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Democracy or Dynasty?

| by Laksiri Fernando 

( December 29, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka at the cross roads. People may see different dimensions depending on different vantage points from which they look at the cross roads. However, at the presidential elections, it is a key choice between democracy and dynastic-authoritarianism. 

Minister Pavithra Devi Wanniarachchi worshiping the President
The emergence of authoritarianism subordinating traditional parliamentary democratic institutions was linked to the executive presidential system. It also had an ethnic as well as a class dimension. Those were different to the ethnic or class dimensions that we could see prior to the advent of the presidential system in 1978 or under the parliamentary system. The protracted civil war, based on the ethnic conflict, was a result of the new situation beginning 1983. The effective subjugation of the organized working class or trade union movement or any other popular movements also was a result of the same process. Or otherwise, what was the purpose of authoritarian presidential system, one may ask? The usual answer given is development or the open economy. However, the hidden or related objectives were different. 

The presidential-authoritarianism is repressive both on the ethnic and class dimensions. However, so far the system depended on ‘free and fair’ electoral processes whatever the inbuilt constraints within and added to the constitution. It is still the case, but has become weaker and weaker. 

Nature of the Regime

The specific nature of the present regime is not mere presidential-authoritarianism. It is presidential-authoritarianism + dynasty. A close family and a surrounding clique have become pivotal in the wielding of power, at the center and in many provinces. It may be called dynastic-authoritarianism for convenience. 

One may ask at this stage, whether I refer to the constitutional system or the regime? The State is different, of course shaped or constrained by the constitution. The answer: I refer particularly to the regime form, based on the constitutional system. Keep it in mind that regimes create constitutional systems and then the constitutional systems shape the regimes. The relationship is dialectical. 

How do the regimes created? The regimes are created normally through social and/or class forces. But it is apparent that leaders (Heroes?) and even families also create or determine the regimes. This is exactly the case at present. Do people have a say in creating regimes? Yes, they do have both through democratic and extra-democratic means. However, in the case of parliamentary processes, what is created is not exactly a regime. 

A regime is a cohesive ruling group and if the parliamentary processes are strong what is created is not exactly a regime. It is a government and a representative body. The term regime does not comfortably fits with a proper parliamentary process. 

Could we see a JR or a Premadasa regime? Not exactly. Less so in the case of CBK. Could we see a Rajapaksa regime? Most certainly. 

Emergence of Dynasty

Dynasty is normally referred to the succession. However, it is more than succession. For example, Mahinda Rajapaksa has not handed over power to Namal Rajapaksa. Not yet. However, he has accorded immense power to Namal even without a ministry. The present dynasty, so far is mainly on the horizontal axis. As we know, his brother is the strong man in the defense and security establishment. His elder brother controls the Parliament. Another one, the economy. It goes beyond the immediate family. A nephew is controlling a province. There are hordes of relatives in the Foreign Service and in the state bureaucracy.

What is wrong in a family, one may ask? Why anyone envious? The Buddha emphasized the importance in his Singalovada Sutta. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) emphasizes it. However, not to wield political power or usurp the country or resources of the country. In politics, it is natural for family members to get attracted. However, there should be ethics and constraints. It is not merely a matter of scale. Here what we have is a total control. Nearly a 60 percent of the national budget expenditure is controlled by the Rajapaksa family. 

How has this happened? Well, these Rajapaksas are a strong family. They have been in politics for generations. These nepotistic tendencies are within our (feudal) social traditions. They are all over the world. That is why democratic constraints are necessary. I was once asked to write Mahinda Rajapaksa’s biography. First I was tempted and then dropped it, having seen the ugly side. 

How has this dynasty come about at this juncture? It is partly coincidental. The size of the family for example. It is partly a product of the intense war. Even Prabhakaran was or would have been the same on the other side of the fence. 

But this Rajapaksa dynasty is mainly a construction or a creation. This is where the danger lies. They are only at the midstream of this project. This ‘conspiracy’ of premature election is a very significant stage of this project. A major past step was the 18th Amendment. Now this election (strictly speaking illegal) requests a ‘new mandate.’ For how long? 

If MR is elected at this election, he will rule for 8 more years. If MS elected, his term will be 6 years. This is a difference, many have overlooked. Is it democratic? 

Even Maithripala has stated that the term of the Head of State should be 4 years. If elected, he would become an elected Head of State (with necessary powers) within 100 days and not a continuing Executive President. He would not be a ‘broomstick’ in anyone’s imagination however! 

If Rajapaksa is elected, he would rule the country for 8 years and bring a new constitution to entrench the dynastic presidential authoritarianism. It would be like the 1974 Ne Win constitution in Burma. Ne Win however didn’t have dynastic ambitions, only military-nationalist or ‘socialist’ ambitions. On the authoritarian front it would be the same, couched in populist jargon, even a misguided Marxist might get attracted to. 

However the whole project is 40 years late. 

Ideological Influences 

My initial research for Mahinda Rajapaksa biography revealed that he was strongly attracted to Kim Il-sung thinking in the early 1970s when he was a young parliamentarian. Il-sung’s selected works were translated into Sinhalese and even serialized in the Lake House newspapers. Particularly the concept of Juche attracted him and also Il-sung’s personality cult. Juche roughly means ‘self-reliance’ and in the present context ‘home grown solutions. Rajapaksa must have closely followed the Kim dynasty: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. 

Of course there were other influences. He was in close association and solidarity with Col. Gaddafi. MR visited him both immediately before and after Nandikadal, whatever the reason.

Winning the war was a major prompt to create the Mahinda Rajapaksa personality cult, with huge cutouts, portraits, songs, worshipers etc. Even the Ministers began to worship the President. The following picture is a good example.

Modern dynasties are created first constructing personality cults. Arnold Ludwig in his, “King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership,” said the following on the purposes of creating personality cults.

“The main purpose of a government-sponsored personality cult is to get the people to believe that their ruler has extraordinary, even divine-like qualities so that they will follow his lead or be too scared to rebel.” (p. 75).

It is not only the leader or hero who creates the unbelievable image, but his cronies. Ludwig further said, “Rulers want the people to think well of them. So when they get a chance to influence the attitudes of their people towards them, they naturally want them to believe that they are wonderful as they imagine themselves to be. After the people begin to repeat what they were programmed to say, the leaders often forget that they were the ones who programmed them to say it in the first place.”

Breaking the Trap

I do hope that people are not ‘too scared to rebel,’ like Maithripala Sirisena or before him, Sarath Fonseka has done. And hope they have shaken off the deceptive image or impression sufficiently that the propaganda machinery has created about the ‘Hero.’

What is necessary, for the moment, is just a rebellion at the polling booth by casting their vote against MR for usurping the country. Last time in 2010, it was too early and complicated. Today, it is the right time. Otherwise, not only the present, but also the future generations would suffer.

There is some hope.
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