By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
The other day I was discussing contemporary Sri Lankan trends over lunch with a friend, an LSE educated professor who is on the faculty of the LSE, who promptly proffered his parallel: “Russia’s Putin and Russia under Putin… but can the model sustain without natural gas and oil reserves?”
He also thought that there was a quintessential continuity between the Premadasa presidency and the current one, as well as in Western attitudes towards them. My lunch guest did not mention fascism, despotism, dictatorship or the death of democracy even once.
For his part, Mangala Samaraweera has once again concluded that democracy is dying in Sri Lanka and that it is already or is headed towards a dictatorship. (I say ‘once again’ advisedly, since he said the same thing as coach of the Mothers Front in the early ’90s). This leaves a few questions: what was the state of Sri Lanka’s democracy and how close was it to dictatorship when he was a powerful cabinet minister; a period which witnessed bodies of Tamil youth strangled with plastic handcuffs bobbing in the Diyawanna oya girdling the parliament, the murder in Veyangoda by automatic weapon fire of those running a taxi service at the Katunayake airport, the splitting open of the skull and pouring of battery acid into the head of a UNP supporter who refused to paste a Chandrika poster and the forcible pasting of the poster in his funeral house, the shooting up of Sarath Kongahage’s restaurant, the Chenmani mass graves, the Bindunuwewa massacre of detainees, the invasion of singer Rukantha Gunatilaka’s home, the murder of Kumar Ponnambalam and D.P. Sivaram (‘Taraki’)?
When did democracy begin to die in Sri Lanka? Could it have been when it was still Ceylon, when elephants were deployed by the UNP to prevent voting by depressed caste Sinhala villagers and Rohana Wijeweera’s father was turned paraplegic by UNP thugs at the General Elections of 1947, followed by the disenfranchisement of the Tamil plantation workers?
We’ve heard the talk of existing or incipient dictatorship before and a great many times too. The JVP armed itself for the first time in the late 1960s, because of the seriously entertained fear that the then Minister of State, J.R. Jayewardene and his ideologue Esmond Wickremesinghe, were planning to install a dictatorship along Suharto lines behind the back of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and that therefore elections would not be held on schedule in 1970. In the event, they were and the government lost.
Perhaps we were closer to the burial of democracy and its replacement by dictatorship at the fag-end of the SLFP administration of 1970-77, when there was kite flying from public platforms about prolonging Mrs. Bandaranaike’s incumbency and the whizz-kid of a secretary to a relevant ministry who is today a British-based born-again proselytiser for International Humanitarian Law and R2P, actually drafted an amendment to the constitution which would make for extension of the term of office.
Most pertinent to my main point, is the matter of discourse and definition. I do not believe that a majority of Sri Lanka’s academics are happily supportive of the 18th Amendment. However, their very training in political science, the social sciences, history and the humanities, equip them with a perspective that makes them instinctively de-construct the hysterical discourse of the death of democracy and the descent into a dark dictatorial (some actually stick the nasty Nazi label) age and recognise the nature of those who produce this lurid discourse.
Does this mean that all is well in the state of Denmark? Not so, but the condition must be named for what it is, not denounced for what it is not. As a political scientist, I eschew the description and definition of ‘dying democracy’ and ‘dawning dictatorship’ in favour of a fairly well-known concept in our discipline, that of neo-patrimonialism. This derives of course from Max Weber’s concept of patrimonialism and has been modified and applied by political scientists to understand the nature of states in the Third World. Neo-patrimonialism describes a state with a strong leader, where that factor and attendant patron-client relations are of greater salience than the rule of law. The literature in the field holds that neo-patrimonialism can be grafted onto/be accompaniment of three types of state: democratic, authoritarian and hybrid. (No fascism, I’m afraid.)
Sri Lanka had an episode of neo-patrimonialism (or its matriarchal equivalent) under the Bandaranaikes in 1970-77 and today can be viewed as a reprise. The worst that can be credibly said about the Sri Lankan state is that it is in danger of turning into — or has become — a hybrid of democracy and authoritarianism. Personally I would define Sri Lanka as a malfunctioning democracy with a tendency to neo-patrimonialism, or if you prefer, a neo-patrimonial democracy.
Some of the West’s best friends, allies and customers are neo-patrimonial states, including neo-patrimonial non-democracies.
Meanwhile, the British Labour Party has set a good example for opposition parties worldwide, including in this country. The defeated Labour prime minister resigned, instead of clinging to party leadership, thereby liberating the party from his personal unpopularity and permitting it greater flexibility of choice and alliances. The party itself elected, not selected, a new leader and did so in a straight race, without the fudge of consensus. It didn’t dawdle for years, but had a new leadership within months. It didn’t pick the man most associated with the US, its foreign policy and the Iraq war, but the younger man who proved that he had the most support at the grassroots of the Labour Party and has pitted himself against the Thatcherite economic doctrine of the Conservatives. In doing so, it took the risk of being accused of returning to a polarising and controversial era of labour under Neil Kinnock. As a result of the choice it has made, in public opinion polls, the Labour Party with its new leadership is ahead of Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative-Lib Dem government.
Clear and straightforward as this may seem as a political morality tale, the truth is that the main Sri Lankan Opposition is no Labour Party. A few years after he took over, the UNP leader affiliated to the Conservative Party and the US Republicans, through the International Democratic Union, the Rightwing International so to speak. This is not to say that there are no historical filiations between British Labour and the UNP, but they belong on the other side of the inner-party divide. In the testimony before the Donoughmore Commission, almost all Ceylonese leaders, Sinhala and Tamil, including S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, spoke against universal franchise. There was only one exception, and that was A.E. Goonesinghe, the labour leader from Colombo. He founded his Labour Party with Britain’s Labour Party as an explicit model. Many years later, Ranasinghe Premadasa having founded an autonomous grassroots urban social movement, the Sucharitha Movement at age 16 while a student at St. Joseph’s (Godfrey Goonetilleke was a classmate), joined Goonesinghe’s Labour Party and entered the UNP when the latter took his party into D.S. Senanayake’s much larger tent.
The British Labour Party has a new leadership and exciting new prospects while the UNP remains under its longest serving leader, who is also the least successful electorally (barring the interlude of Sir John) of all its leaders. Go figure.