There is a groundswell of public discontent at the government, partly due to its own inability to deliver on high expectations it set during the election, as well as due to its own misdemeanours, which at times mirror its predecessor. The former is understandable for governing requires a different set of skills (as well as luck) than those required to oppose a government. Thus it is easier to criticize the Rajapaksas’ economic model than delivering a sustainable growth. Also, it was easier to allege the former regime of corruption than prosecuting the looter of public funds. That may be perhaps because the former regime always kept a step ahead of public prosecutors.
In part the government’s current misfortune emanates from the fact that it was in the ‘opposition mood’, almost a year after it won elections and kept on dismantling its predecessor’s economic legacy and suspending development projects, rather than forging ahead with the momentum.
However, when the government’s own misgivings are added, the things get more complicated. Its vacillation in mega investment projects as the country is facing a foreign exchange crisis is robbing this country of much more than the Rajapaksas might have robbed during their ten years. Its indifference to rising fringe Buddhist extremism is a dangerous oversight. And when it sought to allocate (and later rescinded) limited public funds to purchase luxury vehicles for ministers while the country was reeling from a natural disaster that smacks of utter callousness.
Be it about the members of the current government or its predecessors, average folks have a low opinion about the politicians in general. They are often described (not always rightly) as corrupt, nepotistic, free-wheeling spenders of public money and thugs. Yet, the funny thing is that come the next election, it will be the same lot who will be elected to Parliament by the voters, who detest them. Thus, if the public hold the politicians with contempt, the feeling appears to be mutual. Politicians know with near certainty that by pandering to tribal instincts of an electorate, they can win a seat in Parliament.
Sri Lanka is not the only country where the traditional political order and traditional politicians are under attack.
Sri Lanka is not the only country where the traditional political order and traditional politicians are under attack. This is however one country where such discontent is confined to ineffectual complaints by the public, who cannot do much else other than to keep complaining.
Elsewhere popular disenchantment has led to drastic changes in the political order -- and in some others not so drastic flash in the pan moments. In India, the public outrage at the corruption of the former Congress administration led to the rise of Aam Aadmi Party (The Common Man’s Party) which campaigned on an anti-corruption pledge. While New Delhi’s middle class wallahs were mesmerized by its single issue campaign, India’s rural electorate proved to be more commonsensical and AAP’s luck soon ran out and business friendly BJP soon cemented its hold.
In America, public discontent with the political establishment brought Donald Trump to the White House. Mr Trump’s dog whistle demagoguery appealed to a large segment of the white-collar working class who felt their traditional privileged place being compromised by cosmopolitanism and globalization.
A different scenario where public discontent fed into a positive transformation of the political order was in France, where President Emmanuel Macron won against the traditional political elites and now his political movement built only a year ago is set for a landslide win the Parliament election. Mr. Macron’s win was hailed as the most decisive push back as of yet of the retrograde xenophobic and often authoritarian populism that made headway in recent times.
It is one thing to be fascinated by the political changes in France. However, the prospect of such grass root movements centred on liberal centrist ideology evolving into national level agents is limited in our part of the world. That in effect multiplies the danger of public antipathy towards traditional politics being morphed into a something that is more sinister, dangerous and destabilizing. In the absence of a liberal democratic alternative, it is demagogues who would exploit the social woes.
The absence of a liberal democratic alternative or the lack of popular appeal for such can be explained in different pathways of popular empowerment in our region. In the recent history, there were several different approaches of political mobilization adopted by the new States that emerged during the period of decolonization.
There was secular Arab autocracies which galvanized their public under pan Arab nationalism popularized by Gamal Abdul Nasser and had its hey days leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967. Secular Arab autocracies were modernist, they kept religion at bay; harnessed and channelled collective hatred towards Israel and ran a rentier state centred on centralized economic control. The common denominator for all (even those such as Iran’s Shah, who unlike his Arab peers followed a blatantly pro- Western line) was that they wielded absolute political control, jailing opponents and crushing dissents . When secular Arab nationalism ran out of steam after the bitter defeat of the Six Day War, a milder version of political Islam gradually made its presence, and was exploited by some leaders as means of regime legitimization and was crushed by others aware of its destabilizing propensity. The monopoly of popular power meant that those countries did not build independent institutions. Thus when those states crumbled, first Shah’s Iran and later Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Mubarak’s Egypt, in the absence of institutions and long suppressed sectarian rivalries, the alternative was proved to be far more sinister than their predecessors. Now few talk about an Arab Spring.
Politicians know with near certainty that by pandering to tribal instincts of an electorate, they can win a seat in Parliament
We in South Asia followed a different approach. Nehru’s India adopted universal suffrage while a large swathe of public was stilling living in sub human conditions, thus hoping that political rights would better their lot. We in Sri Lanka opened floodgates of political and social mobilization in 1956, adopting the Swabhasha policy and lowering requirements for entry to bureaucracy, which over time has unintended consequences of lowering the efficiency of those institutions as well.
Fast-tracked and often well- intended political mobilization has unintended negative fallout. It to some extent legitimized the regressive grassroots impulses. Their tribal instincts overtime made their presence in Parliament, and were in part responsible for ethnic unrest . However, in the process of popular empowerment, the leaders of this country ( and India as well) opted out the most crucial avenue of empowerment: free market. In effect they ran miniature renter states, doling out public funds to their electorates, while their very economic policies deprived the public from making an honest living. Finally we now have a skewed kind of popular empowerment as we experience now.
The third model was approached by the pro- growth authoritarian states in the East and South East Asia and to some extent, Chile. Those were autocrats who like their Arab counterparts kept a tab on political freedoms and dissent, but unlike the latter, they focused on economic development through private investment. Overtime, economic imperatives mandated that those states evolve functioning arbitration mechanisms for commercial disputes, and build some kind of independent institutions and gradually unfold basic rule of law. The economic windfalls of authoritarian development dampened the level of political oppression. When those autocratic regimes finally cave into popular opposition from an economical empowered populace, they left behind a functioning economy and modest independent institutions. Their comparative economic positions meant that they also gave a greater attention to individual rights. Over time they are more like to become liberal democracies, than us. That may explain why it is Taiwan and not India which is likely to be the first Asian state to legalize gay marriages.
Our flawed pathways of political empowerment did not lead to political enlightenment. They only legitimized the existing primordial instincts of a largely rural and backward population. The result of that process is our not so enviable position today.