By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“The East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind.”– Mao
The main argument in favor of a vote for the UNP at the upcoming local authorities’ election is that this model of governance is more democratic than its Rajapaksa predecessor and possible successor. That argument is not only questionable, it may also prove less than relevant.
It strains credulity to describe as more democratic than its predecessor, or indeed as fully democratic, a political order in which an Opposition formation with over 50 members is not recognized as the parliamentary Opposition, but a party with less than one third that number of MPs, the TNA, is installed as the Opposition. This coming on top of a situation in which the elected President was sworn in after the election together with a Prime Minister who led a party in parliament with a much smaller number than the party from which the then sitting Prime minister came from. Some liberal democracy, that.
What makes the argument of liberal democracy something of a weak reed, is that it does not always resonate with people, and that is not necessarily because the people are prone to fascist tendencies, but because they have existential needs that are more important than the niceties of liberal democracy. This is why, in the contemporary world, pro-western liberal democrats have been spurned by the voters of Russia, Turkey and Egypt, in favor of strong, autonomous leaders.
We live in a time in which the failures of pro-Western liberal democracy have been proved repeatedly and in many instances, bloodily. The first wave of such experimentation and blow back was in Russia, with the Gorbachev-Yeltsin experience. The Russian people deeply regret that decade of the 1990s and have firmly opted for Vladimir Putin instead. The second wave of failure was the so-called Arab Spring, which has caused country after country to disintegrate and for terrorism, fundamentalism and fanaticism to surface or resurface.
In 2015 what Sri Lanka experienced was the model experimented with by Russia in the last decade of the 20th century and the Arab world in the second decade of the 21st century. As in those two contexts, in Sri Lanka too we have experienced dismal to disastrous results. As in those countries there is a backlash underway. What is heartening is that the backlash is, so far, electoral and peaceful.
In a way, this is not at all new to Sri Lanka. We had an early prototype in the 1950s and 1960s, when two UNP governments, that of 1952-1956 and 1965-1970, though decidedly more liberal democratic than their successors, proved to be one-term wonders, and generated backlashes which culminated in tougher, more robustly nationalist administrations. What this showed was that liberal democracy is not only not enough, but that if it accompanies pro-Westernism and free-market economics, it will almost certainly be rejected by the masses.
All of this proves that liberal democracy is not merely insufficient in and of itself, but that it may be entirely secondary in the masses order of priorities and preferences. France’s Girondists and Russia’s Mensheviks being archetypal historical examples.
Liberal democracy takes second or third place to many, far more fundamental considerations, such as the economy, the state, national sentiments and a sense of progress. If a government is felt to have damaged or retarded any of these realms or factors; if liberalization and democratization have been at the expense of the economy, the state, national sentiment and overall progress, then it stands delegitimized in the eyes of the masses.
This is the case with the Yahapalana experiment in Sri Lanka today. The UNP-driven Yahapalana model has caused Sri Lanka to decline. The economy is doing far worse than in wartime, leave alone in the postwar years, and living standards have dropped; economic hardship has increased, prospects of upward mobility have decreased. The PM has agreed to allow India a controlling interest in five strategic locations which form a noose around the island: KKS, Trincomalee, Mannar, Colombo (Eastern terminal) and Mattala. Sumanthiran exults over a draft constitution that goes beyond federalism. Wigneswaran hosts the LTTE’s ISGA designer Prof Sornarajah in Jaffna and calls for “an international legal framework” for the Tamils of the North. Ancient Buddhist temples are bulldozed in the East.
Except for the bubble of liberal democracy, on all fronts there has been decay and degeneration, retreat and retrenchment. The unprecedented daily eruption of spontaneous localized popular protest is not triumphant testimony of a liberal democratic renaissance but symptoms of multiple dysfunctions in government; a government’s failure to deliver goods and services; to make things work. Under pro-western liberal democracy, the System is not working in Sri Lanka. Instead there is soft anarchy or semi-anarchy.
What we have is not a flawed liberal democratic government but a failed liberal democratic government. In Sri Lanka the moment of pro-western liberal democracy is coming to an end –in a parabolic arc, to be sure. The moment of populism is at hand once again. The only question is what type of populism will it be? The liberal centrist-populism of President Sirisena? The progressive nationalist-populism of Mahinda Rajapaksa? Or the technocratic authoritarian-populism of Gotabaya? Or some combination of any two or all three?
The liberal democratic credentials of the Yahapalana experiment are being celebrated by its ideologues at a time when the liberal democratic West is in “elegant decline”. There is a new success story in the world, and especially in Asia: the East Asian model and its apex achievement, China. In the world economy as a whole, China’s influence increases as the West’s declines. In geo-strategic terms, China’s ally Russia, together with Iran, has inflicted a defeat on the West’s regime change model and strategy in Syria, putting a stop to the rot of serial state destruction inaugurated by the US invasion of Iraq, followed up by the Libyan intervention and the so-called Arab Spring. It is most likely that the liberal democratic bubble will burst in Sri Lanka, to be replaced by a developmental model more influenced by that of China, East Asia and more generally, Eurasia.
Why is the republican Brutus reviled and the emperor, Julius Caesar, exalted? Why are the liberal reformers Kerensky, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Zhao Zhiyang and Yeltsin reviled or forgotten and Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Putin valued and honoured? It is most certainly not because the people, or History, revere strong men—if that were the case, Hitler would not be the most reviled man in human history. It is because people value individual freedom but not at the expense of strong, powerful, successful states and societies. The people and history value leaders who produce or contribute to such outcomes, who leave such legacies.