By Mass L. Usuf –
This is the reply Google gave me to the question: “What gives the government the right to rule?
“In political philosophy, the phrase consent of the governed refers to the idea that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is justified and lawful only when consented to by the people or society over which that political power is exercised.”
The incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came into power in November 2019 on the controversial but, strategic platform of racism and ethno-nationalism. The slave mentality of the majority community which pampered Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Dutugemunu fantasy and the sycophants who surrounded the Rajapaksa brothers made it easy for them to execute this strategy. The disease of a feudalistic mindset is that it makes people to revel in ignorance and it inhibits people from thinking rationally.
The Rajapaksas must be admired for knowing well that mobilising the monks to their side will ensure the enslavement, by indoctrination, of a vast majority of the Sinhalese community. These unbuddhistic monks succeeded in their endeavour. Of course, bringing shame to Buddhism by the propagation of hate, suspicion and hostility towards the minorities. The fools who abandoned reasoning and allowed themselves to be fooled, traded their wisdom to servility. They came to be derogatorily called the ‘heta nama lakshaya’, the sixty-nine lakhs – the number of votes that he polled. Here, one may primarily question, the legitimacy and morality of attaining power by unethical and immoral ‘democratic’ means.
Political philosophy aside, economic imperatives would seek to ensure financial stability of a country in order to move forward with the conferred legitimacy. There is, therefore, a close nexus technically between legitimacy to rule and the economic stability of a nation. The abyss in which the economy finds itself today does not hold much hope for the citizens of this country.
According to the World Bank “a stable financial system is capable of efficiently allocating resources, assessing and managing financial risks, … A stable system will absorb the shocks primarily via self-corrective mechanisms, preventing adverse events from having a disruptive effect on the real economy or on other financial systems. Major instability can lead to bank runs, hyperinflation, or a stock market crash. It can severely shake confidence in the financial and economic system.”
With the mismanagement of the economy written on the wall, Covid-19 exacerbated the crisis by hitting the construction, transport, manufacturing, tourism and other industries. This cascaded into declining economic performance at a macro level. Consequently, it directly impacted on the employment prospects and earnings across different groups of workers. Those with lower levels of education, in low-paid jobs, on fixed-term contracts, self-employed and private sector employees experienced job or earnings losses during the pandemic period, further stressing economic activity. The unequal distribution of the economic shock worsened the misery of the rural and urban folks. The poor became poorer and the middle-class urbanites became poor.
The government looked hopelessly incompetent in either arresting the deteriorating economic performance or having a Covid-19 recovery plan to kick start the economy. The worst act in the script of misgovernance is servicing the debts out of the already scarce foreign exchange reserves. Today, there is almost no money in the country and, naturally, imports have been cut. The rupee was suddenly devalued sharply escalating prices across the board. The country, at present, has been plunged into an extremely volatile situation. The moral legitimacy of the government to continue to rule over the people has now turned out to be a valid concern of the citizens.
Terminate The Social Contract
This connects with the idea of Social Contract where legitimacy is granted by the people to the government to govern over them. This is a contractual agreement between the citizens and the government. In this agreement the individual citizen surrenders some of his freedoms and agree to abide by the authority of the government in exchange for protection, welfare, social order etc.
The question asked is, “what is the remedy in the event of a breach of this agreement by the government?” The answer to this is found in the analogy of a simple fixed term employment contract. If a person enters into a five-year employment contract and is later found to be incompetent, the employee has the option of resigning his job or the employer has the option of terminating the contract. No sane employer will want to continue with an incapable employee until the end of the five-year contract period.
The present situation in the country which does not require any description or explanation is a gross breach of the social contract agreement. One important fact that should not be forgotten is that the citizens through their taxes are sustaining the government. Given the circumstance, what does the citizen have to do? The people, including the now cursed ‘heta nama lakshaya’ deeply feel the need to stop the continuation of this breach which would be detrimental to the country and its citizenry. We are witnessing a growing trend where citizens are voluntarily gathering to line up in the streets expressing their displeasure at this breach of contract by the government. The people are now wanting to terminate the agreement.
It is interesting to learn, what are the utilitarian rules of morality? “Whenever you are in a situation and have alternatives, you calculate the utility to be produced by adopting a course of action (rule) which would produce the greatest utility in the long run if it were followed every time that situation arose.” The lack of vision, proper planning and the inability to strategically mitigate the adverse effects of the failing economy repeats the question of the legitimacy to continue to rule.
This is evidenced by the World Bank report on Sri Lanka Poverty Assessment (2021) which notes that with jobs and earnings lost, poverty increased significantly, and over 500,000 people are estimated to have fallen into poverty due to the crisis. Extreme poverty (as measured by the $1.90 (Rs. 400) earnings a day poverty line) doubled from estimated 2019 levels. This implies not only that there are more poor people, but also that the poor have fallen deeper into poverty. The number of poor using the $3.20 (Rs. 650) earnings a day poverty line is projected to increase from about 1.95 million in 2019 to 2.5 million in 2020. One can imagine the worsening increase in this estimate as of today. What can the citizens do with a government which is unable to provide the basics for them except for saying, “Please leave. We have lost confidence in you and, therefore, revoking our consent. You have no moral or legitimate authority to govern over us anymore.”
In political science, a government’s political authority is legitimised through the consent of the public, not coercion. This consent is demonstrated by the popular acceptance and recognition by the people of the authority of the government.
Not long ago, there was a public outcry calling for the resignation of the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He was told by the Canadian public that he has lost the moral right to govern and should resign because of his involvement in the SNC Lavalin affair. The scandal; Simply put, the Prime Minister or someone in his office had tried to pressure the Attorney General to step in and resolve the corruption and fraud case against SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. in an effort to spare the Montreal-based engineering giant from criminal prosecution?
Patricia Hughes, the Founding Executive of the Law Commission of Ontario, and the former Dean of the University of Calgary law school was asked the question, “what is the ‘moral authority to govern’ — and how does a government lose it?”
Very clearly explaining the spirit of this authority she said, “Moral authority to govern is a question of perception. It comes down to whether the government is observing the norms, values and fundamental principles, that we have said govern our society. So, when a government seems to be acting against those norms, people question whether they still have the moral authority.”
If we consider this as a benchmark, will it be fair and reasonable to assert that this government has lost the legitimacy and moral authority to continue governing this country?
*The author is an Attorney at Law and can be reached via email: email@example.com