Colombo Telegraph

Reading Election Manifestos

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

Sumanasiri Liyanage

Tariq Ali, once informed us that democracy will perish even before capitalism reaches its end. Does it imply a new phase of capitalism with the absence of democracy? In a way it is not a novel phenomenon since in its short history, not going beyond 300 years, capitalism and democracy have not always co-existed. Modern democracy was invented under capitalism, but it has not been an outcome of capitalism. It has been an outcome of multiple struggles waged by different social layers of society invariably against capitalism. Sri Lanka has witnessed a strong tendency towards authoritarianism since the advent of a constitution with executive presidential system as its constitutional architecture and neoliberalism as its economic framework. While the presidential system facilitated the introduction of neoliberalism the latter in its turn reinforced the executive presidential system. This has made it easier us to imagine a life without democracy but not a life without capitalism. Nonetheless, once again, democracy has become a key issue in the forthcoming presidential election in Sri Lanka ambiguity prevails over what democracy really means notwithstanding.

The forces that have been mobilized against the incumbent president have rightly raised the issue of democracy as a central issue facing the country today. Democracy means different things for different people, for different social groups. However, almost all the oppositional forces, except Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) had come to a consensus that in order to reestablish democracy in Sri Lanka one of the crucial prerequisite is the abolition of the executive presidential system. It was explicitly states what is needed is to abolish it and replace it with a different system. There was a debate on the alternative system but the majority of the opposition wanted to go back to the Parliamentary system. Will the democratic aspirations of the people fulfil after the presidential election? Let us review the election manifestos of the candidates. At the moment, I have three manifestos with me. I will focus first on the Manifestos of Candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) and candidate Maithripala Sirisena (MS). It is not uncommon to have some degree of rhetoric in election manifesto. Figure 1 summarizes proposals in two manifestos on the issue on constitutional change. ( Click here to read MS manifesto and here to MR manifesto)

It is interesting to note there is no basic difference between two candidates as far as the constitutional change/ amendment is concerned. While MR leaves the changes for the proposed constituent assembly only submitting his ideas on certain issues, MS has given detailed list of changes he is planning to make within 100 days thus leaving present constitutional architecture intact.

Hence, my conclusion is that with regard to the issues that have been raised by various democratic fora in order to improve democratic governance in the country were either marginalized or neglected in the two manifestoes. Since its inception, especially since the late 1980s, people in this country voted for the abolition of the executive presidential system. Constitutional drafts and proposals submitted by citizens’ initiatives reflected this aspiration of the people. However, the individuals who began to taste and enjoy the power of the EP refused to change it. Ironically, Candidate MS has refused to change it after making a promise to that respect even before tasting and enjoying it. In such a situation, can we expect democratic governance after January 8?

The current democracy discourse in Sri Lanka is marred by a very narrow definition of democracy. This definition that was advanced for the specific needs of neo-liberalism following in the context of developing countries the Augmented Washington Consensus focuses principally on issues like governance, rule of law, non-interventionist state. Freedom of established media and so on. In other words, the basic objective of democracy is reduced to the operational needs of neo-liberalist phase of capitalism. It would be interesting to compare the definition of democracy adopted today with that of pre-1994 period. Before 1994 election, democracy included as an inseparable element the power-sharing arrangement although what it meant was not explicitly stated. At least it meant going beyond the 13th Amendment. It also included offering a ‘human face’ to capitalism. Above all, the abolition of the executive presidential system as an intimate element of comprehensive constitutional redesign was included as a pre-requisite of the reestablishment of democracy. This clearly shows the degradation of democratic discourse in the last 20 years. What does it imply? Jairus Banaji, an Indian Marxist, once informed us about three meanings of democracy.

1. Democracy in the sense of the formal framework of a constitutional democracy with the rights to freedom and equality, the right to life and personal liberty, to freedom of religion etc that it guarantees.

2. Democracy as a culture of resistance grounded in the constitutional rights given under my first meaning.

3. Democracy as an aspiration for control. One can see the Communist Manifesto as a generalization of democracy in this third sense (of the mass of workers aspiring to control their own lives, economically, politically and culturally) and as a culmination of democracy in both the previous senses.  Thus for communists (in Marx’s sense) the mass element in democracy is crucial, it is what defines democracy in its most complete sense and historical form.

In the last twenty years we witnessed two types of democratic struggles. Democratic struggled initiated and led by various ‘citizen’ democratic groups operated within economico-legal structure of neoliberalism with the main objective of achieving those formal democratic rights. These struggles fell under the rubric of first meaning cited above. And many of these movements are basically urban and elitist. In limited sense, some of them went beyond the first meaning falling at the boundary of the second meaning.

The second type of democratic struggles were not even depicted democratic struggles as they had questioned the basic economico-legal structure of neoliberalism. Here, I include, Tamil struggle for autonomy, the Free Trade Zone struggles against proposed pension bill to integrate EPF into accumulation process, struggles against forceful eviction of urban people, protests by rural masses on various issues related to their day to day living and the student struggles against commodification of education. In these struggles, even in limited sense, peoples’ aspiration for control was expressed. It is also interesting note that these struggles were led by subaltern layers of the Sri Lankan society.

Two main candidates have failed in their manifestos to address even key issues raised by elitist citizen groups. As indicated in the Figure 1 above, both have refused to touch the unitary character of the Constitution. While MR have said that he would suggest to the proposed constitution assembly to keep the unitary character of the state, MS have informed he would not TOUCH the unitary and non-secular nature of the present constitution. Hence ensuring majoritarian rule over numerically small nations would remain unchanged.

It was in this back drop, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has also refused to present an alternative. It has taken an opportunist position to show that it has not yet broken from its coalition politics that began in 2004. Similarly Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been silent on the principal democratic demands of autonomy. The same can be mentioned on the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). All three parties have clearly capitulated to parliamentarism claiming that only two alternatives are open. The best option opened for TNA and SLMC in my view is to field candidates on the basis of their major demands or to form a front with other subaltern forces on a minimum common program. In the absence of those three forces, the only light at the end of the tunnel is the manifesto of the Left Front that comprehensively address the issues of democracy in its all three meanings. The Left Front led by 34 year old former student leader with consistent track record, Duminda Nagamuwa, proposes a setting up of a constituent assembly comprising not just Parliamentarians but the representatives of trade unions, peasant organizations and many other peoples’ organizations. He ensures autonomy for numerically small nations and ensures what has been already provided for then will not be allowed to take back. A strong and vibrant social movement of subalterns dealing with all three meanings of democracy cited above is imperative if the Sri Lankan need democracy after January 9 whatever the outcome of the election.

*The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School. e-mail:

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