Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sri Lanka: Will election weaken democracy?

Sri Lankans will go to polling booths on April 8, to elect a new parliament. The general perception is that the coalition headed by the president will win. There seems to be an uncanny parallel between the political siutation in India in the 1970s, and Sri Lanka today. I hope history will not repeat itself. Will Mahinda Rajapaksa choose to secure his own future or that of Sri Lanka?

My article titled "Winning the War, Losing Democracy" in the Wall Street Journal was published on April 6, 2010.

Sri Lankans will elect a new parliament tomorrow [April 8]. The election results are a foregone conclusion, but the future of Sri Lanka, unfortunately, may not be so certain. On the face of it the idyllic island nation seems poised to seize on a historic political opportunity at the end of a 25-year civil war against the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But the initial sense of hope that followed the total military victory over the terrorists last May has slowly dissipated as President Mahinda Rajapaksa consolidates his hold on power.

Those who are alarmed by the developments of Mr. Rajapaksa's rule often point to parallels with the history of neighboring India under the rule of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. After military victory over Pakistan in 1971, Mrs. Gandhi led her Congress Party to a huge victory in the general election. But her populist policies failed to deliver; as inflation rose, political and social unrest spread. By the summer of 1975, Gandhi declared emergency rule, suspended civil liberties, jailed political opponents, packed the judiciary with yes-men, and coerced most of the media into submission.

In Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapaksa followed up on his emphatic victory in the presidential election in January 2010 by jailing his main opponent, former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, for allegedly plotting a military coup. This has damaged the country's democratic credentials and aggravated political fissures. Gen. Fonseka, who led the military in its finest hour, today stands accused of corruption and of engaging in politics while still in uniform. The date for his trial has not been announced yet, but he remains in custody.

The presidential election also exacerbated political fractures between various ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional groups. The opposition candidate, Gen. Fonseka, carried six provinces with larger concentrations of Tamils and Muslims, while Mr. Rajapaksa carried the Sinhalese dominated countryside in 16 other provinces. With the end of the war, the elections should be an opportunity to restart the normal political process. But it would be an unfortunate result if the democratic process only deepens the pre-existing political and social tensions. It is precisely those tensions between the Tamil and Sinhala ethnicities that helped sustain one of the bloodiest ethnic terrorist movements in modern times.

Criticism of Mr. Rajapaksa's government is not looked on kindly, which is impacting democratic discourse. Violent attacks on journalists and media offices have continued, and these incidents are not being conclusively investigated. This has given rise to speculation not just about the competence of the administration, but also its possible complicity. In one of the best known instances, Lasantha Wickramatunga, a senior journalist who was killed in January 2009, left behind a statement laying the blame on the authorities should he be harmed. Today, even many supporters of the government are afraid to speak their minds.

There are also growing doubts over the independence of judiciary. The Supreme Court has repeatedly failed to clear the air surrounding a 1982 constitutional amendment about mid-term presidential elections, which allows a president to call a snap election to run for a second six-year term at any time after the fourth year of his first six-year term. The amendment under debate gives a re-elected president the right to begin his second six-year term after completing the year in which the midterm election is held, regardless of when he called the election. In 2005, Supreme Court took the common sense view that a second presidential term should begin immediately after a midterm election is held, without invalidating the constitutional amendment. But within days of the latest presidential election, on February 1, the Supreme Court appeared to reverse that ruling and—at Mr. Rajapaksa's request—issued an interpretation that essentially hands him an extra ten months in office.

On top of this conflict between the letter of the law and the spirit of justice, security forces still maintain a visible presence on the streets, making it seem as if the war hasn't ended. Neither has the economy improved, with double-digit inflation and a ballooning budget deficit.

It's not too late to save Sri Lanka's democracy, however. In India, Gandhi redeemed herself by accepting the electoral verdict in 1977, when the Congress Party lost power at the national level for the first time since independence in 1947. That single act of accepting the electoral verdict helped secure the political foundations of democracy in India.

With the acceptance of political pluralism in India came a much greater appreciation of federalism. No doubt, there are still many unresolved problems in the world's largest democracy. But the idea of India—the recognition that social and ethnic diversity enriches, rather than weakens, the country's political unity—has only strengthened in recent decades.
President Rajapaksa dominates Sri Lanka's political landscape. His popularity is not questioned—he received a very handsome 58% of the votes in January. That should give him the confidence to respect a diversity of opinion, which is the essence of a functional democracy. He has an unprecedented opportunity to secure the political future of the island.

But bolstered by military and electoral victory, will the president turn despotic in a vain attempt to secure his own future at the cost of his country? Only Mr. Rajapaksa can answer this. Meanwhile, he could draw some valuable political lessons from recent Indian history and avoid repeating the same mistakes. That would go a long way in ensuring a democratic, plural and peaceful future for Sri Lanka.

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