By Mohamed Harees –
“‘Hitler’s dictatorship rested on the constitutional foundation of a single law” ~ the Enabling Law – Alan Bullock
When the Rajapaksas lost power in the 2015 elections, Sri Lanka then became among the first democracies to defy the tide of populism. Sadly, however, the unity of purpose that earlier endeared the common opposition alliance leaders – Maithrapala and Ranil duo, to voters, subsequently collapsed under the weight of internal squabbles once they were elected to government. The feud grew into a constitutional crisis in 2018, with MR being appointed as the PM, which move the courts declared as unconstitutional. What later rescued the ‘discredited’ Rajapaksas, was the rise of majoritarian emotions across the country after the Easter Sunday suicide bombings. Angered by the government’s inability to prevent the attacks that killed more than 250 people, people voted for a strongman. The sheer scale of the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa(GR) revealed the full capacity of a campaign premised on chauvinism to mobilize the majority. Blessed by Buddhist monks and encouraged by the tide of triumphalism, GR, dubbed by critics as Sri Lanka’s Modi, at his inauguration, affirmed his support for their dream of a Buddhist-first Sri Lanka, blaming minorities who failed his “expectations” by voting against him.
The Easter Sunday’s bombings solidified the electorate’s desire for stronger and more decisive leadership. In this context, GR’s highly successful election victory was based mainly on national security and Sinhala Buddhist nationalism/majoritarianism, in addition to economic issues, and the other failures of the Yahapalana government. Going forward, the questions are: will this majoritarian fever transform Sri Lanka into a JRJ style dictatorship, with the oncoming parliamentary election? Will the space for dissent in Sri Lanka shrink – and quickly? Will ethnic and religious fault lines in the already polarized nation deepen further with minorities being further subordinated? Will the future Parliament take away the checks and balances mechanism, so vital in a democracy?
Last time when the Rajapaksas were in power, they systematically put Sri Lanka’s messy democracy on life support, putting the country on a dictatorial path. Abductions were a common public concern while human rights violations were widespread, with power being centralized within the family. Going by the past track records with the militaristic and authoritarian leanings of both MR and GR, and the talks of abolishing the 19th Amendment , all these Rajapaksa hallmarks of governance show signs of re-emergence. It won’t be therefore be surprising if the future Rajapaksa administration strengthened by a two thirds majority in the Parliament produces similar results, or worse.
Dictatorships are often unexpected. They have arisen among prosperous, educated and cultured people who seemed safe from a dictatorship – in Europe, Asia and South America. Consider Germany, one of the most paradoxical and dramatic cases. After the defeat of Germany in the WW1, its’ principal military commanders realized that whoever signed the armistice would be hated, so they resigned and let a civilian official sign it. As a result, the Weimar republic, Germany’s fragile democracy, was immediately discredited. Hitler was among those agitating against the Weimar government. Hitler’s main talent seemed to be as a speech maker, so he began giving speeches that appealed to Germans embittered and disillusioned by the outcome of the war. He denounced Jews, capitalists and other alleged villains, vowing to rebuild German greatness. Historian Ian Kershaw observed that “Without a lost war, revolution, and a pervasive sense of national humiliation, Hitler would have remained a nobody.” Bad economic policies and foreign policies of the then government also led to crises that had dangerous political consequences.
Why, then, did the highly educated Germans embrace a lunatic like Adolf Hitler? The short answer is that bad policies caused economic, military and political crises – chow time for tyrants. German circumstances changed for the worse, and when people become angry enough or desperate enough, sometimes they’ll support crazies who would never attract a crowd in normal circumstances. Many lessons from Hitler’s Nazi Germany did not however stay long in rulers’ minds across the globe, despite Universal Declaration of Human Rights becoming a reality in Post- WWII world . Politicians commonly demand arbitrary power to deal with a national emergency and restore order, even though underlying problems are commonly caused by bad government policies. During hard times, many people are often willing to go along with and support terrible things that would be unthinkable in good times; but aspiring dictators sometimes give away their intentions by their evident desire to destroy opponents. However, be it as it may, ultimately liberty can be protected only if people care enough to fight for it, because everywhere governments push for more power, and they never give it up willingly.
Of course, the line between democracy and dictatorship can be blurry. There are also those who argue that dictatorship has its benefits ,and not just for the dictators; bringing stability being one of them. “Dictators are not fundamentally different from democratic political leaders,” argues Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, political scientist, professor at New York University and author of The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. “They operate in a different environment, but they want the same: to impose their will.”. A dictatorship emerging through a democratic process is therefore a cause for concern, as Sri Lanka already saw another strongman JRJ stream rolling his way through, carrying the unsigned letters of resignation in his pocket and threatening to roll back the electoral map.
Living in a dictatorship (as a wolf even in democratic sheep clothing) is much different than living in democracy. It is to live in terror, to fear saying the wrong thing to the wrong person — and to accept that terror as the normal state of affairs. Autocratic regimes do not survive on brute force, intimidation and media control alone. They also rely on grass-root support from a blinded slavish followership too, based on supremacism and majoritarian attitudes in state craft. Under Modi, the neighbouring India’s character has been transformed by a government with no regard for institutions, understandings, and conventions maintained since independence. With anti-Muslim policies initiated by a RSS inspired BJP government, India will soon cease to be the country which Mahatma Gandhi struggled to free.
For those who love Sri Lanka and its Constitution more than they love any particular political party or any particular politician, top 10 warning signs that our democracy is at risk as offered by analysts will be useful. 1. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media 2. Building an official pro- President/Government media network 3. Politicizing the civil service, military, and the domestic law enforcement agencies 4. Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents 5. Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents 6. Stacking the Supreme Court with those loyal to them 7. Enforcing the law for only one side 8. Really rigging the system 9. Fearmongering and demonising sections of people and 10. Demonizing the opposition. Do we see these signs now?
In the Post-GR election period, already there is much minority bashing going on, under the name of Sinhala supremacism. The challenge of accommodating and promoting the rights of ethnic, religious and other minorities tends to emerge under an authoritarian regime, although it may appear as a democracy. The tyranny of the majority (or tyranny of the masses) is a weakness alleged to be inherent to majority rule in which the majority of an electorate pursues exclusively its own interests at the expense of those in the minority. This results in oppression of minority groups comparable to that of a tyrant or despot, argued John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book On Liberty. It is in this context that the parliamentary representation of minorities and indigenous peoples is essential for ensuring these groups’ effective participation in public affairs. Whether minorities are actually present in legislatures, whether their voices are heard, and whether their interests are taken into account are all important indicators of minority participation in decision making on a national level. Such participation has the potential to benefit everyone in a society. It can help to strengthen democracy, greatly improve the quality of political life, facilitate societal integration and prevent conflict.
Although our constitution guarantees the rights of minorities to political participation, implementation of these mechanisms has however proved challenging. Parliamentary representation of minorities is one of the key areas where such challenges arise. Protecting minority rights and ensuring their adequate representation in national parliaments are difficult issues everywhere. Addressing these issues requires context-specific responses but policy makers can benefit from practices and experiences from around the world. One of the criteria for a democratic parliament is that it should reflect the social diversity of the population. A parliament which is unrepresentative in this sense will leave some social groups and communities feeling disadvantaged in the political process or even excluded altogether, with consequences for the quality of public life or the stability of the political system and society in general. Blindly seeking Sangha advice on all areas of governance and giving rogue elements among them a free hand to be unofficial Police, increasing the PR cut—off point from 5% to 12.5% , decision to sing national anthem only in Sinhala, proposed uni-lateral repeal of MMDA and forming a cabinet with a dominant Sinhala supremacist thinking to appeal to the gallery, are developments which can be self-defeating even to the majority Sinhalese in the long run. These areas should engage the attention of GR and his government.
Thus, firstly, addressing the concerns or opposition of the general public to substantive policies and procedural measures intended to benefit minorities thus requires concerted efforts to raise awareness about minority issues in civil society. The intensity of the call for political engagement and the fluency of expression make this an urgent need. Max Weber also famously argued that “those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes”.
Also, in the overall context, the imperative thus need arises to hold the government to account through public activism. Civil society, for its part, should always maintain its stance against any forms of authoritarian rule. Its unwavering support for the cause of democracy and independence of state institutions, particularly the judiciary, has played a pivotal role in ensuring that a semblance of democracy sustains in a country. Civil society, showing its mettle in the restoration of the judiciary, is a case in point. Ranjan Ramanayake episode has once again brought into focus the rather stained image of the Judiciary. The state, for its part, has maintained hostility against activists critical of the government and its policies. The growing tendency for politicization of state institutions and the partiality of the arms of justice including the law enforcement authorities, combined with the rise of quasi-religious monk-led forces that are fiercely hostile to democracy, has created an environment in which taking up the issue of democratic governance is becoming increasingly hazardous. Yet, even in such hostile conditions, the civil and political activists have no other option, but to continue their struggle to protect the vulnerable and marginalised against an overbearing state.
The story of Ceylon/Sri Lanka has been one of repeated assaults on freedom, equality, and solidarity by the ruling class and sections of the petty bourgeoisie. But there is a parallel story of dogged resistance to these assaults, without which the country would be a fully-fledged dictatorship by now. Many Sri Lankans are putting themselves at risk to defend democratic values, with support among those throughout the globe who care about justice for all. Thus, there is still hope of halting a downward spiral. Having said so, the oft quoted phrase “Freedom is not free” is also true. No outside force is coming to give oppressed people the freedom they so much want. People will have to learn how to take that freedom themselves. Easy it cannot be. If people can grasp what is required for their own liberation, they can chart courses of action which, through much travail, can eventually bring them their freedom. Then, with diligence they can construct a new democratic order and prepare for its defence
Multi-party representative democracy will face its litmus test in parliamentary elections shortly. As Sri Lanka is preparing for this Parliamentary elections in the not too distant future, it is important to keep in mind the need to change the present political culture. If it does not, it will remain mired in a chronic state of social backwardness, always “developing” but never developed, with more tall buildings but dysfunctional institutions and morally stunted leaders. As long as Buddhist monks and ruling politicians are treated as being above the law and impunity condoned, and as long as our Parliamentarians are not fit for purpose, the cycles of violence and backwardness will continue. Even a determined GR can work miracles, only with a changed, clean political culture and a matured electorate.