By Mohamed Harees –
‘If we believe a thing to be bad, and if we have a right to prevent it, it is our duty to try to prevent it and to damn the consequences’ – Alfred, Lord Milner (1854-1929)
To a question posed in a social media post : The cost of living in Sri Lanka is rising to extreme levels. Aren’t we going to protests? Where are the angry citizens!, the blunt response was, ‘apparently the majority of the people feels this country is doomed and there’s nothing you can do’. A sense of desperation setting into the Sri Lankan psyche! Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a tongue in cheek manner , instructed his cabinet to cut down on all state expenses including unnecessary fleets of vehicles being used by ministries as the government felt the heat over the soaring cost of basic items.
For the past decade and more, Sri Lankans have been battling with crisis after crisis as well as the divisions that have permeated lives, communities and nation, exacerbated mostly by the inappropriate and idiotic rhetoric and widely approaches of Presidents especially after end of war in 2009, who have been systematically acting contrary to the public mandate. This political polarisation, absence of rule of law as well as economic mismanagement/ corruption, are tearing at the very fabric of democracy and have even brought normally apathetic voters out of their homes, in the middle of a pandemic, to lodge their protest and frustration in various forms. Especially no Sri Lankan Presidents have so brazenly flouted the fundamental rules of democracy, attacked the institutions that govern the nation, discredited expertise and weakened the nations international standing as well as not honouring the election promises as the Rajapaksas. This is why even the very conservative and slavish 69 Lkh Sinhala Buddhist voter base, also have concluded that so-called Rajapaksa magic is a myth and the Gotabaya presidency is unsustainable.
The country’s lawmakers have been promoting indiscipline and its citizens haven’t been taught any other way of living by those who wield political power. The dilemma faced by the country is that the good people in parliament are outnumbered by the bad. Sri Lanka has been said to become an ideal oasis for power-hungry politicians to play their astute games and political trickery at the expense of often misinterpreting people’s choices and oppressing them with their high-flown imaginary visions. The power struggle of the political parties and their despicable greed had thus wrecked the hopes and aspirations of the people, especially the middle-class, the rural and urban poor.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith recently warned that Sri Lanka’s corrupt administrative system prevents citizens from finding justice and that political leaders do not want to solve the country’s issues. “During the last 70 years, a social system has been created in which the general public cannot expect justice,”. No one has been able to control the corruption. The rulers have betrayed their conscience for the sake of petty advantages. Today there is a situation where only the rich and the powerful can handle the law. The political process incentivises corruption. A weak governance regime means little accountability and few checks on government spending. In addition, limited technical capacity means policy is open to “capture” by special interests. The combination is deeply dysfunctional: a parasitic system that transfers wealth to the politically connected through corruption and rent-seeking.The problem with endemic corruption is that public officials, both bureaucrats and politicians, may redesign programmes and propose projects with few public benefits and many opportunities for private profit.
There has never been a time where corruption has stood at the centre of debate amongst the political circles for a prolonged period. Simply stated, there appears to be no option, in terms of bringing the corrupt administration to justice; instead those sharks already being indicted for corruption are being systematically acquitted by a legal system which has been losing public credibility. The numerous anti-corruption campaigns are therefore rarely meant to change the structural setting of curbing corruption, but as a ploy to deceive the wider population. It is used as a disciplinary mechanism and as tool in the struggle against rivals, to preserve power through the protectionism of corrupt individuals.With two major parties being accused of condoning corruption and have skeleton in their cupboards, a clean political force to govern appears to be a day dream for the Sri Lankans. Even the JVP which has been dynamic at exposing many corruption scandals, too have failed to take the allegations levelled by them beyond mere rhetoric. With options narrowing, the faith of the country in democratic methods of protest appears to be fast disappearing,which may prove a disaster if not remedied.
Most people don’t trust democracy to deliver today. A 27 countries Pew survey (April 2019) revealed that a majority (51%) are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. Anti-establishment leaders, parties and movements have emerged on both the right and left of the political spectrum. And most people in developing countries find authoritarian figures more trustworthy than democratically-elected politicians. Hence the success of the “China model”. Bottom line, elections don’t deliver the kind of political leaders people want. It has been convincingly argued that, yes, it’s the voters’ fault.Weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies and promotes risk aversion in government.
The Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – Middle East and North Africa (MENA) 2019 revealed that leaders in the region are perceived as acting in their own self-interest at the expense of the citizens they are meant to serve. This has serious consequences for trust in democratic institutions, with fifty-two percent of citizens saying they are not satisfied with the level of democracy in their country.When asked about their perceptions of corruption by institution, people identified members of parliament, government officials and heads of state as the most corrupt. Within countries, citizens’ experiences with and perceptions of corruption are also closely related to political distrust. Those who have had to pay bribes to the justice system, who perceive the government as corrupt, or who perceive the government as incapable of dealing with corruption are more likely to distrust politics. Sri Lanka is an ideal example of this sad state of affairs.
Democracy doesn’t appear to work. Plato thought it was a terrible system, a prelude to tyranny, giving power to selfish and dangerous demagogues. Watching what is happening in many parts of the world, it’s hard to disagree with Plato. Democracy appears to produce an abundance of incompetent and dishonest political leaders, who exploit people’s credulity and prejudices and thrive on emotion-driven discourse and fake news. Best example again is Sri Lanka. With a ‘triumvirate’ of power centres amongst the three Rajapaksa brothers virtually inviting foreign economic intervention, chronic corruption pervading all levels of government, a collapse of the law and order system and skyrocketing cost of living, Sri Lanka is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Dambisa Moyo, the well-known Zambian economist says, ‘Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ Obviously, democracy is always better than dictatorship; but with safeguards.
For decades, scholarly inquiry into political trust has been motivated by concerns about declining levels of public trust in politics. Because political trust is considered a necessary precondition for democratic rule, a decline in trust is thought to fundamentally challenge the quality of representative democracy. Fundamentally, political trust can be understood as citizens’ support for political institutions such as government and parliament in the face of uncertainty about or vulnerability to the actions of these institutions. Unfortunately, according to a broad range of studies, citizen’s trust in government has been declining over the years. Trust in most of these institutions is lower now than a decade ago. This is possibly a symptom of Sri Lankans’ low levels of satisfaction with the way things are going in the country.
Across the political continuum, there is also a lack of leadership – political, religious, or otherwise – that really speaks to the need for coexistence, tolerance, and pluralism. Present government has been speaking ultra nationalistic, majoritarian language just for petty political gains. Despite this non inclusive language boomeranging on the rulers big time and the regime losing clout even among their slavish voter base, they appear to hang on to it, like the last straw. Thus there is a wake-up call especially as the nation marks more than a decade of absence of war, winning the terror war at great cost to human life, but in the process, in reality, it has sadly missed a 12-year-long opportunity to get things right.
National leaders had for decades done little to combat illegal practices. In this scenario, what is important for the people in Sri Lanka is not to give way to allow their pent up frustrations to be expressed, through violent means; rather channeling vibrant public activism in more positive ways, is the need of the hour. Sri Lanka thankfully, has very dynamic citizen activism. The nation witnessed this in droves in 2015, during the presidential election, when people were very active and peacefully spoke their piece about how the country needed a transition, and made their voice heard in a non-conflicting manner. What was seen in 2018 during the constitutional crisis – with people stepping out in all age groups, on a daily basis, writing, protesting, and being visible – was also a very good example where there was an impact via activism, translated into positive change. While activism is needed in today’s context, there’s also so much misinformation circulating where people do not verify material and respond without checking for accuracy, which can create further panic.
Post Easter Sunday attacks! A lot has been happening, and in terms of activism, one must think of how to do it responsibly but also in a way that impacts. Unfortunately, in today’s context, the activism seen in 2018 has been sadly muted. But that is because of the prevalent fear, the complete paralysis ordinary folks are experiencing, as per political observers. Nevertheless, there is an imperative need to be continuously alert, speak out, and be able to respond, if not individually then collectively. So activism, specifically smart activism, is important; activism that doesn’t bow down to the fear-psychosis. There is also a need to stand strong in terms of accountability, because what is being seen in the last few years is that those behind ethno-religious attacks targeting minorities as well mismanaging national assets for example, were not held accountable, despite evidence being available. A lack of accountability breeds impunity.
There is no doubt that fixing democracy also means rethinking the role of the state. But to be practical: Why not start with what is easy to change, introduce a simple requirement that political candidates should be educated – any university degree will do – and have some relevant work experience, showing an ability to manage and lead? It’s the first step and it will make all the other steps easier to take. Once the pool of politicians has improved and a majority of politicians finally develop a “sense of the State” instead of pursuing their own self-interest, there will be less push-back on all the other changes required to fix democracy.