Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dayan Jayatilleka on democratic resistence

Dayan Jayatilleke has articulated a manifesto for what he calls democratic resistance.While Mr Jayatilleka's learning and erudition are beyond doubt, he seems naive when he hopes that "almost nothing done can be reversed when elections come around".

The error lies in assuming that the holding of elections could result in a change in regime. This has happened only once in the last 32 years - in 1994 when Chandrika Kumaratunga succeeded in toppling the UNP regime, which, as we were ceaselessly reminded, ruled for 17 years. We were only spared the propaganda once the present regime clocked up its 17th year. They are about to embark on their 19th year and show no sign of slowing down.

Under previous constitutions, incumbent regimes changed in 1956, 1960, 1965, 1970 and 1977. In the thirty years since 1948 five changes in incumbency took place.

Since the constitution of 1978 there has only been a lone instance of an incumbent losing: in 1994. Given that the 'born loser' Ranil Wickremasinghe lead the opposition at the time, perhaps the loss is not so surprising.

It is also worth noting that each and every incumbent, bar one, succeeded in serving the full term permitted under the constitution, until handing over to his chosen successor within the party. The only one who failed to serve the full two terms permitted by the constitution was Premadasa, who was assassinated.

The reason for the lack of change is in the constitution: the incumbent is all-powerful, has control of all the resources of the state that can be wielded against his opponents. The recent amendments to the constitution have increased the power of the Executive enormously; most notably by abolishing term limits and independent commissions. Further amendments to curb the little independence enjoyed by the judiciary should seal the power of the Executive permanently.

The essence of a functioning democracy are the institutional curbs placed, by constitution or tradition, on the power of the Executive. Traditionally the institutional curbs comprise:

a) an independent civil service (which runs day to day administration, serving citizens equally irrespective of political affiliation);
b) an independent judiciary;
c) the separation of powers between the legislature and executive and the accountability of the executive to parliament;
d) a free press which exposes the faults of Government.

In the current set up where members cross over for cash reward, parliament is little better than a rubber stamp. The civil service was disbanded in 1965 and its last vestiges of independence probably disappeared in the 1980's. Of the press, enough has been said, most that are left standing have learned that it is best to tow the line and the judiciary, already greatly compromised, have now been brought to heel.

As there are no institutional checks left, the rulers enjoy unprecedented power to distribute largesse to voters at elections, intimidate or cripple opponents, disenfranchise minorities, stuff ballots and otherwise 'manage' the electoral process to deliver expected results.We have witnessed many instances of this in the past, only the degree of the tactics need to be increased to compensate for the inevitable decline in popularity.

Eventually the tactics will need to be so blatant that only the blind will refuse to see, but elections will continue to be held, regularly. Even Robert Mugabe managed to to be returned to office, with come conviction, over a good thirty years.

Of the four points Mr Jayatilleke highlights only the fourth: that the most significant political enterprises in the politics of this island have taken the form of ruptures with pre-existing organisations; has any validity. In this case, as other actors and organisations have no power and do not matter, the rupture will take the form of a family squabble.

This is the other important point of note: previously the baton of power was handed down within the party; as in the case of communist China; now it will be handed down within the family, in the traditional feudal fashion.

His other points have some meaning only in the context of a reasonably free election. For the reasons pointed out above, elections are heavily weighted in favour of the incumbent and are thus hardly fair, even if they may be reasonably free, which may not necessarily be the case.  


No comments: