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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2400

Power-sharing within Sri Lankan democracy

By Philip Fernando in Los Angeles

We have to take fresh look at power sharing in Sri Lanka. I believe that it is time to wipe out the flaws that had impaired our leadership since independence.

That said, my thoughts go towards power sharing. To me autonomy is a means for diffusion of power in order to preserve the unity of a state while respecting the diversity of its population.

The 2015 election promised to be an apex of a power sharing arrangement. The two leading parties formed a government with substantial support from the North and East and prospects of arriving at a power sharing formula seemed great--granting minority groups’ autonomy over some--or many aspects of their own affairs within one sovereign state. This autonomy already prevails on cultural issues: religion and education for example.

However we are still fighting the scars of the 70 year post independence period. Instead, we have to reframe our quest on how such power sharing might take place-It has to be constructive. The idea introduced by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka about the concept of enlightened nationalism on both sides is indeed a good one.

Ethnically neutral decision making

Let us look at an integrative power sharing process in order to overcome the current conflicted situation. Governance should be handled by leaders from each group who work jointly and cooperatively to make decisions and resolve conflicts. This approach relies on ethnically neutral decision making and public policy formulation.

Typically the electoral system has to be structured to encourage multi-ethnic coalitions within the political system. It is not easy, as groups holding power are reluctant to relinquish that power, and groups without it tend to want massive change to occur more quickly than the dominant group is likely to accept. For this reason, demands for power-sharing and autonomy often ferment conflict more than they resolve it. However, I believe that if minority groups can frame their demands in a way that emphasize joint benefit, and focus on developing a mutually acceptable way of achieving self-determination for all groups—that is in areas of economic well-being, education, health, access to power etc. That is likely to meet with more success than if they were to take a more combative or competitive approach.

Ethnic conflicts will be easier to manage if the participants perceive their differences to be socially constructed, rather than innate and immutable. Conflicts will be less severe when there is some social, cultural or economic overlap between the groups. The relation of the state to the conflicting ethnic groups is also an important factor in the severity of the conflict.

Ethnic outbidding

Ethnic outbidding is a common feature of ethnic conflicts. Would-be group leaders dismiss moderates as sellouts, and attempt to outbid each other with increasingly extreme positions. De- escalation is best managed through protracted negotiations after the conflict has reached stalemate. The relation of the state to the conflicting ethnic groups is also an important factor in the severity of the conflict. It is accurate to state that we have come a long way since the fifty-fifty era of GG Ponnambalam or the federal edicts of Chelvanayagam. The current political trends are obviously corrosive –Action needed to be taken now.

Post independence era

I will end with a brief account of how the system got corrupted over the last 50 years or so. It is obvious that our democracy failed to breed the web of institutions necessary to foster a power sharing apparatus.

True, most democracies are little more than oligarchies with the addition of an external, populist check against extreme malevolence or benevolent misstep. The national electoral edifice we inherited from the British since the Donoughmore days was barely adequate for governing a culturally diverse group of people,--in fact, the State Council prior to 1948 had lasted 11 years during which time some of the fissures issues got entrenched to a point of no return as years passed.

Missteps since 1956

1956 brought out to the fore a hitherto unrepresented electorate but the institutional backdrop enabling access to power was opaque resulting in the rise of a class of political minions that benefitted at the expense of the masses. The euphoria of that event mesmerized many without providing the avenues of outreach—a villager was seen seated in the Parliament chamber the first day MPs assembled after the 1956 election—ex Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala joked glibly that the those climbing arecanut trees were in power.

1960 landslide and after

The 1960 July landslide of Mrs. Bandaranaike begot an unmanageable coalition of diverse groups—some at the expense of those who voted for her coalition—factionalism was rampant—Felix Das, N M. Colvin, TB Subasinghe, Maithripala Senanayake, T B Ilangaratne etc. She held onto the helms with great resilience for a decade or so, even outsmarting her late husband who succumbed to an assassination plot. JR’s shrewd electioneering prowess peaked to oust her.

That grassroots movement of JR got him a mammoth mandate of five fifth majority. It sank the dire need for institutional change vital for democratic growth—instead a vengeful mindset against Mrs. B got entrenched, resulted in debasing democratic values—JR resorted to a referendum to stay in power—what followed was the devaluation of process that had kindled the vital access to power movement needing large dose of fresh air—Black Friday in 1983 was an unmitigated disaster. Eventually, the Premadasa assassination was the final nail in the coffin—no pun intended. The UNP 17 year rule ended.

Chandrika at the helm

The lack-luster Chandrika’s nine year rule was not forward looking—foundering by the sheer weight of her erratic management style-she was hours late for meetings- the dual power sharing with Ranil as PM made the system unworkable and unsteady.

The experiment ultimately debased Ranil’s leadership—he had to linger in wilderness without winning a single election for a long time. UNP had a leadership vacuum that facturged and almost irredeemable. Meanwhile North-South struggle had accelerated. UNP lost the crème of its leadership with assassinations of many leaders including Gamini Seneviratne, LalithAthulathmudali and many more.

End of war and yahapalanaya

Mahinda’s 11 year rule achieved victory over the Tigers but the colossal mandate Mahinda got in 2010 again opened avenues that blatantly perverted the electoral system with Manape running riot –electioneering was corrupt to the core.

Yahapalanaya of 2014 promised a corrupt free society but the duality of power sharing between Maithri and Ranil became unsustainable—those at the helm like Ravi K and their appointees—(Central Bank bond fiasco in particular) reduced governance to the lowest levels since 1952.

The re-alignments of interests foreseeing the elections ahead are in a state of flux—which way will the tide flow?

- Asian Tribune -

Power-sharing within Sri Lankan democracy
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