26 September, 2022


Smart Activism Needed To Fix This Failing Democracy & Corrupt Political Culture!

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman 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.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    “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,”

    Smart activism of 2015 failed to get the correct people to make changes to the political culture because people have no options other than to go for the same old criminals who cheated repeatedly for many years. Again they made the same mistakes going back to the same old politicians. The problem is that people are confused and they think there is no alternative. So, it is difficult and challenging to find the alternative but it is not impossible if Bandara, Subramanium, Ahamhed and John have a common thinking and respect of each others concerns.

    • 1

      The Rajapaksas can’t be blamed for everything. Yes, that’s an odd statement from me, I know. In this Rajapaksa-bashing climate (they do deserve it), there are a few things that people should get into their heads:
      1. Prices always go up. They have ALWAYS risen, except for some items like computers and electronics. Fuel prices are notoriously variable. Perhaps the government should fix a ridiculously high floor price, say 225 for petrol. That is in fact the price in India, but their bus and taxi fares are the same as ours. So, even our bus owners can do the same. Fuel prices can vary according to a formula, but should not be allowed to fall below the floor price.
      2. There is no free lunch. People must be made to understand that services cost money. Why not charge a minimal amount, say 100 rupees for every hospital visit? 500 rupees for a specialist, and ban private practice outright. Their salaries can be enhanced by the contributions.

      • 1

        (cont’d) If most parents are willing to pay tuition masters handsomely, why not charge them for school education? That will improve the teachers’ wages. Again, private tuition factories should be banned.
        3. Productive employment should be encouraged. The three- wheeler culture must go. The state can restrict credit to make it difficult to buy three- wheelers, and impose minimum age limits too.
        4. Many people live far beyond their means due to easy credit.Much money is wasted on huge TV’s, fancy cars, marble bathrooms, etc. This may be good for importers, but drains the economy. Credit tightening is indicated. We pride ourselves on being a “middle income ” country, but the first real crisis that comes along bankrupts us! Neighbours with lower indexes not only survive but lend us money! Is this something to be proud of? Really?
        5. The state must cut its bloated employee cadre, and that includes the military. Which government will have the courage to do all this?
        Or will we have to appoint foreign management? The IMF?
        Finally, we can’t afford the adversarial one-upmanship in politics that has brought us to this pass. For example, if the opposition was in power, it would have sold Kerawalapitiya in a second, but it objects sanctimoniously to the government doing it!

        • 0

          oc, it is 10.25 am. There are six comments. The first by Ajith has something to say. Being the first comment, four have liked it.
          You have made two comments with substance in them, but they’re a bit long. Result nobody has liked them yet, and I’m desisting since I want to make the point that it is not only the famous 6.9 million who are averse to thinking.
          I made a brief comment a few hours ago, but without having anything intelligent to say. Two have liked it. Two each have also liked the brief decent comments by Buddhist1 and davidthegood. The point I’m trying to make is that we may have to read fewer articles and comments, and THINK rather more.
          This comment is also getting too long, and may not be much liked.
          Never mind the liking; to me it indicates that there isn’t enough thinking. About the comments? Never mind! At least the article must be properly read.

  • 2

    It’s time young educated people get involved actively in visiting every single home in the country, including homes in villages, and explain to the voters the dangers of selecting wrong individuals as elected politicians. Until and unless this is actively carried out we will end up with another bunch of crooks to rule us again.

  • 2

    Thanks, Lukman Harees, for the careful analysis, and for making “practical suggestions”.
    Ajith and Buddhist1; it is a blessing to have responsible people like you around.

  • 2

    LH, You said it. The politics of despicable greed. It has no end till hands be emptied in their coffins. If at death the hands are emptied, why not do it now by the Diyawanna oya to save the non luan craving of our nation.

  • 0

    What we need is a new constitution that protects the citizens of all races and religion without discrimination.
    We don’t want the CURRENT corrupt Parliamentarians to decide on the new Constitution. The draft of new Constitution should be decided by the entire SL citizens.
    The New constitution should bar uneducated crooked criminals to enter the parliament. If we allow citizens with good educational backgrounds and free of any allegations be allowed to contest Parliamentary election.
    The Provincial COUNNCILS aren’t needed if all the provinces are treated equally. Judiciary should be above any political interference. Security Forces of THE Government should not be controlled by crooked politicians

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