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FeaturesNewsRebuilding Institutions in the Transition from Soft Authoritarianism – Jayadeva Uyangoda

Rebuilding Institutions in the Transition from Soft Authoritarianism – Jayadeva Uyangoda


A political goal that warrants sustained attention of the new Sri Lankan government as well as the democratic reform constituencies is the rebuilding of public institutions of democratic governance, accountability, autonomy, and checks and balances.

Democratic governance requires the presence of institutions of governance that are strong enough to withstand the pressures of authoritarian regimes and at the same time flexible enough to re-invent themselves to meet the new challenges of democratic demands, coming from various social constituencies. Such institutions are crucial for the sustenance, continuity, and survival of a democratic political order.

Similarly, the presence of strong institutions is a key feature of democratic governance, because in democracies, rulers come and go, but institutions stay to ensure the continuity of the state and its structures of governance. Besides, democracy is a rule by law, and not rule by men alone. Democratic institutions mediate the relations and resolves disputes between the citizens and the state on the basis of the principle of popular sovereignty. They mitigate, control and act as a check on the oppressive, potentially tyrannical, and violent behaviour of the state.

Thus, democratic governance has an impersonal element as well, the concrete manifestation of which is the presence of strong institutions of governance, accountability, procedural openness as well as checks and balances.

Weakening of Institutions

One key feature of the political transformation which occurred under the regime led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the deliberate undermining and weakening of democratic institutions of governance. This process began slowly during his first term, but gathered momentum and reached alarming heights after 2009, during the second term, paradoxically when the war with the LTTE came to an end. As Prof. Neil DeVotta, a Sri Lankan political scientist working in the US, has shown, Rajapaksa regime was surely authoritarian, but in its soft version.

    The defining feature of soft authoritarianism as a regime model is the shift to authoritarianism while democratic elections and institutions such as parliament are still functioning and the rulers still seek political legitimacy through the electoral process. Manipulation of the electoral process, undermining of democratic institutions, frontal attacks on the rival opposition parties as well as democratic civil society, and the promotion of the personality cult of the leader are usual practices under soft authoritarianism.

The J. R. Jayewardene regime of 1978-1989 was Sri Lanka’s first encounter with soft authoritarianism. Mahinda Rajapaksa regime of 2009-1014 marked a step forward from the Jayewardene model of soft authoritarianism.

As the Sri Lankan case shows, Rajapaksa’s soft authoritarianism had a well-defined populist ideological platform, which combined economic developmentalism, xenophobic as well as majoritarian nationalism, cult of the national security state, patriotic militarism, and a machismo-type personality cult.

In contrast to soft authoritarianism, hard authoritarianism overthrows democracy, its institutions and practices, and replaces them with military-bureaucratic structures. If Rajapaksa obtained a third term at the last Presidential election, there could have been a shift from soft to hard authoritarianism, due to political, ideological and political-economy reasons. Discussion of this theme requires a separate essay.

In contrast to hard authoritarian regimes, soft authoritarian regimes––as Sri Lanka’s exceptional case demonstrates––may run the risk of being overthrown by democratic means and through mass upsurge, not even being able to mount an organised resistance to the popular electoral verdict. Dislodging a soft authoritarian regime without bloodshed by means of the assertion of popular sovereignty through the ballot paper, is perhaps a good reason for Sri Lanka to qualify to be the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

Key Features

The point that soft authoritarian regimes unlike their hard counterparts do not destroy institutions of democratic governance can be elaborated in relation to Sri Lanka’s own experience. The following are the key points:

* Establishment of the soft authoritarian regime took place against the backdrop of a protracted and violent internal war. At the end of the war, the Rajapaksa regime began a process of re-militarizing the state, paradoxically under conditions of no-war, by elevating the defense establishment to the status of a power center that could rival and even surpass the parliament and the cabinet. This led to a situation of re-configuration of the institutional equilibrium of state power in Sri Lanka in favour of the armed forces and the defense establishment, by diminishing, and not eradicating, the power and role of the democratic institutions of state power such as the legislature, the cabinet, and the judiciary.

* Diminishing the capacity and the character to be independent of the regime, of those public institutions that could and should hold the executive, legislative and security branches of the state accountable and answerable, and making them appendages of the executive, while being subservient to the supreme power holders of the regime. The Supreme Court and the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission, and the Bribery and Corruption Commission underwent this radical transformation. The office of the Election Commissioner managed to escape this fate for some inexplicable reason.

In fact, the way in which the 43rd Chief Justice was removed from office very clearly demonstrated that the Rajapaksa regime wanted to transform the Supreme Court into the ‘Justice Department’ of the office of the President, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Economic Development, all held by three brothers!

* Undermining the institutional autonomy of key public institutions such as the armed forces, the police, the University Grants Commission, the Central Bank, the Treasury, the Department of Census and Statistics, the universities, and the public service.

With regard to the armed forces, what the Rajapakse regime did was to re-define, in a thoroughly distorted manner, the concept of the ‘civilian control of the military and the police’ by subjecting them to politicization and making them institutionally subservient to the President, his Secretary of Defence and the regime. The police department became almost like a personal security agency of the leaders and members of the regime. The UGC and University Vice-Chancellors began to be proud of their achievement of turning the institutions of learning and autonomy they headed into party branches of the ruling SLFP.

The economic statistics churned out by the Central Bank, the Treasury, and the Department of Statistics lost credibility primarily due to the voluntary political subservience to the regime, proudly displayed by heads of these unique public institutions which have a history of prestige, relative autonomy, and public trust. With political patronage earned through political subservience, the gentlemen who headed the Treasury and the Central Bank became in their public conduct, the most arrogant public servants one can encounter only once in one’s lifetime.

Tasks Ahead

Now, against this backdrop, if the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe administration is really keen about restoring democratic governance, it has an urgent, although somewhat difficult, task at hand; rebuilding the public institutions of democratic governance.

Difficulties should not deter them from undertaking the responsibility, because without re-building independent and democratic public institutions, there is no way for them to serve their own agenda of good governance. This, in a way, is a mini revolution. It may be the case that Messers Sirisena and Wickramasinghe were not adequately alert to the very serious political and policy implications of their election slogan of ‘good governance’, when they used it, quite effectively, to persuade the majority of the Sri Lankan voters, just a month ago.

Sri Lanka’s political challenge today is centered on the task of effective transition from soft authoritarianism to democratic governance in a manner that would make the return to authoritarianism — whether by Sirisena, Wickramasinghe or Rajapakse — difficult, if not impossible. That calls for a well-thought out and comprehensive agenda for rebuilding and re-vitalizing the institutions of democratic governance, accountability, autonomy, and checks and balances.

The commitment of the present ruling political coalition to this agenda does not seem to be either strong or heart-warming. Therefore, this is a theme that requires the intense attention of the JVP, under the leadership of Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the seemingly reformed JHU, and the civil society movements such as the FUTA, trade unions, human rights and women’s organizations and various coalitions for good governance and democracy.

    February 08, 2015
    The Island

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