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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2709

Is Sri Lanka a Feudal Democracy?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

If one examines political developments since 1970, they smack of a form of raw feudalism, perhaps a modernized form of feudalism which one may describe by an oxymoronic term, democratic feudalism. The power and influence of the Executive Presidency today is very reminiscent of the power and influence of Sri Lanka’s Kings of past. One’s rise and fall is at the Presidents pleasure or displeasure as the case might be

The United Peoples Front Alliance (UPFA) victory at the Eastern province election may not be a victory for the UPFA in a real sense considering the many allegations of violence, intimidation and vote rigging that have been reported. However, independent monitors have stated that the there were no violent incidents in more than 80% of polling booths, indicating the possibility that the election was relatively fair in those polling booths. Besides the violence, what is equally or even more disturbing is the ever increasing blatant use of State resources by incumbent governments to fight elections, and the absence or disregard of any rules governing how elections should be fought by all parties. This election, which the government was determined not to lose, perhaps has beaten all previous records on the misuse of State resources. It demonstrated the unbridled power of the Executive President.

The allegations about violence, if they are all true, are tactics that would have been used to defeat the Opposition combine of the UNP and the SLMC, and not derail the election itself. The fact that an average of more than 60% of the registered voters cast their ballots and demonstrated their democratic right, is a victory against the LTTE and its draconian hold on the people they forcefully controlled to varying degrees in parts of the Eastern province. Every vote cast, irrespective to which side, was an expression of opposition to the LTTE. Despite the many travails and the pain experienced in achieving this result, democracy prevailed in the end and the people of the Eastern province were able to make a statement that they have had enough of the LTTE and their tactics. The cost of democracy has been high, but it may have been worth it.

Intercine election violence, rather than LTTE initiated terrorist violence marked the Eastern province elections. All political parties including the TMVP that underwent a metamorphosis from a terror group to a democratic political party have had their fair share of violence and voter intimidation during this election. Government Ministers are accused of even assaulting police officers, and some ministers sons have gone on the rampage assaulting Opposition politicians and supporters. Equally equipped to the task, Opposition politicians and their goons have brought in their reserves from outside the province to return the favors heaped on them.

Yet, considering that the gap between the UPFA vote and the UNP/SLMC vote was around 10%, it is possible that the 20% of polling booths where there were allegations of violence, intimidation, vote rigging and impersonations, may have delivered a different result had such irregularities not occurred in those polling booths.

The extent of violence of course may not be as widespread as it has been reported. It’s not a case of misreporting, but more a case of reports focusing on some incidents and leaving readers with the impression that there had been a blood bath in the province. This is not to say in any way that the violence seen in this election and scores of others before this is to be condoned, and trivialized, but merely to make the point that the violence in this election may not have been any more or any less than on previous elections, and that the difference in this instance is that this one has attracted more attention from a worldwide audience of interested parties than any previous national or provincial election in Sri Lanka, giving rise to a sense of increased awareness about election violence in the country.

If the practice of democracy in electing representatives to Parliament is to be looked at, one would detect a pattern of increasing malpractices over the years, especially since 1970 after Mr. Dudley Senanayake left the centre stage of politics. In the opinion of the author, there is an important link, not simply about this election and Dudley Senanayake, former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka whose effective period in office was from 1965 to 1970 although he was the Prime Minister for very short periods on two occasions prior to that, but about a link between democracy as seen in Sri Lanka during the Dudley Senanayake era, and since then.

For one thing, election violence was miniscule in comparison, if it happened at all, during the time of Dudley Senanayake when he contested and won in March 1960, again when he contested and lost in July 1960, and when he contested and won in 1965, and finally when he contested and lost in 1970. Dudley Senanayake fought many elections, but he and his government and his party, the UNP, at the time, had a good record as people who respected the importance of free and fair elections.

In his time, law enforcement authorities were just that, and they were allowed to do their job without political interference. It was unheard for any minister in his cabinet or even a son of a minister, an MP from his party or his son, to assault police officers or any government employee, doing his or her job. His political opponents and their supporters were safe anywhere in the country. There was respect for law and order and there was respect for those who maintained law and order, and for them to be independent and do their job without fear or favour.

Dudley Senanayake was willing to accept defeat and he was willing to fight an election freely and fairly, and accept the people’s verdict however painful that might have been for him in a personal sense. He did not fight elections to win at any cost. One might say quite justifiably that Dudley Senanayake was the last true democrat of the country when assessing the performance of his successors.

The decline in these values started deteriorating from 1970. Every Prime Minister and Head of State since then have been partial in their attitude and approach to law and order, and their political opponents. The results we see today are the ever cumulating effects of the rot that started in 1970. All the elected prime Ministers and Heads of State since Dudley Senanayake (barring Mr. D B Wijetunga, who was in fact not elected to the post) have shown tenacity to hang on to power, and an inability to accept defeat.

While this election in the Eastern province was not a test for the incumbent Presidents hold on his own office or his government, indirectly it was a litmus test on his strategy to defeat the LTTE and solve the political conflict in the country. A defeat would have been interpreted as a failure of his strategy, and therefore he had to win, at any cost.

In this respect, no holds were barred and the entirety of the State resources and machinery were thrown behind the government’s campaign. Virtually all ministers and members of government parliament group (most of whom are ministers anyway) campaigned in the East to secure this victory for them in the East. In the backdrop of such enormous State resources being used (or misused) for the campaign, the Opposition fought a battle against enormous odds, and the closeness of the government victory (particularly when some consideration is given to the resources used by the government and the violence, rigging etc in 20% of the polling booths), shows that the result may have been different had the election been freer and fairer, and if the Opposition had the use of State resources available to them on an equal footing.

Be that as it may, the result, despite the imperfections of the election, is a victory for the people of the East. For the first time in more than 20 years, they have been able to vote and elect their representatives to argue their case for a political solution to this conflict. It is opportune to note here a suggestion made by Mr. S B Dissanayake, UNP National Organiser, that all parties should consider getting together to form a provincial government in the Eastern province. This suggestion has great merit as the people of the Eastern province needs all parties to work together for their benefit and not to continue their political battles now since the election has been fought and won by some, and lost by others.

In tracing the decline of democratic values in Sri Lanka, it could be said that the political process has, over the years, eroded the independence of the State Administrative service and senior public servants have been compelled to keep their political masters happy at all times, and not necessarily to do what was right by all the people living in a particular geographic area. The introduction of Political Authorities in 1970 may be noted as the watershed in the commencement of the subservience of the administrative process to the political process, and the erosion of the independence of the administrative process.

Today, it may not be out of place to say that the administrative service in general is totally subservient to the will of the political masters of the day, more so to individual politicians rather than the policies of the incumbent government. The point made here is not to say that the administrative service should act in tandem to the will of the people conveyed through their political representatives, but to say that the public service should be given the independence to act as per the will of the people conveyed through policy settings approved by the Parliament, rather than at the whim and fancy of politicians.

Prime Minister Mr. J R Jayewardena further eroded this situation by appointing a political acolyte, later a cabinet minister and one of the most powerful politicians during the Jayewardena era, Mr. Anandatissa De Alwis as the first non public servant as a Secretary of a ministry in 1977. Since then many others have followed this precedent that has led to the politicization of the public service at its highest levels. The decisions taken by subsequent leaders like Mr. R Premadasa, Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga and the current President Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa may be interpreted as building on the precedents, and consolidation of almost absolute power in the Executive Presidency introduced by Mr. J R Jayewardena.

These political developments smack of a form of raw feudalism, perhaps a modernized form of feudalism which one may describe by an oxymoronic term, democratic feudalism. The power and influence of the Executive Presidency today is very reminiscent of the power and influence of Sri Lanka’s Kings of past. One’s rise and fall is at the Presidents pleasure or displeasure as the case might be. There are many examples of this, past and present. Presidential power is so all encompassing; it is an aphrodisiac that blinds holders of this high office, making their own interpretations of what is right and wrong without any accountability to the people, except at a Presidential election every six years. The President is also above the law during his or her term/s in office, a privilege that no other citizen in the country enjoys as a right.

If allegations in Victor Ivan’s book about former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s misdeeds are to be believed, it proves this point. The current Presidents influence, his reliance on family members, relatives and close friends to help him manage several key public institutions also demonstrates to an extent, his mistrust or lack of confidence in the public service and its officers, to manage these institutions. Within the political system, the President has demonstrated his ability to distribute his largesse and reward those who support him, with cabinet and non cabinet positions, diplomatic postings and several other key positions irrespective of merit in some instances. Personal loyalty has been the only criteria in such instances. Some politician thugs continue to ride high despite their misdeeds as they enjoy the Presidents pleasure. Distribution of his or her largesse by the Executive President is no different to what the Kings distributed at the time. The manner that the Executive President exercises his or her power is no different to how Kings of the past exercised their power within the political settings at the time.

The election win in the Eastern province will see another manifestation of democratic feudalism. The Chief Minister in waiting, Mr. Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, in all likelihood will be akin to a Chieftain of the past, and he will be able to govern independently, and even with impunity, as long as he enjoys the Presidents pleasure. This is what the political system has evolved to be in Sri Lanka today and it has provided opportunities to astute politicians who have held this high office to strengthen their hold on it, and the political and administrative process, by making every process in the country subservient to the high office.

In contrast to the feudal system of the past, the democratic feudal system we have today has an element of democracy in that we have periodic elections and an opportunity for the people to elect their representatives and also their feudal lord, the Executive President. Whether these elections are free and fair is another matter. Having elected them, they give total control to the Executive President, who if he or she is astute, uses his or her charm, charisma and the media, to establish them in power and consolidate this power through loyal supporters who gets rewarded with plums of office, government contracts, and many other rewards. While an Executive President cannot have anyone’s neck cut off as the Kings did, a similar literal fate can await anyone who risks the Presidents displeasure.

If the feudal system was considered primitive and something of the past, so is Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency as it is currently constituted. The means of ensuring checks and balances are severely limited, and one instrument, the Parliament, which was expected to provide that check and balance to the powers of the Presidency, has wilted to the power of the Presidency.

In the case of Mr. J R Jayewardena, he did it with undated, signed letters of resignation from all his party Members of Parliament with the threat that he will table those letters in Parliament if there was even a semblance of opposition to him amongst the ranks.

Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa has done it with legal loopholes in party constitutions that has enabled him to poach Members of Parliament from other political parties with the promise of rewards for their support. In both instances, in effect, the Parliament has ceased to be the institution that provided the checks and balances to the all powerful Presidency.

The current Presidents standing amongst his citizenry has increased very significantly since he was elected and he has achieved this with his single minded focus on defeating the LTTE, and a combination of political astuteness, cunning, a somewhat short sighted willingness to change political structures and traditions, a no hold barred willingness to employ State resources to strengthen his Presidency and his government, and the effective use of the media to bolster his case. His power is such that he has achieved the position of getting others to believe him as someone who could no wrong whatever allegations are leveled against him or his government.

However, the people of Sri Lanka appear to be content to have this system perhaps symbolizing that we have not progressed much from feudalism of the past. And, unless and until the people of Sri Lanka feel uncomfortable with this system, and are willing to change it, it will survive and will become even more powerful, even despotic, in the hands of the wrong person.

Democratic Feudalism has come to stay.

- Asian Tribune -

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