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Paradox of democracy and Attrition of civic space in Sri Lanka: Quo Vadis? – II Democracy and Civic Space

By Gamini Keerawella
Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya

(Courtesy of The Island)

Matters relating to the substance of democracy and the texture of civic space in Sri Lanka have emerged as focal issues in political discourse more than ever today, after seven decades of turbulent and checked course of democratic governance. Having inherited Westminster model of parliamentary institutions from the British Raj, Sri Lanka was considered one of the most promising democratic spaces in Asia at the time of independence. The political elite who gained reins of power after independence, irrespective of their political color, remained faithful adherents of British political traditions. The apolitical bureaucracy, schooled under the colonial rule ensured the administrative continuity from the colonial to post-colonial state. The multi-party system, regular elections and the tradition of changing governments peacefully by the ballot gave initial credentials to the democratic governance in Sri Lanka. Hence, during the first two decades after independence, Sri Lanka had been cited as a shining example of parliamentary democracy in a plural Third World society.

The positive image of Sri Lanka as a ‘vibrant democracy in South Asia’ began to wither away gradually in the 1980s. What witnessed since then was the rapid erosion of democratic institutions and resultant contraction of civic political space. The continuous majoritarian political practices, the intolerance of dissent, frequent use of Emergency Regulations, the concentration of power in the hands of the executive while systematically dismantling the system of checks and balances, the manipulation of electoral process, the institutionalization of political violence and ethnic conflicts became conspicuous features of the political landscape in Sri Lanka. It is an irony that once the most promising and vibrant democracy had given birth to two youth insurrections in the South and the protracted armed struggle in the North. In this backdrop, this paper attempts to understand the paradoxes of democracy in Sri Lanka, reflected vividly in the discrepancy between its rhetoric and substance. The democratic deficit will be tracked by linking it with the continuous collapse of hegemony of the state and also with the changing texture of the civic space. In order to set the theoretical point of departure to the analysis, the paper defines first some key analytical properties employed in the article. It proceeds therefrom to trace the incongruity between the form and the substance of democracy, which widened with the passage of time. The final part of the paper tries to understand this paradox by tracing nexuses between the evolving social and political dynamics involved with the crisis of the hegemony of ruling bloc and the decaying of democratic institutions and how they refracted in the civic space, influencing its political texture and role.

The State, Democracy and Civic Space

The key analytical category around which all other heuristic constructs used in the paper are gravitated is the concept of state and its hegemony. This article adopts Gramscian readings of the state. Accordingly, the state is defined not simply as an apparatus but as a totality of activities of the ruling bloc as rulers. Gramsci writes, “The state is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules”i. The division of the superstructure in society into two domains as civil and political by Gramsci is useful to comprehend the working of the social fabric of state power in a democratic environment. The civil society is the ensemble of social organisms commonly called ‘private’, which includes political parties, trade unions, educational and cultural institutions etc. The political society is the totality of public domain, including the state. The state power is really a matter of social supremacy, which manifest both in the form of domination and in intellectual and moral leadership, the hegemony. The ‘civil’ and ‘political’ domains “correspond on the one hand to the function of hegemony which the dominant group exercise throughout society, and on the other hand to that of direct domination through the state and the judicial government”.

Conceptualizing the state from a quite different perspective, Barry Buzan has identified the ‘idea of the state’, reflected in the ideological basis of the state, as one of the three key bases of the state. The other two comprise the institutional base and the human and physical base. The ideological base of the state is the most crucial because it binds the territorial base with its human and institutional base with the state. In essence, the crisis of the Sri Lankan state is the crisis of the hegemony of the weak ruling bloc who fails to offer overarching ideology for the state, capable of uniting the people cutting across ethnic boundaries. The political dynamics of democratic deficit in Sri Lanka need to be understood against the crisis of hegemonic accommodation of ‘others’ by the ruling blocs. In order to understand constant reconstitution of ruling ‘historic bloc’ in Sri Lanka since independence, it is necessary to combine theoretical level analysis of political dynamics with concrete level analysis of different political formations.

Democracy is a constantly evolving concept with multiple dimensions and diverse forms in different contexts and discourses. These forms include, inter alia, electoral democracy, centralized democracy, liberal democracy, social democracy and participatory democracy. Democracy manifests in different political institutions in the form of electoral systems (majoritarian), government systems (presidential/parliamentary) and state structure (federalist/unitary). Democracy is not only a system of governance, but also a set of ideology, a form of culture, a way of life and a pattern of thinking. In the final analysis, democracy is a discourse. As a system of governance, democracy has reached the present stage as a result of the struggle and sacrifices of generations of people for centuries. Broadly speaking, it can be defined as “popular control of public decision-making and decision-makers, and political equality between citizens in the exercise of that control.”ii

What counts as a democracy?

a. It is generally believed that regular, free and fair elections are the main defining feature of democracy. What is meant by free and fair elections is a vexed issue in view of the presence of big money in politics, and its ability to capture the state and facilitate corruption. Free and fair election is not the only criteria of democracy; there are many more. Besides, mandate is not a Carte blanche given to those who are elected by the people only for a certain period.

b. Mandate should invariably accompany in-built mechanisms to check, control and correct them to make democracy functional. Furthermore, mutual checkmating and balance of three branches of government, namely executive, legislative and judiciary, is an essential element of democracy. Multi-party system and the responsible opposition are considered essential ingredients of democracy.

c. Democracy is a system of rule by laws, not by individuals. No one is above the law, not even the elected president. The rule of law places limits on the power of the government. No government agency may violate these limits. Fundamental rights constitute an essential feature of democracy, which determine the degree to which civil liberties are respected. The protection of fundamental rights vis-à-vis legislative action lies with the judiciary in democracy.

d. Constitutionality is the backbone of democracy. The constitutionality is something more than the existence of independent judiciary. The constitution is above the three branches of governance in the sense that parameters of functions of three branches of government are defined by the constitution. In democracy, the constitution is the embodiment of popular sovereignty. The executive, legislature and judiciary branches exercise popular sovereignty but they do it in line with the provisions of the constitution. In the last resort, the guardian of the constitution is the independent Supreme Court.

e. The free citizen, the absence of privileged class and the equality voters are the core of democracy. The informed public constitutes essential element of democracy and without them it becomes sterile. The free access to information is fundamental in the articulation of informed public and the state. Building a democratic citizen freed from primordial loyalties and mental frames is a sine qua non of democratic state building.

f. Last but not the least, the role of free, competitive, and robust but responsive media as the ‘watch dog’ of democracy is crucial in democratic governance. The use of media, conventional and social, as a tool in legitimization/ de-legitimization of political power and politics is a critical issue in democracy. As Andrea Butruce writes, “The digital revolution has brought about a paradigm shift in the modalities of state-society relations and the very concept and functioning of democracy. Social media in particular has impacted the process of information sharing and gathering. Now simply a click away, and influenced the perception of truth”.iii

Another important concept, closely related to democracy is the civic space. Like democracy, the civic space is also an evolving concept. It is a virtual space, which is difficult to define and demarcate it from the political space precisely due to constant articulation between the two. Democracy needs a vibrant civic space for it to be meaningful and effective, which is considered the bedrock for democracy. Broadly, the civic space can be defined as the space where citizens are able to organize, participate and communicate without hindrance. Three fundamental freedoms that are essential components of democracy define parameters of civic space: freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Civic space and the civil society are not the same even though two terms are often used interchangeably. Civil Society is an imagined entity. It is an arena created by individuals, organizations and institutions to advance shared interests outside the family, the state and the market.

Democracy as a system constantly needs revitalization for its survival. It is highly prone to decline in the face of constant challenges it confronts from within. Voter apathy and distrust of traditional political institutions and politicians create conditions for populism to emerge and advocate ‘illiberal democracy’ against fundamental rights for the sake of national security which leads to democratic backsliding. But democracy has its own self-correction mechanisms – democratic resilience. Democratic resilience can be defined as “the ability of the social system to cope with, survive, innovate and recover from complex challenges and crisis that present stress or pressure that can led to systemic failure”. In view of that, democracy would be the best system of governance that the mankind has so far generated. However, in order ensure its proper working, the democratic system of governance should accompany other symbiotic aspects of democracy: democratic culture, democratic behavior and democratic thinking. Against this analytical backdrop, no objective political observer could be oblivious to the fact that there is a vast discrepancy between the substance and the rhetoric of democracy in Sri Lanka. (To be continued)


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