15 June, 2024


To Defend Democracy, A Broad Conversation Among All Democrats Needed

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

Prof. Jayadeve Uyangoda

In democracies, elections usually are significant political turning points. In democratic theory, an election marks two key opportunities to the people as well as the rulers. For the people, it marks the periodic occasion to elect their rulers and grant them authority to rule over them for a specific period of time, usually for five years.

For the rulers, incumbent or aspiring, an election provides legitimacy to rule. Legitimacy entails both legality and popular support. Legitimacy secured at a free and fair election is an essential precondition for democratic government. The absence of legitimacy secured through elections usually erodes the authority of the rulers and eventually the state.

Sri Lanka’s citizens are awaiting two crucial elections in the year 2019, one presidential and the other parliamentary. Of the two, the presidential election is destined to be most crucial for the democratic future of Sri Lanka. It has the potential to determine the country’s future political directions, nature of the Sri Lankan state as well as the state-society relations.

Impending Clash

This political significance to the forthcoming presidential election emanates from one single factor. It is the slow building up of a head-on clash between two political projects, parliamentary democracy and autocratic authoritarianism.

Versions of both democracy and authoritarianism have been present in Sri Lankan politics in weak forms for decades. Similarly, political power has been competitively shared by weak democratic and ‘soft’ authoritarian forces through electoral competition, coalition formation, and alliances with various social and ideological blocks. Moreover, governments themselves –whether led by the SLFP or the UNP– have been varied mixtures of weak democracy and soft-authoritarianism.

The story of Sri Lankan democracy’s survival, resilience, and continuity is also interspersed with aborted attempts to enthrone populist and hard authoritarian regimes under the so-called strong rulers. The Rajapaksa administration after 2009 was the last such regime. The constitutional coup of October 26, 2019 was the most recent attempt by a hard authoritarian alliance first to capture the Constitution and then the State.

Sri Lanka’s uneasy and tension-ridden co-existence between weak democracy and soft authoritarianism seems to be now facing a moment of transition.  It is not because the democracy project has acquired new strength and vitality, but because the authoritarian project has entered a phase of a harder version of it under the leadership of a former military office who has also served as the Country’s defence secretary during the last phase of the civil war.

The hard authoritarian project is being backed by a new coalition of political, social and economic forces that see democracy, freedom and human rights as outdated and irrelevant political liabilities that need to be abandoned, and abandoned forthwith. This coalition is preparing for the Presidential election to seek a popular mandate for their immediate goal of capturing political power through democratic means.

The media speculation that Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) is likely to field Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its presidential candidate has provided a new impetus to the clash between democracy and authoritarianism in Sri Lanka’s current politics. If the SLPP, currently led by two Rajapaksa brothers — Mahinda and Basil — endorses Gotabaya as its candidate, the presidential election campaign will certainly be one marked by a clear polarization among political forces.

Gotabaya’s Ideology

There are two significant features of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s new political ideology, which he propagates with a great deal of conviction through spoken and written word.

The first is claim that the country needs a strong ruler and an equally strong government to ensure political and economic stability and development in place of weak and vacillating ‘liberal’ leaders and governments. This indeed has been a subterfuge resorted to by most autocratic rulers and dictators to capture state power.

The second is the assertion that Sri Lanka does not need democracy, individual freedom, or human rights. Gotabaya Rajapaksa preaches that liberalism which sustains these normative fundamentals have become anachronistic to today’s world and unsuitable to Sri Lankan people.

The world has seen this twin argument advanced in in many Latin American, African and Asia countries since the late 1950s onwards. It was an argument that had an appeal at that time among sections of the military, bureaucratic and business elites of many developing countries. In Asia, several countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and later Bangladesh followed this path. More recently, business and political elites in the Maldives returned to this option after a brief democratic interlude. However, with disastrous consequences of theses developmental hard authoritarian experiments, and their excessive political and social costs, its lure disappeared. Except in Singapore, all authoritarian regimes have been replaced by democratic regimes. Only in Thailand, the military has returned to power, after popular protests against a corrupt democratic regime.

Weak Democracies still Better

Thus, compared with hard authoritarian ‘strong’ governments and ‘strong’ rulers, weak democratic regimes are more the rule than the exception Asia and elsewhere. Weak democratic regimes are weak due to a variety of reasons. The ideological commitment to thin versions of political liberalism, enmeshing of electoral politics with corruption, promotion of ethno-nationalist sectarian politics, weak commitment to human rights and freedoms, and the neglect of social and other inequalities are key among such reasons.

Why do people seem to prefer weak democracies to strong autocracies? The secret of the answer lies in the inherent and unique quality of democracy. Democracy is not only a form of government; rather it is also a form of human civilization, perhaps the only form that values and celebrates human freedom, equality, diversity, and dignity.  As a political doctrine, it is the only one that promises, and often succeeds, though not always perfectly, in that promise that all citizens are equal and entitled to equality, without any form of discrimination based on gender, class, ethnicity, religious belief or disability.  In contexts where these rights and equalities are denied, government’s committed to norms, values and promises of democracy allow citizens to dissent, protest, demand, and mobilize themselves to secure them, without facing state violence.

As a form of government, it is the only one that offers a paradigm of empowered and equal citizenship in which the citizens as voters have an inalienable right to elect their rulers, authorizes them to rule, freely criticize the rulers when they go wrong, replace them when they continue to go wrong, and thereafter continue to live in freedom without facing the risk of being arbitrarily arrested, tortured or disappeared in vans, white or black.

That is why imperfect democracies are still worth protecting against their illiberal, undemocratic alternatives.

Popular Imagination

The voters and the democratic forces of the Maldives, our small neighbor, are the latest to show the world that democracy is a political goal worth fighting for, without letting a powerful coalition of autocratic business, political and bureaucratic elites to capture their political imagination.

In the run up to the coming presidential election, the battle lines are already drawn. The encounter is most likely to be in the form of a clash between democracy and autocracy to capture the political imagination of the masses. It has already taken a clear ideological turn, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa spelling out his authoritarian project as an anti-liberal democratic crusade.

This is why Sri Lanka’s democratic forces, organized in and outside political parties, cannot take the next presidential election for granted. It is a crucial political moment that will decide the democratic political fate of its citizens. Despite their individual party or organizational agendas, they all will have to work together to prevent the political imagination of the masses to be captured by the new coalition of hard-authoritarian, autocratic forces.  Thus, the election campaign will be a huge ideological battle as well.

Thus, Sri Lanka’s weak democrats too have to become hard democrats to face the onslaught by hard authoritarians.

Only a broad coalition of all democrats, hard or weak, can prevent the hard autocrats from capturing the popular political imagination, and then the State sometime during this year.


The exact nature and dynamics of such a broad democratic coalition is not yet clear. Only a sustained conversation will help us to have any clarity about them.  In other words, it has to begin as a coalition of ideas among democrats, given the fragmented nature of Sri Lanka’s political society.

At present, one can develop only some preliminary suggestions merely to generate thinking and reflection.

For example, this broad coalition may ideally be a lose alliance that promotes a conversation with the democratic elements within all political parties, blocs and movements– the UNP and UNF, the SLFP and the UPFA, SLPP, JVP, TNA and other Tami parties, SLMC and other Muslim parties, the Left parties and groups, civil society movements and groups, and individual citizens.

The main task ahead for these democratic elements in conversation may well be to launch, individually or in blocs, an ideological and programmatic struggle for protecting democracy against emerging hard authoritarianism.

If they are parties, they will advance democratic reform agendas that are designed to re-strengthen the legitimacy of democracy and in turn sustain, not undermine, the democracy discourse in the country. This they can do while pursuing their own agendas at the presidential and parliamentary elections. If they are civil society groups and individual activists, they can work with all or any organization involved in the struggle to prevent the surge of hard authoritarianism.

Reinventing and re-launching the democracy conservation across party and group loyalties is the need of the hour. Once the conversation gets stabilized and sustained, its political outcomes may also appear in the horizon, sooner than later.

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Latest comments

  • 12

    for democrats to defeat authoritarian rulers they also need a strong leader not puny ones like ranil

    • 2

      At this moment of writing there are six thumb ups and one down which clearly demonstrates that the concept of a “strong leader” is very much favoured at the present political juncture.


    • 3

      Do we have rulers in democracies? About elections, in the very first paragraph, the author says:

      “For the people, it marks the periodic occasion to elect their rulers and grant them authority to rule over them for a specific period of time, usually for five years. For the rulers, incumbent or aspiring, an election provides legitimacy to rule.”

      Is this the kind of democracy that people are supposed to defend? Is this the kind of democracy that we teach?

      • 2

        “Gotabaya’s Ideology”

        Who cares about his ideology? ………… He is a serial killer.

        His “ideology” is a moot point ………… the question is, do you want a serial killer as the head of state?

        Anyone care to answer? ……….. or do everyone want to skirt around the issue ………. the usual customary Lankan way?

        Let’s get the simple things sorted out first!

        Is there still a brave Lankan left to answer?

        • 2

          Dear nimal,
          I find that I’m spending much too long at the computer; I don’t think that our physiology can stand all that.
          Anyway, to answer your question briefly: no, I most certainly don’t want a serial killer as Head of State. I think that I have seen sufficient evidence, in terms of writing on the Internet mostly, to suggest that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a serial killer.
          Therefore, I most definitely don’t want to see him in any position of responsibility, least of all as Executive President.

          • 2

            If a ‘serial’ killer implies one after another how about the ‘pararllel’ killers ( 60,000+ in a short span) like Ranil W of Batalanda fame?


            • 1

              Yaaaaaaawn, Soma.
              You’re wasting our time.
              Thanks, however for that compliment you paid me, when agreeing with some guy that I am a decent fellow. However, you attribute it to the wrong reasons, viz. that I am a Sinhalese Man.
              I hope that I reach acceptable levels of decency, but such things do not depend on the language one speaks.

            • 2


              “If a ‘serial’ killer implies one after another how about the ‘pararllel’ killers ( 60,000+ in a short span) like Ranil W of Batalanda fame?”

              Of course count many single handed generals, admirals, brigadiers, colonels, majors, captains, in, such as the ones who brag/gloat about their own contribution to the war victory, Gota, Kamal, Shavendra, Jagath, Daya, Chandrasiri, Wasantha, Jegath Dias, …………… and others who profited from unrelenting war from 1971 to 2015, and those people like you who profited from intermittent riots, ……… and those political analysts and war crime denying war mongers.

      • 1

        ” Do we have rulers in democracies? ”

        Otherwise why would you call an Angoda Runaway, Appaya Judas, O/L Not completed, Gamarala as the “His Excellence”? What kind of excellence you see in a Sinhala Buddhist Modaya Crooks? Is he very good in falling on the feet of the Ayatollahs or fall of the root trunk of the Boo tree or praying the Wijeya’s tooth box?

  • 2

    You guys entrapped the country in a huge mess in 2015. The public should be stupid beyond imagination to fall into your trap once again. Curse you guys.

  • 2

    Let the broad coalition be a loose alliance, but it should promote good governance and rule of law.
    The mission need not merely to prevent Gotabaya Rajapakse becoming President.

    On the other hand let it be a positive outcome so as to promote democracy, good governance and rule of law.

    The objective shall extend to punish the corrupt past, present and the future and recover the loot.
    The grand coalition may formulate common programme to be implemented within a reasonable period.

    The programme should not present to promote “ prevent Rajapakse” at any cost as a single issue

  • 0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

  • 4

    This shoddy, threadbare “weak democracy” vs “autocratic/hard authoritarianism” narrative evades fundamental questions that any serious political scientist and analyst should confront, prior to preachy, pious oversimplification:

    1. How to explain the RUPTURE in the democratic convergence? Why did that rupture repeat an earlier rupture in the COHABITATION model (2003/4)? Don’t the two essentially similar outcomes show that it is not a question of “weak democracy vs “authoritarianism” –unless one improbably defines President CBK as “hard authoritarian”, because it was she who ended the first cohabitation?

    2. Aren’t the two ruptures a repetition of a still earlier rupture: the Impeachment struggle of 1991? Isn’t there a continuity? Aren’t these three ruptures on a continuum?

    3. Isn’t it therefore a struggle between two DEMOCRATIC models: liberal democratic parliamentary vs. French Republican Presidentialism, which in turn reflects the struggle in political philosophy WITHIN DEMOCRACY, between British liberal individualism and (Rousseau-esque) POPULAR WILL institutionalized in a (neo-Gaullist) Presidency?

    4. To put it differently, isn’t it a caricature to describe it EXCLUSIVELY or PRIMARILY as a choice between “weak democracy” and “hard authoritarianism”, instead of between (neo) liberal democratic individualism and populist-sovereignist-Statism?

    5. Isn’t it dishonest to suppress the fact that in the populist-nationalist discourse the world over, liberal democracy is perceived as “weak” only when it is identified as NEO-liberal democracy which is weak IN RELATION TO defending national interests, the sovereign State and the welfare of the majority of citizens?

  • 1

    There is some mileage in what the old Doc is articulating. But these are mingling of words, phrases or twisting the actual message. The reader is left wandering whether the learned Doc cum diplomat is suggesting that Gota is the better of the two evils.
    I believe Professor Uyangoda effort in articulating the possible scenarios in the event Gota is fielded by one supporter while the other could be neo liberal in the form of X. supported by the so called “Democrats. The big question , for all of the civil society is that ,Can we trust this X or for that matter X and Y as the case may be . We all know what happened in January 2015 and the rest as we all know is history

    In my view that unfortunately the man or women with enough mussle in terms of money and power would prevail. Especially if they play the all mighty and well rehearsed Race Card-The Ethnic divide politics
    Its a shame on the intelligence on the grater populace

  • 0

    Prof. Jayadeve Uyangoda,

    You are mixing up Liberality of Honor, with Liberality or Libtardism which means democracy for only minorities (race, religion, sexual-orientation), freedom to encourage all kinds of unfettered carnal desires, and human rights that only take care of terrorist complaints.

    As a result, Sri Lanka is fast losing her ancient sovereignty to India, and Wilpattu is being decimated. Males are dressings as females, and the time-honored human family is fast losing its significance. Human rights are only being used to bring about the downfall of potential presidential candidates.

    As a result of this psychological and physiological debauchery, Gotabaya is the most honorable person to take over as president.

  • 1

    Aiyo Professor, it is nauseating to hear a repeat of this again after 4 years. To be reminded of how you guys defended Ranil at Bond scam no confidence makes one feel vomitish. The only successful strategy that might work again is the propaganda that Rajapaksas will kill all the minorities and destoy their Kovils, Churches and Mosques . The other day Navin Dissanayake openly said 40% of Sinhala votes is enough for them. Muslim leaders are idiots to swallow this UNP rope.


  • 2

    If we want to develop as a country, we need a strong professional manager to be the President. The new incoming President should be able to create an established political, social and economic environment. Otherwise, we can talk and write about democracy and nothing will happen. The person should be a results oriented man. Not a professional Sri Lankan politician who will talk but no work like the current one. The current one does not know what is happening in the country even today or tomorrow or in the future. We do not need that kind of person. It is time that this current Kalakannis should be retired. Their entire families are living and dependent on public funds.

    The subtle message of this article is that there should be a political discussion and dialogue to create or elect a democratic President similar to what you people have done in 2015. Now after about four years, do we have a democracy ? Does the 19-amendment enhanced democracy? My answer is no. That amendment created for the advantage of Ranil and his UNF group. The Parliament cannot be dissolved for 4 and half years. Is that the democracy you want? Countries like in Australia and New Zealand, there are elections in every 3 years. The people want elections, whether it could be provincial, Parliamentary or Presidential. They want an election now. The ordinary people are disgusted about the current government but they cannot get rid of this useless government because of the 19th amendment.

    I had some respect for you as an intelligent academic and 1971 JVP man who comes from a rural southern province. But I do not have any kind of respect for you or what you write now. You cannot fathom what ordinary people of Sri Lanka want and think.

    The burning issue of people of Sri Lanka today is how to manage their day, today life. We need a professional manager to do that task.

  • 0

    Surely such a sweeping conclusion regarding the upcoming election (weak democracy vs hard authoritarianism) is utterly unwarranted until the sides chose their candidates?
    What if both sides choose authoritarians, even nationalist-statist authoritarians?
    What if neither side chooses an authoritarian of any kind?
    What if the establishment picks a nationalist authoritarian while the opponent picks a non-authoritarian populist democrat or nationalist democrat?
    What prevents the clash from being between neo-nationalism and neoliberalism? Or populism vs. neoliberalism? Or between two populisms? Or between two nationalisms? Or between Statist nationalism and populist nationalism?

    Basically, what an illogical, dumb conclusion!

  • 0

    The writer want to teach of “Democracy” by that his political saga to be covered up Neo-liberalism political-economy-social system has been an introduce by 1977, UNP-led JRJ ruling regime .
    We are continuation of last 40 odd years that same system in operation of that Neo-liberalism since 2015 January 8th by MS, CBK and RW of Old and New UNP’s.
    In fact Lankan State and Government both are under that strict supervision of Neo-Liberal Order in locally and Globally currently command by USA, UK, EU and Indian hegemonies.

    Therefor that truth behind ongoing name of “good governance” and “rule of Law” being Island politics of UNP headed by RW last 4 years and 2 months has undermined system of that by passing democracy fundamentals that Right to vote of citizens has been suppressed by click of RW CBK and MS.
    This is a tragedy of Democracy of Sri lanka

    The ours Nation’s Wealth and Assets has being looted by for a example CB Bond scam by UNP leadership of headed by RW. The national currency of Rupee been devalued by 30% to 35% last 4 years that between 2015 Jan to 2019 march 31. The an Economy and its development island an uncertainties by that the political vandalism has created chaos,while that whole order has been pralaysis by UNP -RW, CBK of Federalism of SLFP and MS by name of “Democracy”. !!!

    Indeed Colonization has began in New form and Old mode of micro and mega economy operation has gone too far that economy is in ruin nation status by that People on heverly debt that come to 85% of Nation GDP current rule of regime by the cilque of RW of unp ,CBK and MS of Neoliberal political class .
    In fact the current UNP regime in power of misdeeds of governance has de factor which that destroy very foundation of pillars of Democracy structure by short period of post independence of Lanka?

  • 0

    How fast Jayadeva Uyangoda became Neo-Liberal. This is simply poverty becoming jealous with the rich and not the capitalist.

  • 0

    The writer has that very narrow set of mind of outlook that ,we are as nation looking for sustsnsbility of all round development and Democracy in 21st century in Island of SL. While that globally power balance of every area has shifted to emerging countries and the nations, while playing vital role of Global Economy and politics in now step by step moving towards New World Order. In fact this in coming Order of World never-ever permitted for “dictatorship of authoritarian” regime for small and medium countries Lankan by UNO….or by UNHRC?
    Be carefully research that end of current global order headed by USA UK and France. Meanwhile the Britton wood accord was the very foundation in 1945 laid by Old world led by USA and UK.
    That Old order remain in rapid decaling ,but her power spread Globally weaken an even after 1990 New Globalization by Neoliberal economy that Global Value Chain(GVC) initial by USA. in chose.
    Subsequently the Old order upside down by China of PRC model and path of development has become Second largest that World GDP within last 40 years .
    There is no room for that small country like Sri Lankan to become by any person even that Gotabya Rajapaka will elected to power by people mandate. This is political illusion been created by Western think tank that like write version of politically manipulated by womb of by West…born .”Democracy “!@
    No individual has power to do so, because that People-Power has rise over the world that political individuals or family nepotism in an island no space in an Island.
    Let us Look at vast number of that billions of people rose against individual or click of many nation that against that political power been by dozens of countries, not in that Western Nations, but in Asia, African and Latin American countries .We are in better environment of politically by Globally.

  • 0

    Please tell us Jayadeva Uyangoda as to what type of democracy we wish to defend.
    The Lankan Elites-type we have now?
    With a segregated Uniformed Services?
    Segregated businesses, education, state ventures etc. you name it.
    Where the ‘Culture’ of corruption/nepotism/impunity is the norm?
    Are our leaders ‘democrats’ if election issue is the language/religion-divide?

  • 0

    The Right to vote and Universal franchise we have been won during White Ruling class of that British Empire who an OPPRESSED that our Nation over 130 years .That was 1931..
    Which was basic of Democracy of Island hijack by UNP of RW CBK and MS since last 4 years and 3 months by misdeed of “good governance” & “rule of law ” led by UNP RW of ruling political class of Neoliberalism .
    There is democracy in any version in west that could not supressed right to vote by that teaching we do not want an island . This mode of teaching is a political Terrorisms are of advocated by ex-terrorist in our soil ? Democracy and Terrorism of anarchism are dramatically an opposites of type of political phomennon of governances. Current regime has postpone of Provincial Council an indefinitely Is that democracy teach by Lankan teaches

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