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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1589

Towards a Dynastic Democracy?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“There’s no limit to the disguises, the cloaks of virtue and principle, in which we will clothe the expediencies by which we rule” - Han Suyin (…And the Rain My Drink)

President Rajapakse will win his second term and leave at its end, doubtless as unwillingly and as ungraciously as his predecessor did. As the second term of the President advances, the SLFP will begin to assert itself more, emboldened by the knowledge of the transitory nature of Rajapakse rule. Elections will happen; corruption and waste will continue; there will be crimes and injustices. But if the UPFA fails to gain that two thirds majority (or something close to it), Sri Lanka’s metamorphosis into a Dynastic Democracy (a country in which the trappings of democracy provide a façade for rule by one family) will grind to a halt.

But a radically different outcome would ensue if the UPFA wins that two thirds, or comes close enough to it (enabling a successful effort to fill the gap through crossovers). The Rajapakses will move decisively to bring in a new constitution tailor made to perpetuate the rule of the Family.

“There’s no limit to the disguises, the cloaks of virtue and principle, in which we will clothe the expediencies by which we rule” - Han Suyin (…And the Rain My Drink)

Constitution-making will enable the Rajapakses to change the basic laws of the country. Using the bogey of neo-Tiger conspiracies, the Rajapakses will be able to include in the Constitution itself, provisions which nullify those rights which are the fundaments of democracy. For instance we may see many of the provisions in the PTA enshrined in the Constitution (hidden amidst innocuous verbiage); or there may be draconian measures to curb media freedom in particular and the freedom of expression in general. Once such anti-democratic provisions become a part of the Constitution, any possibility of seeking legal redress in cases of abuse of power by the power wielder via the courts will diminish, even if the judiciary happens to be completely independent. Once abusive use of power is enshrined in the Constitution, it becomes law and thus an abuse no longer (This is akin to the ‘strategy of the legal revolution’ used by Adolf Hitler to turn Weimer Democracy into a one party state, without formally abolishing the Constitution. For instance such anti-democratic measures as the expulsion of Communists, Jews and others deemed undesirable from the civil service was done ‘legally’, as was the banning of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties. The infamous Nuremberg laws turned Jews into un-citizens and paved the way for the Holocaust. As Herr Hitler told a court in Leipzig in 1930, “….once we posses he constitutional power, we will mould the state into the state we hold to be suitable” – quoted in The Coming of the Third Reich – Richard J Evans).

The South and beyond

The UPFA won the South, with a two thirds majority, not because there was a massive increase in the UPFA vote, but because there was a massive decrease in the UNP vote. Had the UNP managed to retain most of the votes it obtained at the Presidential election, the UPFA would have won the South with a simple majority. But the UNP’s vote plummeted, by 42.6%. It was this unprecedented drop – a function of the eponymous leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe – which enabled the UPFA to score a two thirds majority, in spite of the 3.2% decrease in its own vote. Thus it was Ranil Wickremesinghe, rather than Mahinda Rajapakse, who facilitated the UPFA’s resounding victory in the Rajapakse heartland.

Surprisingly there was no groundswell of support for the regime, post war. The South, after all, is not just Rajapakse territory; it is also venerated as the cradle of Sinhala nationalism. And the UPFA carried out a Blitzkrieg-like campaign, overwhelming the ill-organised and divided opposition. It was headed by the President himself and using, to the point of saturation, the powers of the government and the resources of the state. Still the UPFA’s vote base decreased by 25,491, between the Presidential Election of November 2005 and the Provincial Council Election of October 2009 (the regime’s claim of a 200,000 increase in the UPFA’s vote base is pure fantasy). Some apologists for the Rajapakses would try to point to the JVP factor, but this argument presupposes that the JVP is still a factor, despite the assertion by the regime that it is not.

So the UPFA failed to increase its vote in the Southern province, despite the singularly favourable context in which the provincial council election was held. Obviously the Rajapakses did have some inkling of this unpalatable reality so much at variance with their public stances. This explains the regime’s paradoxical decision to hold provincial council elections on a staggered basis at a time when the Rajapakses are supposed to be triumphant and supreme.

Indeed, the times cannot be more favourable to the rulers - the government is still basking in the glory of defeating a seemingly invincible Tiger; it is blessed with the most ineffective Leader of Opposition in the history of Sri Lanka; and though the UPFA may not be as popular as it claims to be, its leader, the President, still is. Objectively, therefore, there was and is no reason for the Rajapakses to be nervous. In fact the Ruling Family has every reason to be confident about their capacity to win not just provincial council elections but also presidential and parliamentary polls.

But nervous they were and this nervousness would have increased with their highly equivocal victory in the South. After all, a confident administration would not have felt it necessary to hold provincial council elections on a staggered basis, one, two or three at a time. According to the Elections Commissioner, this partisan political manoeuvre has cost Sri Lanka a staggering Rs.1,540 million extra, an unaffordable sum for a country in the throes of a financial crisis. In his October 7th interview with the ITN, Defence Secretary and Presidential sibling Gotabhaya Rajapakse complained that the Api Venuwen Api fund to build houses for armed forces personnel has received a mere Rs.700 million in public donations; this money is enough to build just 700 houses, he further pointed out. Had his brother held elections to all provincial councils simultaneously, Rs. 1,540 million in public funds would have been saved, money that could have been spent on building houses for needy soldiers. Such is the cost to the country of this curious nervousness of the Rajapakses. And there will be other costs, far more devastating in their impact.

At the Presidential election, Mahinda Rajapakse obtained 61.2% of the votes in the South, 11% more than his national average of 50.29%. The South was thus one of the provinces in which the UPFA has a natural advantage. But even in the South, the regime was able to reach the two thirds mark at an election held less than six months after the spectacular victory over the LTTE, solely because most UNPers felt disinclined to go to the polling booth. In the upcoming general election, the UPFA will have to get around 60%-70% of the vote in most districts (especially the populous ones) in order to obtain an overall two-thirds majority. In a free and fair election this would be a tall order indeed, because in many of these districts the UPFA’s support base is smaller and it has fewer natural advantages compared to Galle, Matara and Hambantota.

The UNP cannot defeat the UPFA at the Presidential or the parliamentary elections. But the UNP, with a little effort, can deprive the Rajapakses the two thirds parliamentary majority they desperately crave for and urgently need. Undoubtedly, the regime is aware of this disturbing potential. The steps they will feel compelled to take to face overcome this impediment will shape the future trajectory of Sri Lanka.

The Rajapakse ‘Suspiciousmania’ and its Implications

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s ITN interview (aired on last Wednesday – October 7th) was a revealing one. It provided interesting insights into the persecution mania of the regime, its obsessive fear of losing power, its penchant to see conspiracies in nook and cranny. According to Mr. Rajapakse, the present times abound with national and international conspiracies, all aimed at realising the dream of Eelam by rejuvenating the defeated LTTE.

These conspiracies are being hatched by pro-Tiger elements within and outside the country as well as by nations which had hoped to benefit, economically and politically, from the birth of a state of Eelam. According to Mr. Rajapakse some of these conspirators are motivated by revenge and others by greed. The sine qua non for the success of these conspiracies, he opined, is the removal of President Mahinda Rajapakse, his brother. Consequently the conspirators may try to assassinate the President or take him before a war crimes tribunal; they will also try to defeat him electorally, by hoodwinking the people.

“This can cause us tremendous challenges in the future… (They) might send various zombies (pilli)…... We know our country is a democratic country. There are plenty of people willing to do anything for narrow gains. There are politicians; there are people who have become degraded; there are people filled with hatred…. All they want is to come to power. They will be used by national and international conspirators, those who want to protect the LTTE and to regain Eelam…. It is very easy to mislead people, through false propaganda…”

These pronouncements by the Presidential sibling provide some revealing insights into the Rajapakse mindset. The Rajapakses seem uncertain about their electoral capacities, despite the weak and uninspiring leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. For the UPFA and the SLFP, a win at the Presidential election and a simple majority in parliament would suffice. But the Rajapakses need a two thirds majority in parliament for the survival of the Dynastic project.

Without such a two thirds majority, the constitutional change necessary for the perpetuation of the Family Rule cannot happen. And as the Southern provincial election conclusively proved, the only way the UPFA can win a two thirds majority is by causing a massive drop in the UNP vote, Islandwide. The increasingly shrill invective about conspiracies assumes an ominous significance in this context.

Sri Lanka is divided ethno-religiously and politically. A majority of the minorities will not vote for the Rajapakses in a free and fair election. The increasing economic woes are not making the government any popular either. The longed for peace dividend has not materialised and there is a growing feeling that that the government is either unwilling or unable to face the developmental challenge. The government seems to know this; thus its shrill invective about conspiracies; thus its decision to hold provincial council elections on a staggered basis; thus its increasing proclivity to equate democratic and peaceful opposition with treachery.

It bodes ill for democracy if in the eyes of the government, working to ensure the electoral defeat of the President/UPFA is a part of some pro-Tiger conspiracy. With such a perspective, the next step can well be the outlawing of acts of democratic dissent and opposition. One may see the increasing use of the PTA and the Emergency against the legal opposition and the media. If, in the eyes of power wielders, a shift in the popular opinion against the President is an outcome of attempts by pro-Tiger conspirators to hoodwink the public, arguments to postpone elections or override electoral results, demands to outlaw ‘unpatriotic’ parties and arrest ‘unpatriotic’ politicians, in the name of ‘national interests’, may not be long in coming. The Rajapakses’ plan to turn Sri Lanka into a dynastic democracy can succeed only at the cost of democracy.

- Asian Tribune -

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