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Mar 17, 2021

How Democratic Institutions Are Undermined: Notes From Sri Lanka

From fostering a cult of personality to undermining the rule of law, the Rajapaksas have ensured the entrenchment of a patronage driven, informal methods.
A man walks past a mural depicting fighting during the war in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 27, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

The enactment of the 20th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, militarisation and efforts to curtail civic rights have spurred discussion on the state of democracy in Sri Lanka. The discussion needs to pay heed to current processes, both visible and invisible, that are changing social value systems and public perception in ways that undermine democracy and respect for the rule of law. None of these processes, which have been successfully harnessed by the Rajapaksa regimes, are new, but part of a continuum spanning decades.

The pioneering work of two women, Alena Ledeneva, a Russian political scientist and Ece Temelkuran, a Turkish journalist, help us understand the ways in which democracy is being eroded in Sri Lanka.

Making bigotry socially acceptable

One of the key strategies identified by Temelkuran that autocrats-in-the-making use is to create a populist movement, which the Rajapaksas have done successfully through grassroots mobilisation and their personality cult. A critical task of the movement has been to generate the belief that it is patriotic to openly express prejudice and bigotry, such as against Muslims, that previously may have been socially unacceptable, at least publicly. We have witnessed that when people feel confident about expressing and acting on prejudice, it leads to a change in their behaviour towards their colleagues, neighbours and even friends.

A Muslim man stands inside the Abbraar Masjid mosque after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka May 13, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Many Muslims have expressed shock and hurt that those they believed to be their allies are not supportive of their struggle to bury the victims of COVID-19. When I listen to them, I am reminded of similar remarks made to me by scores of Muslim women who were harassed by colleagues, neighbours and friends for wearing the Abaya after the Easter attacks in 2019, and before that, fears held by Muslims due to the anti-Muslim rhetoric that grew during the first Rajapaksa regime. This is hence part of a continuum. In this context, those who express and act upon prejudice are celebrated as ‘real people’ who love their country, while those who challenge bigotry and ethnocentrism are portrayed as traitors, who are unpatriotic and dangerous to the country.

The leader portrays himself as the ‘anti-politician’ and inspires public trust mainly because he is viewed as different and unconnected from the seedy world of politics. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had proclaimed, “People want non-traditional politicians. People tend to select such nontraditional politicians.” He added, ‘‘I am not a politician. I have never been a politician,” thereby portraying himself as the antithesis of a politician.

Also read: Ahead of Crucial UNHRC Vote, Sri Lankan President Dials Up Modi

The Sri Lankan public, which has long suffered from inequality, discrimination and poverty is politically disillusioned. It feels alienated from politicians and civil society, who are viewed as privileged or cosmopolitan and not sensitive to the issues that affect the ‘real people’. Therefore, it is unsurprising that they have gravitated towards the anti-politician.

The president astutely reminds the people that just as he ‘saved’ the country from the LTTE, he will now save the people from poverty, corruption, the underworld/drug lords and extremists. In Sri Lanka’s patronage driven culture with a feudal hangover, in which people expect the dispensation of favours in exchange for obeisance, he is hailed as a hero who people believe will save them and the country from corrupt and unscrupulous politicians.

Why people act against their self-interest

The façade of the saviour caring for the marginalised and poor, however, does not extend to tackling deep-seated issues of structural inequality. A few examples of the regime’s callous disregard for the poor and marginalised includes a reduction in the budgetary allocation for healthcare services during a pandemic and the lack of funding for the repatriation of migrant workers stranded abroad, which has forced their families to sell personal belongings and private citizens to raise funds for their repatriation.

Why do people, while demanding an equitable society, paradoxically, gravitate towards saviours and paternal figures who perpetuate a culture dependent on maintaining the status quo? This irrational core of the country and the cult of personality that supports the creation of a paternalistic state can be understood through a Sri Lankan analytical construct called the Ashokan Persona.

According to Michael Roberts, the Asokan Persona is ‘a cultural paradigm which encapsulates a relationship between a superior and a subordinate; and which describes a superior who is regarded as a righteous exemplary, one who is expected to function as a source of benevolent largesse, an apical fountainhead of status and pontifical authority and, in effect, as a central and pivotal force’.

Michael Roberts states that ‘Buddhism was constructed into a legitimating force and invested the Sinhala kings with immense authority…they were also constitutive acts of world renewal, in which the king-elect was transformed into a god or re-renewed as a god. President Rajapaksa’s oath-taking ceremony held at Ruwanwelisaya, a Buddhist sacred site that was built by King Dutugemunu who according to legend defeated a Tamil prince to rule over the whole country, can be seen as an evocation of this notion’.

Also read: In Sri Lanka, India Must Do More Than Pay Lip Service to Tamil Concerns

In modern times, loyalty and obeisance to this saviour-leader are demonstrated through sycophantic actions, such as constructing cut-outs of the president, prime minister and ministers, and posting obsequious messages on billboards with the names and photos of the president, prime minister, ministers and even minor politicians, announcing that state initiatives using public funds were implemented under the guidance of these holders of public office. The state is thereby merged with the individual politician and the individual becomes the state. In this instance, the president or the prime minister becomes the centre around which the state revolves. This process was symbolically formalised when public officials took an oath on January 1, 2021, not only to serve the public but also to implement President Rajapaksa’s election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor’.

Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Photo: Reuters

A strategy identified by Temelkuran that plays an integral role in making people vote against their self-interest, is ‘infantilising political language and destroying reason’. In a society that still depends on astrologers to decide election dates, logic has no place and ad hominem attacks are employed to counter and control criticism and dissent. People caught up in the hyper-nationalism that relies on communalism and fake news churned by media affiliated to the regime, pay no heed to the truth, analysis or reason. As Temelkuran said, “eventually the armies of alternative truth became strong enough to change the political realities through lies and to build what felt like new countries out of nonsense”.

When formal systems don’t work, informality reigns supreme

Another process that undermines the rule of law is the creation of a new form of law and order, whereby, while the law becomes the state weapon of choice to control social behaviour, particularly dissent, little respect is shown for the rule of law. The president’s view of the rule of law is illustrated by Gotabaya’s remarks to public officials in September 2020, when he instructed them to take his verbal instructions as circulars, and his February 2020 statement that “it is important that the judiciary does not interfere needlessly in the functioning of the executive and legislative branches of the government”.

When legal systems and processes become tools to be employed or dispensed with at the executive’s convenience, the result is a selective application of the law. For instance, while the government and the main opposition are allowed to hold large gatherings and rallies, court orders are obtained banning demonstrations from others. While those who do not wear masks continue to be arrested, no action was taken against a television station sympathetic to the regime that was reported to have held a large Christmas party where no health protocols were followed. Such acts lead the public to lose faith in the rule of law.

When formal rules and procedures do not function effectively and are applied unequally or in a biased manner, a parallel informal system of ‘getting things done’, which undermines institutions and legal processes, comes into being. This too is steeped in our culture, but has taken on new life, form and importance during the Rajapaksa regimes. Alena Ledeneva’s description of “sistema’ in Russia provides useful parallels to understand how it works.

Also read: Sri Lanka: Under Rajapaksas’ Watch, Rule of Law Suffers the Onslaught of Politics

Sistema ‘combines the idea that the state should enjoy unlimited access to all national resources, public or private, with a kind of permanent state of emergency in which every level of society—businesses, social and ethnic groups, powerful clans, and even criminal gangs—is drafted into solving what the Kremlin labels “urgent state problems”’.

She says that while “Russians are sincere in their denunciation of corrupt officials” they also “defend and take pleasure in the paternalist comfort of sistema. They are proud of its maneuverability and flexibility: you can always find a way to get something done.” This sounds very similar to Sri Lanka where it is common to find a shortcut to get things done because the formal system does not work.

Instead of fixing the system, politicians step in personally to get things done, which further undermines the system and entrenches dysfunctionality. An example is the president’s visits to villages as part of the “Discussion with the Village” programme, the purpose of which is to “talk to the rural communities without intermediaries about their long-standing unresolved problems, solve them instantly to the extent possible and direct the rest which take time to deal with to the officials for solutions.”

People stand in a line to cast their vote during the presidential election in Colombo, Sri Lanka November 16, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

An outcome of the dominance of the informal system is the appointment of those known to and trusted by the regime to positions of power in the interests of ‘getting things done’, such as family members or friends. These persons also seem to be able to act in extra-legal ways with impunity. For instance, based on a letter by the head of the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority (SLTA), it appears that Udayanga Weeratunga, who is a relative of the president, was able to bypass all health regulations and conduct tours without adhering to undertakings given to SLTA. The message is that one can escape legal action through patronage. In time, such action can have the effect of making institutions seem ‘superfluous’ leading people to ask if they are needed, which provides the perfect justification to the government to abolish them.

Ledeneva points out that when using informal networks ‘you think you are pursuing the targets of modernisation through the use of the tools which seem to you, as a leader, effective. But you cannot escape the long-term consequences’. The current regime uses, to borrow Ledeneva’s term, a ‘glitter ball of words’, such as ‘vistas of prosperity and splendour’, ‘innovation and development’ and ‘sustainable inclusive development’ to portray a modern outlook, while in practice entrenches patronage driven, informal methods that undermine public institutions, rule-based systems and processes, and ultimately transparency and accountability.

In Sri Lanka, democracy can easily be undermined and electoral authoritarianism entrenched because democratic values have not been internalised. To Sri Lankans, democracy begins and ends with casting the vote and there is little understanding of the citizen’s civic duty to hold the government accountable between elections. One fact that is unquestioningly evident is that many Sri Lankan politicians, particularly the current regime, view critique of the government and dissent as anti-national and unpatriotic instead of as the civic duty of every citizen. Therein lies the biggest problem.

Ambika Satkunanathan is a fellow at the Open Society Foundations and was a Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka from 2015-2020.

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