when he delivered his inaugural Budget as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. De Mel went public earlier this year, expressing his alarm on the state of the economy, repeatedly swaying that Sajith Premadasa is the only hope for the country, urging Mr. Premadasa that our macroeconomic policy needed to focus more on social equity and urging an infusion of socialist values into the mix.
Those well-meaning pro-Opposition elements who prattle on that ‘we must bring everybody onto one platform’ must ask themselves whether or not the presence on the platform of party, caucus or personality—such as Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera—will bring in more votes or deprive the democratic opposition of quite a few votes as in November 2019. It seems to be their sentiment that nationalist voters are dispensable or should actually be shunned in favor of cosmopolitan globalist (neo)liberal democrats.
Where in the global south has rightwing ultranationalist or ultranationalist-militarist autocracy been displaced by liberal democrats, with a liberal democratic project and program?
Can anyone with a lucid mind believe that in a country where two-thirds of an ethnic majority which itself comprises and overwhelming two-thirds of the populace, shifted in one direction, that of ultranationalist-militarism, these voters of the heartland can be shifted back by means of a ‘liberal democratic project’ or ‘program’ or ‘alternative framework’? Rather, does it not require a social democratic program with robust populist appeal?
The Lankan neoliberal democrats who condemn the SJB and Sajith Premadasa as being ‘SLPP Lite’, expect the tectonic shift of the Sinhala Buddhist voters to the SLPP to be reversible by a liberal democratic program, which means that those voters, an unprecedented majority can be expected to vote for the UNP’s neoliberal democracy.
By contrast, the US Democrats were smart enough to know that Trump could not be beaten this time around by recycling the Hillary Clinton candidacy. They would not shift all the way back. Nor were the voters in the heartland states progressive enough to shift to Bernie Sanders i.e., they would not go all the way forward. A progressive, semi-populist centrism as represented by Joe Biden, was the best bet to save liberal democracy.
Those who meaninglessly call for Opposition unity which includes Ranil and Mangala do not seem to know that anti-militarization and anti-militarism are imperative, but have to kept separate and distinct from an anti-military ideology and profile. The Ranil-Mangala neoliberals, fans of “foreign judges” and federalists, would antagonize the military which needs to be won over or neutralized in the democratic transition i.e., in any successful democratization strategy to detach the military and defeat the despotic dynasty.
Lenin in his typically trenchant manner, sardonically remarked about “some comrades who think that minus three is greater than minus two”. What matters in any unity formula is not the number of parties or organizations present and included but whether they bear a plus sign or minus sign in front of them, in the popular consciousness and the political equation. So long as the UNP is led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Mangala Samaraweera caucus remains unrepentantly neoliberal and anti-nationalist, they are preceded by a minus sign, not a plus. What they take away from the table is far greater than what they would bring to it.