Gotabaya’s Alternative Vision Challenges Sri Lanka’s Democracy
Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently announced at a meeting of Viyath Maga, of which he is president that he was ready to contest the next Presidential Election that must be held this year.
In his speech to the assembled professionals and business people he asserted that Sri Lanka must have national unity (Jaathikathwaya) and rejected sectarian division (Jaathiwaadaya). The Viyath Maga website makes all the right statements on good governance such as “steer the country in the correct path with accountability; inculcate democratic values…”, and so on. Rajapaksa also stressed the importance of solving ‘social problems’ focusing on poverty reduction. All of the above are desirable political goals for the country. They are also not new. The UNF in 2015, and earlier leaders, made similar promises that were largely ignored once in office.
Rajapaksa’s readiness to contest the Presidency has been complicated by at least three factors. First, if the Executive Presidency is abolished before the end of the year, an election will be redundant.
Second, the eldest of the Rajapaksa siblings, Chamal Rajapaksa, has also announced his availability to contest the Presidency. This may be either a cunning ploy to confuse other potential candidates or a reflection of a family feud.
Third, and most importantly, if the Constitution remains unchanged the country faces the grim prospect of having a divided executive branch, with the President and Prime Minister competing for power.
However, if a Rajapaksa contesting on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) ticket wins the Presidency there is a good chance that the SLPP will also win the parliamentary election that is to follow and Mahinda Rajapaksa will be Prime Minister. Then one family will wield formidable political power laying the foundation for a family dynasty and possibly a more authoritarian regime of the type that the 18th Amendment facilitated. It is not clear if voters would want that to happen.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke to the nation after he lost the premiership last December, he claimed that the political forces that he represents account for 54% of the electorate.
This roughly is the arithmetical total of the votes that the SLPP and the SLFP polled at the February 2018 Local Government elections. If it holds in the Presidential Election the candidate that Mahinda Rajapaksa backs would win the Presidency. But the electoral dynamic usually does not replicate itself in that manner.
The Rajapaksas do not have much support from the minorities that account for 25% of the electorate. The anti-Muslim incidents in the Ampara and Kandy districts last year and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pointed remark last December that the TNA has the ‘remote control’ over the current Ranil Wickremesinghe administration won’t help a Rajapaksa candidacy.
The second major challenge that Gotabaya faces concerns the issue of good governance. Voters rejected the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration in which Gotabaya played a major role because of bad governance. The Yaha Paalanaya administration had disappointed its supporters on good governance. But that does not exonerate the Rajapaksas of their bad track record.
The third major issue that Gotabaya faces concerns his vision for the country if he were to be elected President. He stresses the importance of eradicating poverty. He prefers what he calls the ‘Asian Model’ that Sri Lanka should follow to achieve economic and social success.
There are a number of problems that arise if we were to take his pronouncement at its face value. First, Gotabaya claims that about 60% of the Sri Lankan population is poor or that they believe they are poor.
The latest estimate from the Department of Census and Statistics based on an all-island random sample survey of households is that about 4.1% (around 850,000 or just one-fifteenth of Gotabaya’s estimate) of Sri Lanka’s population lived below the official poverty line (Headcount Index) in 2016. Even if the official number is doubled or trebled allowing for estimation errors, Gotabaya Rajapaksa obviously exaggerates.
However, we can accept the argument that Sri Lanka needs to accelerate economic growth and increase incomes. But the policy prescription that Gotabaya proposes to advance that goal can undermine Sri Lanka’s democracy. Here is why.
Rajapaksa’s proposal is to give precedence to ‘social problems’ over ‘individual rights’ to reduce poverty and increase incomes. He describes individual rights as an imposition on us from the West that impede poverty reduction and economic progress. That is a false formulation, at least in respect of Sri Lanka. In this country social progress and individual rights have complemented each other as explained below.
Individual rights include the right to vote, freedom of speech, and the right to be treated equally under the rule of law. We have elected Governments through the ballot for 88 years starting in 1931. The events after October 26, 2018 showed that Sri Lankans value their democracy more than they are prepared to admit. Our democracy is far from perfect. But as Churchill once remarked, “Democracy is the worst from of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Undoubtedly, Sri Lanka has not realized its full potential in economic growth. The reasons for that are complex. But, Sri Lanka has made considerable economic progress since independence.
Since Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka experienced negative (-1.5%) economic growth only in one year, 2001. The country’s GDP per capita income was about $ 116 in 1950. In 2017 it was $ 4,065, a 35-fold increase. Excluding the Maldives (population 450,000) Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country that has reached lower middle-income status to date, a threshold that we crossed in 1997 (per capita GDP $800).
Sri Lanka’s outstanding success among developing countries first noticed in the mid 1970s was in education as measured by adult literacy rate, and health as measured by life expectancy at birth. In 1976 Sri Lanka, a ‘low-income’ country with a $200 per capita income GDP had an adult literacy rate of 76% and life expectancy at birth of 68 years that matched European upper middle-income countries such as Yugoslavia and Portugal with a $17,000per capita income GDP. The power of the ballot and the numbers on education and health are connected. The Government has to take care of the basic needs of the people to win elections.
Rajapaksa recommends what he calls the ‘Asian Model’ for Sri Lanka. The model he refers to cannot be the Indian democracy that is similar to that of Sri Lanka. The only alternative model in broad terms is the Southeast Asian and East Asian authoritarian model found in China, Vietnam and many other Asian countries. This model has several problems.
First they are not democracies. Certainly, Sri Lanka’s minorities will not want an authoritarian government largely run by the majority community. If the revitalization of the UNP in the Sinhalese South after October 26 is any indication, it is very unlikely that there will be a large number of takers even among the Sinhalese voters for an authoritarian government.
Second, benevolent, corruption-free and efficient authoritarian regimes are largely a myth. For example, one of President Xi Jinping’s main goals is to eradicate rampant corruption in China. Malaysia is not a democracy in the normal sense of the term but is often seen as more successful than Sri Lanka economically.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister from 2009 to 2018, Najib Razak was recently charged with corruption involving billions of dollars. Most third world authoritarian regimes exist for the benefit of a small ruling coterie.
Third, the authoritarian Asian model does not guarantee economic success. Singapore is an exception. China is not an appropriate model for Sri Lanka because the countries are very different in size, resources and so forth.
Countries such as Thailand under military governments (1976-1997) and Indonesia under Suharto (1967-98) enjoyed economic bubbles in the 1980s, financed largely with borrowed funds that burst in the Asian financial crisis of the early 1990.
This is no different to the economic bubble the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration created after 2009.
The Government borrowed heavily mainly from China and spent the money partly on large infrastructure projects such as the Mattala Airport, Hambantota Port, an International Cricket Stadium, and Nelum Pokuna that yielded little or no income but created a fiscal and foreign exchange crisis when the loans could not be repaid.
In short, an authoritarian model with individual rights curtailed or even eliminated in exchange for promised economic success to solve social problems is a bad trade that Sri Lankan voters must not accept.
What the voters have to do is exert pressure on politicians using their voting power to improve governance.
As the 2015 Yaha Paalanaya experience has demonstrated this is easier said than done. But we have to keep trying and hope for the best.