Colombo Telegraph

The Grip Of Autocracy Creeps Insidiously

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Whoever wins, safeguarding democracy must remain the people’s priority; The grip of autocracy creeps insidiously

You may know the outcome when you read this, or soon will. But I am glad not to know as I write these lines as my case is that whoever wins the threat of reversal of the gains of 19A, expansion of executive powers and creeping autocracy are very real during the new president’s term of office. Democracy will be challenged at a different pace, style and timing depending on whether its Gota or Sajith; but the threat per se is real. Neither Gota nor Sajith can be relied upon to put the interests of the republic above their own ambitions. 

Autocracy creeps insidiously upon a nation intoxicated by war victory or distracted by the coronation of a new king. Both G&S will strike when the iron is hot and grab the most they can as soon as possible, but fortunately there are constitutional and inner-party constraints. Prepare for a mix of hot-iron and cold calculated encroachments. The latter is a slow enhancement of presidential power weakening the checks-and-balances (division of powers between the three branches of government). It progresses by an erosion of the independence the institutions of state and government. Gota’s style and time table differ from Sajith’s because of differences in personality and of the aspirations of the forces driving him. Also, the internal constraints and dynamics are markedly different; Mahinda-SLPP-nativist monks, in contrast to Ranil-UNP-big business. International actors, that is the IMF, China and the US will be happy to play along with either.

A relatively unknown New Zealand film-maker called Taika Waititi, who I had never heard of before, made Jojo Rabbit poking fun at Hitler but actually aimed at Trump. The film was a rave and won awards. Waititi spoke of Hitler’s initial moves as small changes, seeping in day by day. “Little by little, every single day of every week, there was just one small change, one thing that made people go, ‘Oh, that’s wrong.’ But it wasn’t big enough to get them up in arms. It wasn’t big enough until it became too late. I feel the same thing is happening today. Little things, but the more you ignore, the more you say: ‘We’re at the height of human civilisation and advancement, that can never happen again’ which is exactly what they said in 1933: ‘Nothing can be as bad as the first World War’ – that ignorance and that arrogance allows us to forget, that is the big human flaw.”

This is my fear after 16 November, the masses will be lulled into euphoria: “Gota Rajha!” or “Sajithta jayawewa!” But slowly, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes by crude jumps as in the Mahinda era, the cancer will metastasize till it’s too late. It’s our own “ignorance and arrogance” that allows us to deceive ourselves. But by no means is it inevitable and my intention in this essay is to draw up a list that will help us defend ourselves against adversity. I have benefitted from European and South American experiences and learnt big ‘don’t do’ lessons in Hong Kong.

The killer mistake is to indulge in nihilistic violence, assault and murder those who disagree, mug the old, and the futility of trashing public property – ATM machines, railway stations, shopping malls. Hong Kong’s protests have degenerated into mob rule. Students and “Democratic” politicians are trapped having gone so far that they have no way back to sanity. Once the moral high ground is lost there will be no public support for protesters when the state strikes back. Lanka avoid this!

In the next period Lanka’s first task is to safeguard the separation of powers; the executive must not be allowed to intrude into the domains of the legislative or judicial. Vigilance has to be exercised when parliamentarians are purchased with gold or a Ministry (more valuable than the glittering stuff these days). I was not born yesterday; I know why MPs seek to be elected. But public scorn and exposure will constrain the usefulness to a would-be autocrat of hire-purchase MPs. The MP-for-sale market has dried up in Europe and is facing foreclosure in South America.   

The attempt to bring the legislature and the judiciary “into alignment” with the executive takes both crass and insidious forms. Buying MPs with cash and cabinet is blatant, but in the case of the judiciary it has to take another form. The usual trick is “reorganisation” or restructuring of the justice system and ministry. JR corrupted the Supreme Court in the guise of reorganisation, Srima debased it in the name of a Criminal Justice Commission to mis-try the JVP, Mahinda was, as in all things, crass and crude in the way he rid the bench of the lady Chief Justice. 

But it is the more insidious version that comes in the name of reorganisation that is more dangerous. There are numerous defects in our justice system, most horrendous, interminable delays in dispensing justice and the exploitation of this for flagrant fleecing of litigants by unscrupulous crows (mostly in the lower courts). Against this background a “reorganisation” of the system can be carried through with enthusiastic public support. A would-be autocrat can carry through needed reforms and within the same package bring the judiciary to the heel of the executive. Hungary’s Viktor Oban was brilliant in his mendacity in carrying through a “reform the administration of the courts” which inter alia brought the third leg of the division of powers “into alignment” with the executive. 

There are four other ways in which a would-be autocrat will attempt to advance his cause: nativist-nationalism, economic populism, appearing to fight corruption, and regulating opinion or to put it in other words, intimidating or acquiring media outlets. Heaven knows whether I have enough words left in this essay to do justice to all four but when everything else in today’s paper is likely to be the same story maybe my editor will be kind-hearted to a piece with a different flavour.

Nativism-nationalism-communalism goes by different names (across Europe fear of black or Muslim immigrants and refugees, Hungary’s curiously named “civilisation of Christian Democracy”, Hindutva in India and a sectarian tapestry in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), but everywhere the best friend of a would-be autocrat is a myth calling for a Native Saviour. Lanka’s domestic scene is readymade for a nativist leader promoting a national security state. To defeat the build up of autocracy we must emphatically push back against the concept of a national security state which is a cloak for promoting an authoritarian state. Those who refuse to concede this now, never will, so it’s not much point wasting breath on this well flogged topic. In moving on I emphasise this has to be resisted not only for itself – tolerance between communities – but also to throw back the thrust to autocracy. 

Populism as a tool in the hands of a putative authoritarian is a challenging concern. We are at a stage in history, most of the world not just Lanka, where we are paradoxically saturated with formal democracy and angered by escalating and uncontrollable income and wealth inequality. The gap is widening and there is no way to reverse it in the age of global hegemony of finance capital. The disruptions and conflicts we see in many parts of the world constitute a clash between substantial democracy which has already been won and economic justice not won – unjust capitalism, inadequate bourgeois equity, absent social-democracy. This again is ready made for the populist-autocrat. 

A would-be autocrat in Sri Lanka will have no choice but to be a populist in economic policy; he will have to give lollies with one hand to take control with the other. Interwar style fascism is not possible. Peronism, but not based on the working class but whipping up nativism will be the way here. But why go so far, we had Mahinda Rajapaksa’s near absolute power stabilised by populist concessions to the mass of the people thanks to burgeoning debt and profligate China financed projects a part of which funds seeped down. My measure is that in a reversal of historical precedent this time round, it will be the UNP’s Sajith rather than the SLFP-descendent Gota who is more likely to play populist. Gota has painted a disciplinarian and no-nonsense image of himself; it will not sit well with his backers and bankers if he turns to runaway populism. Sajith’s manifesto has a distinctly populist flavour. My case is don’t trust either, keep guard against a drift to authoritarianism lubricated by populist concessions to the masses. This is not easy. 

Fighting corruption is another fiddly tool that would-be autocrats exploit. It is a popular slogan and failure to follow up promises of punishing the corrupt of the Mahinda era was the downfall of yahapalana. Without appearing to act on corruption no wanna-be authoritarian can progress. Sajith begins with a head start. He will exploit the bond-scam as a reason to see off Ranil from the Prime Ministership and he will eliminate shady characters like Ravi who in any case were opposed to his nomination and between whom and his manager Mangala there is open hostility. He has got a few Mr Cleans of the UNP leadership (Eran and Harsha) on his side as well. He may have offered something in exchange for splitting the ULF, but I hope no one in that faction will take the bait and go the way of the Kanatte bound trio Vasu, Tissa and Dew; they may even beat me to it!

It’s hard for Gota to play ball with the corrupt because the disciplinarian image he has projected. Nevertheless, what about his Prime Minister in waiting, what about mister ten percent, what about a load of vultures like Wimal salivating in the wings? He does not have the power to bypass them, so he will find it tougher than Sajith to play anti-corruption hero in reality. Autocrats throw one set of crooks behind bars to nurture another – as when Putin chose to shut his eyes to the robbery of the new oligarchs. An autocrat needs a financial base for political purposes, even if he does not enrich himself personally, again like Putin.

Taming the last bit of the media that remains untamed is not difficult since neither candidate needs to be much concerned about English and Tamil outlets. I will pass over this topic today for reasons of space. My task has been to forewarn of the need to remain alert to the danger of insidious creep of authoritarian and to short-list vulnerabilities against which we must prepare defences.

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