Colombo Telegraph

Two Governments In One, Several Oppositions, Switching Alliances At Will; Democracy At Its Best?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale

“The dissemination of democratic norms from the advanced countries of the West to the rest of the world has been perhaps the most significant benefit of globalization. Yet not all is well with democracy. Today’s democratic governments perform poorly, and their future remains very much in doubt. In the advanced countries, dissatisfaction with government stems from its inability to deliver effective economic policies for growth and inclusion. In the newer democracies of the developing world, failure to safeguard civil liberties and political freedom is an additional source of discontent ” –Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The rest of the democracies in the world perhaps should take a lesson from Sri Lanka. We have two governments in one, a President who is at times part of the Opposition and at times, part of the government., two leaders in government who keeps up a charade of unity but in reality have launched their own campaigns for the next Presidential election, some ministers within the dual government at each other’s throats, a splintered Opposition with the official Opposition as per the Constitution of the country disposed to “look after the interest of our people”, meaning the Tamil community of the North, and not others, a political grouping with 70 seats in Parliament functioning as the unofficial Opposition with one foot in one party and the other in another. 

Did the voters give a mandate for this circus? The Sinhala idiom “Labu gediya asse thoile” aptly describes the status quo in regard to our democracy

The only party that has some legitimacy here is the UNP as they supported the common candidate in the last Presidential election as the UNP, they contested the general election as the UNP, and they are in the government as the UNP, whereas Maithripala Sirisena was the common candidate at the Presidential election with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the official SLFP candidate. The SLFP contested against the UNP during the general election without its own chairman’s support but with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the SLFP/UPFA leader . 

Who has a mandate that has some legitimacy from a voter point of view? What was the mandate of the people, assuming it matters to our politicians? 

What is the legitimacy of the government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena? Why has someone not gone to courts to seek a ruling on mandates, as after all, the Constitution is about interpreting the people’s mandate and giving legitimacy to that mandate. 

If this mess at the top is the example set by our political leaders, surely, the people, including the next generation will follow suit. Public officials will do the minimum in order to keep their jobs as anything more than that could land them in trouble with one side or the other of the twin government (in one).There is evidence now that this indeed is the case.

Dani Rodrik’s contention “In the advanced countries, dissatisfaction with government stems from its inability to deliver effective economic policies for growth and inclusion. In the newer democracies of the developing world, failure to safeguard civil liberties and political freedom is an additional source of discontent” needs some debate.

Firstly, from a Sri Lankan context, should we regard ourselves as a newer democracy of the developing world? From a time line aspect, we are a relatively new democracy although compared to several democracies in Asia as well as Africa, and other regions, we are not entirely a newer democracy. Are we a developing country, well yes, we are, periodically. Are we happy and content with the government and their ability to deliver effective economic policies for growth and inclusion? Most people in Sri Lanka today are likely to say NO. What about civil liberties and political freedom? Some would argue that civil liberties have been impinged from time to time, although at least currently, political freedom is akin to freedom of the wild Ass judging by the nature of the status quo.

Considering all this, should there be a discussion and even a debate on the relevancy and effectiveness of democracy and the peoples mandate in and for Sri Lanka? We could remain silent and pay a greater price than what we are paying today and complain about the leaders who we deserved in the first place! 

If governance based on a mandate from the peoples forms the corner stone of democracy, then Sri Lanka has no democracy as people did not vote for a circus but for a stable, legitimate government. The UNP received the highest number of seats in Parliament at the last general election, although not a majority and the legitimate course of action President Sirisena should have taken should have been to ask the UNP leader to form a government and seek a vote of confidence in the Parliament. That is the Westminster tradition which we are supposed to be emulating.

The vociferous Civil Society groups, vociferous before the elections, who some have labelled as the Chardonnay Club, were silent when the very democracy they were trying to free from the previous government who they labelled as authoritarian and corrupt, was being usurped to serve some political end. This same Club has been silent throughout the journey of the current, some would say, illegitimate government, and their record of corruption. They were silent about the US government, and none other than the then Secretary of State John Kerry’s admission about the US $ 500 million spent in Sri Lanka to effect the regime change in 2015. They and some sections of the media have got a dose of their Chardonnay now, after 3 years, to express shock and horror about an unproven and so far unsubstantiated revelation about the Chinese government spending a mere (in comparison to the US government investment) contribution to re-elect the Rajapaksa administration. One interference has been admitted by the giver and it cannot be condoned, while the other, denied by the alleged giver, cannot be condoned if there is any truth in it.

Should there be an objective, dispassionate discussion on these issues? Surely the answer should be a YES. A discussion is needed to inform ourselves and others about what needs to be done to address how we could avoid mistakes in the future. We also need to discuss whether the mess we are in is what some unseen hand wanted in the first place. Those who succumbed to foreign pressure and money should look around the world and see the ample evidence we are witnessing today the legacy of chaos, suffering and hardships in many parts of the world where such external interference, in the name of freedom and justice, has brought upon the people of those countries.     

The failure to open our minds will give legitimacy to two things which are important to our future. 

Firstly the negatives of the Rajapaksa administration and perhaps a return to power without any admission of the negatives, and any measures to avoid a repetition of such negatives and secondly, the assumption that there is some method in the chaos we are witnessing today and that this new mandate less governance paradigm is good for the country. Contrary to the belief there is some method in madness; the country will look like a big lunatic asylum if one were to think there is some such method. 

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