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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Sri Lanka’s democratic deficit: We are a hybrid State

Sometimes, the government’s spin doctors tend to forget simple geography – such as those basic Grade 5 Geography lessons that South Asia is part of the Asian Continent, but not the continent itself. Last week, they churned out a report that said Sri Lanka had been ranked 3rd in Asia in the Democracy Index, annually prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Our less discerning scribes gullibly parroted the government report which saw it being reproduced by a majority of print and electronic media.

 The government’s Information Department website, news.lk published the following story on 18 April.
Democracy Index ranks Sri Lanka 3rd in Asia

“Under the Democracy Index for 2012, compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit, Sri Lanka has been ranked third among Asian countries. India and Bangladesh have been ranked in the first and second places.”
“Accordingly, India has received 7.52 points, Bangladesh 5.86 points and Sri Lanka 5.75 points.”
“The compilation of the Democracy Index has been based on five categories which are electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.”

Granted that the world’s democracies do not revolve around the EIU, but, rather bewildered that an iron curtain had suddenly come down on the rest of the Asia overnight, this writer downloaded EIU’s democracy index for 2012.

The democracy index of the EIU reveals a story which is the polar opposite of the story that appeared in the Information Department’s website. Sri Lanka is not ranked third in Asia. The continent has some of the practicing democracies such as South Korea, which itself was a dictatorship until 1980, and emerging democracies such as Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, and so forth.

Sri Lanka is ranked third in South Asia, (not in Asia), behind the World’s largest democracy, India (38) and Bangladesh (84), the latter, pretty much a basket case in most spheres including politics in which two dynastic women are at each other’s throats, and regularly bring the nation to a standstill in their protest campaigns.

Overall, Sri Lanka is ranked 89 and is termed a hybrid state. A hybrid state has attributes of nominal electoral democracy, such as elections and multiparty political system, but such States also manifest a heavy reliance on authoritarian political structures, a heavy concentration of powers at the hands of the ruler and the absence of independent institutes. Sri Lanka is a classic example of how the nominal electoral democracy and associated norms and practices of liberal democracy have seriously been eroded by the authoritarianism that emanates from the Executive Presidency.

Nothing to crow about
As far as the Sri Lankan Government is concerned, there is nothing to crow about the country’s rankings. The 2011 index ranked Sri Lanka among flawed democracies – the term that is used to describe countries which are electoral democracies in theory, but suffer from serious flaws and deformities in practice. EIU’s Democracy Index measures democracy under five main indicators: Electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties.

In 2012, we have regressed to be a hybrid state.

Our downward spiral in terms of democracy and civil liberties is reflected in our rankings. The Freedom House also terms Sri Lanka as ‘partly free.’

For instance, in the Democracy Index of 2007, we were ranked 57, ahead of Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, among other countries. Since then, our democratic credentials had reversed, and we have been overtaken by all those aforementioned countries.

Also, during the subsequent years, we have regressed from a flawed democracy to a hybrid state.

But what do those indices mean to us? The obvious answer is that those indices provide insights into our democratic credentials or lack of it, so that the better enlightened public could make their decisions. As for our case, a series of indices have only confirmed what we have experienced during the past several years. Our democratic credentials have eroded and we have regressed towards an authoritarian state.

Democracy is not a dichotomous concept – whether a country is democratic or not. And holding regular elections do not necessarily mean a country would be a democracy, in practice. Democracy is a concept that relates to varying degrees of democracy or freedoms in various spheres of public and political life.

In theory, regular multiparty elections would make a country a nominal electoral democracy. However, if the political will of the people, expressed in the elections is not respected or reflected in Parliament or by the office of the Executive, such a process would, more or less, become a sham, as manifested in the large-scale crossovers in our Parliament. In fact, such crossovers were made possible by generous financial incentives – which, in other words, are called bribes – and could have been held liable for prosecution, anywhere in civilized, fully-pledged democracies.
Democracy is not about an all powerful President who wields enormous power in politics. If that is the case, Mubarak and Suharto could have been democrats.

Democracy is not about the concentration power at the hands of one man at the cost of the independent institutions. (That is called an absolute monarchy)

Tenet of democracy
 A fundamental tenet of democracy or of its evolved form, liberal democracy is the separation of power, which functions as a bulwark against the concentration of state powers by an individual. The separation of power doctrine has greatly eroded in Sri Lanka, after the incumbent President made the legislature, a rubber stamp and subjugated the independent Judiciary.

Democracy is about civil liberties. The extent of the erosion of our civil liberties manifest in regular extra judicial killings, abductions, attacks on media, custodial death and torture.

Democracy is about the rule of law. The prevailing culture of impunity in the country makes a mockery of this concept. The manifest apathy on the part of the government to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of past atrocities tells us that for this government, such concepts are only of academic interest, which is periodically rekindled by the UNHRC sessions.

Democracy is about the functioning of the government and how the will of the public is reflected and implemented, and whether its civil servants wield a healthy amount of independence to carry out that mandate. Ours is a government increasingly politicized, though one would also add that its competency has also increased in recent times.

Democracy is about the political and social culture; the political participation and degree of social tolerance and fair play, both in politics and other spheres of public life. Our elections and their aftermath are marred by violence. Our politics is acrimonious and the majority of the political actors lack the standards of sophistication and integrity.

Democracy is about the majority rule, but it is not the tyranny of the majority. It sets in place guarantees for ethnic, religious, sexual and cultural minorities, and so forth. It encourages political and social participation. Our politicians have decided such niceties are not worth our time and energy.

Democracy is about the respect for fundamental human rights, whereas Sri Lanka is one of the worst perpetrators of extra judicial killings, abductions, custodial death, torture and other myriad of grave human rights violations.

All above confirm our grim reality. But, who cares, the government would say. However, there is one last utility in those indices. It helps indentify the emerging pariahs and tin pot dictators. It can also help the Sri Lankans to make their own assessments on their own leaders.
Courtesy Ceylon Today


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