Sri Lanka needs benevolent ‘dictators’: Not Westminster-style democracy
Posted on March 4th, 2012

Asada M Erpini

A coterie of affluent, Western countries, donning the cloak the international community, keeps remindingSri Lanka on the importance of democracy in the country. Our former colonial masters would be referring to theWestminster style democracy that they are supposed to have bequeathed onSri Lanka on their departure. Not to be outdone, a motley collection of groups and individuals inSri Lanka, too, with widely differing backgrounds, strategies and political hues, keep emphasising that the restoration of democracy is the need of the hour.

 The incessant calls for the restoration of democracy would naturally lead one to believe that true democracy existed inSri Lanka in the past, but is there no more.

 The systems that operate in theUSAand theUKfor electing the people’s representatives illustrate some of the salient features of the concept of democracy. The primary determiner as to which candidates get elected and more importantly, who remains as the leaders of political parties is the respect that the concerned individuals command and the perception of their capabilities among the members of the party and the voting public.

 In theUSto win the nomination of either the Democratic or the Republican Party for the Presidential election, the contenders have to be initially whetted by a committee as regards their chances of winning. Electoral assemblies or direct voting on ballot in all the states follows, and after this nation-wide hurdle is cleared, the two opponents face each other for the final political battle. One of the aspirants for the Democratic Party nomination at the 2008 Presidential election was the wife of a former President of theUS. Yet, unlike in the South Asian countries, where such a relationship would be a no-visa-needed qualification to grab the coveted post to be the party candidate, the electorate in theUSdid not give her the party nomination.

 In true democracies, being a relative of a former leader does not bestow party leadership, and consequently the prospect of becoming the Prime Minister or President, to the next of kin. Baroness Thatcher is a colossus that strode the political scene after becoming the first woman Prime Minister in theUK. When Mrs. Margaret Thatcher left active politics, Mr. John Major, a senior member of the Conservative Party, took over the party leadership. The son or the daughter of Baroness Thatcher did not come forward to claim ownership of the political party nor did either enter politics.

 A hallowed tradition in democracies is that the party leaders who lose elections do not cling on to the leadership. When Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party, lost one general election in 1992, Tony Blair replaced him. Within a short period – from 1997 to 2005 – the Conservative Party in theUKhad a succession of leaders: John Major, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron, a new candidate taking over when the incumbent was felt as being not up to the task. Sri Lanka is a classic example of South Asian “ƒ”¹…”democracy’ in which a party leader can continue on, even in the face of rebellion by his own party members, although he himself may have lost count of the number of times he and his party were beaten in local-level and national elections.

 The model of ‘democracy’ that the voting public in the South Asian countries has come to accept is altogether different from the system that operates in theUSor theUK.

 Indiais described by the international media and is known the world over as the largest democracy. A look at how the country decided on its Prime Ministers highlights the special features of South Asian “ƒ”¹…”democracy’. After the death of the first Prime Minister sinceIndiagained independence, it was his daughter, and not any of the party stalwarts who had fought with him forIndia’s freedom from the British, that took over as Prime Minister. She was grooming her elder son to succeed her when the latter died in a plane crash. In came the younger son, who had not been in politics until then, to lead the Congress Party. None of experienced and senior leaders of the party was considered fit for the job. It is only a matter of time before a member from the next generation of the ruling family takes over the management of the ‘family heirloom’. The manner in which democracy operates inBangladeshorPakistanis essentially similar: being the widow or daughter, and more recently the husband, of a former Prime Minster, invariably qualifies the aspirant for the highest post in the country.

 Sri Lankahas enjoyed ‘democracy’ for over 50 years. Yet, we are only fooling ourselves if we consider the format that exists in our land is anything close to the democracy model ofBritainor theUS. Sri Lankans may have to wait for a few generations more before the voters understand that family connections are not the best indicator of competence for performance in the political amphitheatre.

 When DS Senanayake, the first Prime Minister ofCeylondied in 1952, it was his son Dudley Senanayake who took over. Many senior party members were overlooked in filling the void.Dudley, no doubt, was among the most cultured gentlemen to have entered the political arena. Yet, if real democracy existed, events may have taken a different turn altogether, and SWRD Bandaranaike may not have formed a new party.

 The next chapter in the history ofSri Lanka, too, could have been very different from what unfolded from then on. On the untimely death of SWRD,Sri Lankacontinued with its own version of ‘democracy’, in a bigger way.  The former Premier’s wife, a political unknown and novice, surfaced and was swept into power. At a later stage one of his daughters was entrusted with the party reins, although her prior political experience was limited to being the Chief Minister of a provincial council, and was next catapulted into the highest position in the land.

 Sri Lankahas now moved on to the next phase. Yet, a slogan that reverberates through the length and breadth of the country is the fight of many, especially in the Opposition, for the restoration of democracy. A premise that consequently arises is that democracy is what the vast majority of the population yearns for, with the additional implication that if this manna from heaven is delivered,Sri Lanka’s myriad of problems will vanish into thin air and the country will flow in mild and honey.

 It is interesting that a poll that was conducted in 2009 among many countries in Asia revealed that Singaporeans were the most contented nation inAsia.Singaporeis known the world over for its well-oiled machinery of governance, which moves smoothly like clockwork, and the gardens and the flowering creepers, although crowds abound wherever one goes.

 Are Singaporeans disappointed that they do not have theWestminsterstyle democracy in their land? The survey does not indicate that such is the case. The ability to acquire basic comforts and essential luxuries and to live in clean surroundings in a country where everyone knows what he or she should do and not do evidently are valued by the community much more than the Westminster democracy. 

 It may be pertinent at this stage to ask ourselves what numbers of people in the South Asian countries, which boast, or rather boast of, democracy, will be ready to exchange places with the Singaporeans, if given the chance? The answer is likely to be in hundreds of millions, with Sri Lankans too trampling one another to join the crowds. What people need foremost is food and shelter at reasonable cost for themselves and their families, and visible guarantees that there will be peace, security and stability in the country. Given these, a Westminster-style democracy is likely to be a luxury that many would be ready to forego or the demand for which they will be ready to put on the back burner.

 When one looks at the manner in which the US has been exporting democracy to “”…” nay, forcing the “ƒ”¹…”primitives’ to accept it in – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and most recently to Syria, and the outcome of the bloody endeavours, peace-loving people cannot be blamed if the thought itself of being at the receiving end of the gift of democracy courtesy of the US sends shivers down their spines.

 The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, who transformed the country to a modern state, was often at loggerheads with the British pontificators. He did not worry much about displeasing and did not mince his words when dealing with some of the Western powers as long as his actions were aimed at developing his country. Such rulers who have the welfare of the populace in their hearts and are gifted with the strength and resolve to carry on in spite of the opposition by groups with vested interests will succeed in delivering the basic essentials and the few luxuries that most desire. The British model of democracy was not something that Malaysian PM was after.

 Sri Lankasorely needs leaders of the calibre of the former Prime Ministers ofSingaporeorMalaysia, who transformed backwaters that none in the West wanted or cared for into economic powerhouses within a few decades. One may go even further: “Sri Lankaneeds benevolent ‘dictators’.”


3 Responses to “Sri Lanka needs benevolent ‘dictators’: Not Westminster-style democracy”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    No dictators of any kind please.

  2. AnuD Says:

    Dictators are good as long as they for the country. If the dictator is there to promote his dynasty and to leave his legacy that will not help the country.

    Right now, Sri Lanka does not have proper law enforcement and Justice. IT is highly influenced by those who have power. Sri Lanka does not have a system. Leaders, govt employees and people are highly indisciplined. In order to stop that the system should have rigid law enforcement and justice.

    Leader should have courage and will power to do those things.

  3. Ben_silva Says:

    Dictators of any kind , benevolent or not are dangerous, as they only have a limited vision, that of themselves and ‘yes’ men. We need silent people to stand up and be counted, so that it is just and fair for all. We need goog leaders, getting power through democracy.

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