S W R de A Samarasinghe, in Island, 1 October 2019, where the title reads ” Democracy at the Crossroads”
There is little to choose between the two principal presidential candidates Sajith Premadasa (UNF) and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (SLPP) when it comes to election rhetoric. Both talk a lot about national unity, security, national sovereignty, economic prosperity, and social equity. These are very reasonable and highly desirable goals that nobody will challenge.
But there is one key issue on which the two sides appear to differ. Rajapaksa and his supporters stress the importance of a ‘strong’ government. They do not clearly define the term. However, the 2006-2014 record of the Rajapaksa administration where the rule of law was disregarded with impunity and white vans were used to intimidate opponents, suggests that the term ‘strong’ was not exactly benign in that era.
The SLPP sees a tradeoff between freedom on the one hand and a stable and economically more successful administration on the other. There is evidence from Southeast Asian and East Asian countries such as China and South Korea that such a trade off can exist in some countries though not in all and only under some conditions such as a strong commitment from the state to pursue policies that promote growth.
Premadasa and his supporters stress that whatever the other failures of Yaha Paalanaya may be, the UNF administration protected the democratic right of free speech and enhanced freedom by passing legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act. The price that society has to pay for such freedom may be some loss of economic efficiency. For example, trades unions are free to strike for higher wages causing economic disruption.
This is an important difference that needs to be discussed in greater depth in the coming election campaign because the outcome of the November election may well decide the direction in which Sri Lanka would move in governance – a polity with more freedom or less freedom – in the coming few decades.
Free and fair elections under universal franchise held periodically to elect rulers is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to have a democratic polity. There are other elements – rule of law, freedom of speech and so on – that are also necessary for meaningful democratic governance. Sri Lanka has had such a democracy, albeit with very many deficiencies, since 1931. In the past 88 years we have had 17 general elections to choose the legislature. In ten of them, the party in power lost the election. After 1948, the party in office has lasted, on average, only about five to ten years.
The executive presidency was installed in 1978. Between that year and 2015 we have had seven elections for the presidency, with each term lasting an average of about 5 years. In two elections, 1995 and 2015, the candidate of the incumbent party was defeated. Discounting the 2015 change, the UNP had held the presidency for 17 years and the SLFP for twenty.
Sri Lanka’s elections are far from perfect. Election funding is not transparent and nobody is held accountable for money collected and spent. Polling probably has never been squeaky clean in Sri Lanka. However, with the exception of the November 2005 presidential election, it is reasonable to say that the final result has reflected the will of the people. In the 2005 presidential election the LTTE enforced a boycott of the vote in the areas that it controlled, mainly in the Jaffna district and the Vanni. The evidence clearly shows that the boycott benefitted Rajapaksa. In the Jaffna District (registered voters 702,000) the valid poll was a mere 1.1% (7,900) and in the Vanni (registered voters 250,000), the valid poll was 34% (85,000). The statistical evidence suggests that, If not for the boycott, Ranil Wickremesinghe who had the prospect of winning about 80% of the vote in Jaffna and Vanni would have won the presidency by about 40,000 to 50,000 votes.
While Sri Lankan politicians stand accused and even condemned for abuse of power, they have always accepted the verdict of the people and left office when defeated in an election. In recent elections this was true of Ranil Wickremesinghe in the parliamentary elections of 1994 and Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election of 2015. Even if the politicians may have toyed with the idea of defying the verdict of the people, the Sri Lankan armed forces have not been involved in trying to defy the will of the people. The only exception was the abortive military coup of 1962. In short Sri Lanka has, in a fundamental sense, a deep-rooted democratic political culture.
In recent years some have begun to question the value of that political culture and system of governance. To paraphrase, the argument goes as follows. Democracy is chaotic, disorderly and creates an unstable political environment, harmful to economic growth. Sri Lanka would do better under a “strong” government. The critics are half correct in the sense that the system is quite chaotic. That is true today even in many of the more mature western democracies including USA and the UK.
A strong government that respects democracy is highly desirable. But “strong” government becomes problematic when it is an euphemism for a more authoritarian form of government. This is also not limited to Sri Lanka. Recent public opinion polls conducted in a large sample of democracies including those in Europe, Asia, the Americas and elsewhere suggest that a growing number of people are unhappy with the existing system.
Sri Lanka’s democracy = Democracy under pressure
India has long been held as a model of a multi-ethnic secular democratic state. Now there are fears that more sectarian forces are undermining it. In Hungary and Turkey constitutions have been amended recently to establish virtually one-person/one-party authoritarian regimes. In the Philippines the president has taken to publicly endorsing extra-judicial killings.
Sri Lanka’s democracy came under severe pressure during the three-decade long civil war. But it has survived. First, the nation conducted reasonably free and fair elections and elected governments even while the war was on. Second, the democratic system attempted to provide political solutions to satisfy minority grievances. For example, the Sinhala-only language policy was abandoned in favor of a multi lingual policy in public administration and education. District Development Councils were established in 1981 to devolve power and in 1988 Provincial Councils replaced them.
Third, Sri Lanka’s democracy withstood the assault of two coups, one a military coup in 1962 and another, a “constituitonal” coup in October 2018.
A visitor to Sri Lanka listening to some of our politicians campaigning or the critics of the system might think that Sri Lanka has made virtually no economic or social progress in the last several decades. This simply is not true. Between 1948 and 2018 Sri Lanka experienced negative economic (GDP) growth only in one year, 2001, not a bad record for a poor country that relies heavily on agriculture and commodity export. Per capita GDP has grown over thirty-fold from $118 in 1950 to over $4,000 in 2018.
Almost every major indicator that measures social development has improved in the past seven decades. Infant mortality dropped from 92 per 1,000 live births in 1948 to 8.5 in 2015. Life expectancy at birth increased from 56.6 years in 1952 to 75.5 years in 2017. The adult literacy rate increased from 62.9% in 1946 to 91.7% in 2017. Such good numbers and trends in social progress are usually associated with countries that have much higher economic growth rates and per capita GDP than Sri Lanka. These good numbers suggest that, thanks largely to government social welfare program ranging from free education and health to subsidized rice ration and its successor programs Jana Saviya and later Samurdhi, a reasonable degree of equity has been maintained in resource allocation.
Most scholars believe that democratic governance has played a significant role in producing such social progress. The rulers who have to seek a mandate from the people from time to time have to do something useful for the people to get their vote.
It is correct to assert that Sri Lanka could have done much better, especially on the economy. More competent management and less corruption would have helped conserver our environment, and also helped boost economic growth because public resources would have been used more productively. Public funds can be allocated more equitably in areas such as education and physical infrastructure development and also to less developed parts of the country. Taxes can be more equitable. For example, in 2018 total government taxes to GDP ratio was only 11.9%, one of the lowest in the world. Income tax revenue contributed only one-fifth of tax revenue suggesting widespread tax evasion. The rich must be compelled to pay more to help development and have more economic equity.
The people have to decide whether these improvements are better attempted under a “strong” government with authoritarian tendencies or under an admittedly messier and more chaotic democratic form of government.