Is present regime democratic?
Posted on June 15th, 2015

Courtesy The Island

One of the main reasons why the people decided to topple the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime on Jan. 8 was its excessively authoritarian character. They expected the new administration to be democratic. What we understand by ‘democratic change’ may be problematic as democracy is, as Wendy Brown says, “among the most contested and promiscuous term in our modern political vocabulary” (Undoing the Demos). She writes: “In the political imaginary, ‘democracy’ stands for everything from free elections to free markets, from protests against dictators to law and order, from the centrality of rights to the stability of states, from the voice of the assembled multitude to the protection of individuality and the wrong of dicta imposed by crowds.”

It is true that at macro level the new regime was able to implement long overdue constitutional reforms reducing the power of the executive presidency (19th Amendment) and changing the electoral system (proposed 20th Amendment). These two amendments, albeit half-baked, may have positive implications on the macro-democratic environment in the country that had been paralysed by the enactment of the second republican Constitution of 1978. Nonetheless, the question is to what extent these macro-democratic reforms would change the general environment of governance. Has the way in which politicians, judiciary, police and the bureaucracy operate in practice changed as a result of these reforms? Or in other words, can we see the beginning of a process of reversing the ‘real’ world practice of nearly four decades? Of course, it is too early to forecast what would actually happen in the future. But, my submission in this article is that the current trends signify not a reversal of the process, but a continuation of the past process.

Prof. Carlo Fonseka, has, in a recent article in The Island, shown that the way in which the President acted in appointing the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and removing Chief Justice Mohan Peiris was undemocratic and contrary to the existing rules and procedures. One may argue that the appointment of the Prime Minister is constitutional as the Constitution does not explicitly say that a person who has the majority in the Parliament be appointed as the Prime Minister. Although the 19th Amendment was enacted by Parliament, it appears that the way in which the President operates today is not qualitatively different from the way in which the previous presidents did. The executive presidential system gives unbridled power to the elected President but she or he has to secure the support of Parliament which has the power to pass financial Bills.

What we have seen in the recent past, especially under President Mahinda Rajapaksha, is that the President used both carrot and stick method to curtail the power of Parliament. Party mechanism of the two main parties was designed following the executive presidential system. The executive president is also the leader of his or her party. Like Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current President, Maithripala Sirisena is trying to maintain his hold on power by throwing many types of bread crumbs to either silence the opposition or to win its support. The recent appointment of ministers from the SLFP and the appointment of SLFP stalwarts, Rathnasiri Wickramanayaka and D. M. Jayarathna as senior presidential advisors demonstrates anti-democratic continuation of presidential system that legalises bribery. Similarly, like Rajapaksa, he has been trying to crush pro-MR elements within the SLFP by using his party presidency.

One may argue that though the steps taken by Sirisena seem non-democratic by themselves in the context of previous strong authoritarian rule its reversal may not be possible with the help of the same high-handed tactics. So, the usual logic ‘end justifies mean’ can be deployed to legitimise the non-democratic actions by making them out to be conjunctural. Although it is true to some extent it could be a dangerous proposition.

Does the President stand for democracy? Two statements he has recently made one doubt his understanding of democracy. The first was made at a ceremony that announced his decision to confirm all Civil Defence Force personnel in service. At this meeting, he proposed that all young people should be given a compulsory military training in order to create a disciplined society. Following president J. R. Jayewardene, he praised Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore not because of his achievement on the economic front (as JRJ did), but because of his action to discipline the nation. He has sought to go beyond the measures adopted by the previous government such as giving military training to school principals and leadership training to prospective university entrants at military camps.

The second statement at issue was President Sirisena’s proposal to make more offences punishable by death.

It is important to note that it was not only the actions of the President that show the continuation of non-democratic tendencies. The prime Minister and some Cabinet ministers are engaged in undemocratic practices as could be seen from the way they dealt with student protests and other demonstrations. Two student leaders were ‘white vanned’ and some others were arrested. Students protests were faced by the so-called minimum force. We have witnessed the same in Wellampitiya, Jaffna and many other places. Some people may argue that these protests were to provoke the government into taking repressive measures. This is an absurd argument. Democracy is tested when people are given the right to protest. If everything is hunky-dory, there is no need for protests. The Open University has increased its fees by 120% last year. The continuous student protests were ignored. Compared to the previous government, the present government is not an improvement. It appears that the police and judiciary once again are applying the same work procedure following the government’s line as it did under previous regime.

How do we explain the continuation of non-democratic practice though people expected a ‘change’ on January 8, 2015? Of course, this phenomenon may not be attributable to a single course. In fact, the country was not given on Jan. 8 a new set of political leaders. The group with the same ‘habitus’ is controlling the government and the State. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe defended the system as it existed prior to Jan. 8. The track records of the new ministers are not better compared with their predecessors in the Rajapaksa government. The second reason is totally ‘uncritical nature’ of the civil society. Even some have attempted to portray student protests and Inter University Student federation as “provokers”. This is tantamount to the legitimisation of repressive action by the government.

This brings us to an issue of fundamental nature. Is there a basic contradiction between political conjunctures and democratic process? In some context, political conjunctures may justify imposing limits on democratic process if the unabated democracy itself becomes hindrance to expected and accepted goals. Nonetheless, any justification on this ground should raise the issue what defines the political conjuncture. Some civil society people may argue that the political conjuncture is defined today by increasing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. However, this argument does not hold water as a stronger version of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism can be seen within the government. My reading of the situation has made me feel that the democratic change is being blocked by the political conjuncture of neo-liberalism that this government intends to follow more vigorously.

The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School.

e-mail: [email protected]

2 Responses to “Is present regime democratic?”

  1. Christie Says:

    Namaste: The island nation has been colony of British-Indian Empire 1792-1948. Then a colony of Indian Empire from 1956 to 2005. Again from 8 Jan 2015 an Indian colony run by Governor CBK, Kankaani Ranil and Coollie Sirisena. Jai Hind

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    I am delighted that Pres Sirisena has proposed that all youth of Lanka be given military training. I am also pleased that he has proposed that more categories of extreme criminal activities be made punishable by the death penalty as this would be a deterrant.

    At the same time, I do wish that dependency on Tamil labor ceases in Lanka. I do wish that tea plucking etc be done with machines as done in India, China, S. Africa etc. in which case anyone can pluck tea.

    A couple of points to consider to Save Lanka from thug pirates & hival nariyas from inside and outside :

    * Remove National/Official status for the Tamil Language. This will ensure that Tamil folk of Tamil Nadu will stop considering Lanka to be Tamil Eelam for Tamils only. Such an action will, of course ,remove illegal migration into Lanka from Tamil Nadu. At present there is a news item stating that some 145,000 Tamil people are due for deportation from Canada according to some new rules there. Where are these people to go to ? Back to Lanka ? Also Tamils in Tamil Nadu camps – where are they to go to ? Tamil Nadu has to accept back her own displaced people as Tamil Nadu is the Tamil peoples sub-state. Mr Modi has said that India welcomes back people of Indian Origin.

    Beware Lanka – or else you are ear marked for decimation.

    * Tamil Leaders of Lanka have to officially revoke the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 (achieve Eelam through violence) if true Reconciliation has to happen in Lanka.

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