Sri Lanka: democracy and the hegemony of the fringe


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ACCOMPANYING Sri Lanka’s elusive quest for a political solution to the ethnic conflict is an equally elusive goal: consensus among political parties about a broad framework of a constitutional settlement to offer regional autonomy to the Tamil minority. The two main parties, the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), that have alternately ruled Sri Lanka for the past six decades, despite a number of attempts to reach such a consensus, have at crucial moments backtracked to return to what has been described as ‘acrimonious competition’.

Let me illustrate this point by three concrete examples. In 1995, President Chandrika Kumaratunga began a constitutional reform initiative to offer an autonomy package to the Tamil minority. The package envisaged an amendment of the existing constitution, which is unitary in nature and permits only a limited devolution framework. However, Sri Lanka’s Constitution has some ‘entrenched’ clauses, like the unitary state clause, which require a two-thirds support of Parliament plus the people’s approval in a referendum. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s electoral system of proportional representation has made it near impossible for any single ruling party, even with the support of small parties, to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament. The only way to ensure such a majority necessary for a constitutional amendment is for the main ruling party – the SLFP or UNP – to enter into a consensus agreement with the main opposition party, which could be either of the two.

In 1996, a British minister came to Colombo to negotiate an agreement between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe, to work together on the basis of a ‘bi-partisan’ consensus so that a devolution package could be brought into the constitution. It was named after Liam Fox, its mentor. The two leaders signed the Liam Fox agreement, and then had a meeting at the president’s office as a symbolic public gesture of their new politics of cooperation.

The next day, when a journalist asked the president about this highly publicized meeting with her great adversary, she responded by choosing an evocatively dismissive colloquial Sinhalese expression: ‘Yes, the leader of the opposition came. There was no dialogue, only a monologue. I only spoke. He did not even wag his tongue, because his mouth was full of pittu.’ Pittu is a dish made of rice flour and grated coconut. When one eats pittu, one’s tongue movement is restricted and that explains this statement of agrarian wisdom which the president used to contemptuously dismiss the meeting that others thought symbolised an unprecedented political breakthrough! Thus ended a serious British initiative to bring together the two main Sinhalese political parties into a bi-partisan framework of consensus to work towards a political solution to the ethic conflict.


It is ironic that Sri Lanka’s quest for bi-partisan consensus has an enduring life of its own despite, or rather because of, it not having materialized. In 2002-2003 the peace process initiated by Ranil Wickramasinghe who had then become the prime minister, also required a UNP-SLFP ‘cohabitation’ for its success, under new circumstances brought about by the peculiarity of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. When the opposition UNP won a parliamentary majority in the December 2001 election, it resulted in a situation of dual power in which the president and the prime minister came from two opposing political parties. This created a constitutional compulsion for them to work together to ensure proper functioning of the government as also to take the new peace process with the LTTE forward.

But from day one the leaders and their parties, instead of finding a framework of cohabitation, chose the path of confrontation. President Kumaratunga gave Prime Minister Wickramasinghe only two years in power. In October 2003, when the PM was on an official visit to the US, Kumaratunga took over three major ministries of the Wickramasinghe administration including defence and foreign affairs, effectively crippling the ability of the UNP regime to continue the engagement with the LTTE. Two months later, the president dissolved Parliament, effectively dismissing her opponent’s government.


A third, and more recent, example is illustrative of Sri Lanka’s continuing cycle of consensus-seeking and consensus-failing. At the presidential election of November 2005, Mahinda Rajapakse of SLFP heading a new coalition won narrowly, defeating Ranil Wickramasinghe, the main opposition candidate. Towards the end of 2006, Rajapakse had doubts about the parliamentary majority of his government, because of the shaky nature of his coalition in Parliament. By this time Rajapakse had also initiated talks with the LTTE. Once again there was a public clamour for the two parties to work together in order to effectively address key national challenges, the ethnic conflict being a major and immediate issue.

In October that year, Rajapakse and Wickramasinghe began a dialogue to work together. They exchanged letters and even met a few times to discuss the modalities of collaboration. Wickramasinghe pledged that his party, the UNP, would vote in Parliament for Rajapakse’s annual budget in November. When Rajapakse solicited his support in passing the budget at a time when he was not sure about the loyalty of his own coalition partners, Wickramasinghe is reported to have told Rajapakse: ‘Don’t even tell me what you will have in your budget. I will ensure that it will be passed in Parliament.’

Rajapakse got his budget passed in Parliament with UNP support. This was an unprecedented show of cooperation between a ruling party and the opposition. Yet, just a few weeks later Rajapakse engineered the defection of 19 UNP MPs to his government, offering them lucrative, though relatively powerless, cabinet positions. Thus ended in comic disaster yet another bitter story of consensus politics in Sri Lanka.


There has been, and continues to be, a certain politics of consensus in Sri Lanka in part linked to the specificities, or peculiarities, of Sri Lanka’s democratic politics. And though every-body talks about it, no major party wants to put it into practice and translate it into a concrete policy programme. Neil DeVotta has called the broad framework of this process ‘ethnic outbidding’. It is this politics of ethnic-outbidding – electoral competition between the UNP and SLFP to persuade Sinhalese voters that they are the best equipped to ensure Sinhalese dominance – that marginalized Tamils from the state, reinforced the ideology of Sinhalese ethnic and political supremacy, and eventually created conditions for the Tamil separatist insurgency.

This process first congealed in a context where the Sinhalese voters constituted about three-fourths of the total electorate and the ethnic minority votes were not critical for either the UNP or SLFP to win a parliamentary majority. The politics of ethnic-outbidding thus generated a kind of pan-Sinhalese consensus for Sinhalese ethnic hegemony in the polity. Elections have, even as recently as in 2005, been an occasion for Sinhalese political leaders to renew, revalidate and reinforce the Sinhalese social contract of consensus. Tamil and Muslim leaders also renew and revalidate their mini ethnic contracts with their respective electorates.

The kind of political consensus that the three stories above refer to is a different kind of consensus. It suggests a breaking away from the Sinhalese social contract and forging a new consensus for democratizing ethnic politics and broadening the ethnic foundations of the Sri Lankan state. The imperatives of regime formation and regime survival, inter-party mistrust as well as practices of deception and duplicity have prevented the forging of any enduring intra-class alliance in order for Sri Lanka’s ruling class to be able to effectively manage the ethnic conflict.


Is competitive politics, then, an obstacle to a successful peace process in Sri Lanka? A reasonable answer to this question, despite the political misdemeanours associated with competitive politics as illustrated in our stories above, is that competitive politics can only partially explain why Sri Lanka has not achieved peace. There is a larger question of the capacity and incapacity of the Sinhalese ruling elites, who intensely compete in the electoral arena, to envision and nurture a viable peace process. What they have demonstrated so far is their limited capacity and will in this difficult endeavour. On the question of regime incapacity for decisive action for reforms in the face of even minor resistance, let me cite two paradigmatic examples.

In 1997, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in power and her People’s Alliance regime still commanded significant public support, there was a proposal to introduce an equal-opportunity legislation. This legislation was spearheaded by some liberal reformist sections of the regime, assisted by liberal and reformist civil society groups. To strike a personal note, I too had a not so marginal role in initiating this legislation. Quite inexplicably, Sri Lanka does not have constitutional or legal provisions for affirmative action. Its non-discrimination laws are limited to a fundamental rights clause in the Constitution which is seldom invoked by ethnic, religious or social minorities for equal protection before the law and public policy.

The proposed equal opportunity law sought to correct this anomaly by creating laws and mechanisms for equal treatment and opportunities, particularly in areas of education, employment and access to public resources, for ethnic and other minorities as well as women, and even for the physically disabled. From a reformist perspective this was a great step forward in the direction of democratizing the Sri Lankan state by making the law and public policy somewhat reflective of the pluralist constitution of society.

But, when a small group of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists organized noisy demonstrations in Colombo on the day the draft law was to be finally approved by the cabinet, the president and her ministers, including the great reformists, decided to drop the proposed law. A senior minister was reported to have said at the cabinet meeting after listening to the story of the incidents of protest that morning: ‘How can we win the local government election with this law and with these protests?’


Actually, the law and the protests would not have cost the government more than a few hundred votes from the entire country. Instead, it would have brought more minority votes to the government. Even assuming that the government lost a few local government bodies, what difference would it have made in terms of regime stability? None at all. But the Kumaratunga regime, most reformist of the recent Sri Lankan governments, lacked the courage and conviction to go against even a small group of protesters who presented themselves as the representatives of the ‘Sinhalese-Buddhist majority’. Is this reflective of the nature and essentialist character of the Sinhalese ruling class?

The second story is also about the last Kumaratunga regime, and it happened in 2005, after the December 2004 tsunami. The tsunami had devastated areas under the state as well as LTTE control. Effective delivery of relief and the initiation of resettlement and reconstruction programmes for thousands of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim people required a new institutional mechanism based on cooperation between the government and the LTTE. The two sides negotiated an agreement for setting up such a joint administrative mechanism in February-March 2005.


Expectedly, the Sinhalese nationalist groups organized opposition to this move. Then the government dilly-dallied with the proposed MoU with the LTTE for another five months, allowing the opposition to muster more strength. Some radical Buddhist monks even threatened suicide by means of self immolation. Ultimately when the MoU for the post-tsunami reconstruction was signed by the government along with the LTTE in July 2005, the nationalists challenged its legality in the Supreme Court. The court, ever vigilant of which direction the political winds were blowing, invalidated this MoU on technical grounds.

Had President Kumaratunga signed this agreement with the LTTE in March-April 2005, the opposition would have been insignificant. In all likelihood there would have been overwhelming public support for such a bold move. A joint engagement by the government and the LTTE in post-tsunami reconstruction would certainly have paved the way for a renewal of the stalled peace process. Kumaratunga is reported to have said, explaining the delay in signing the MoU, that she was really scared about the Sinhalese nationalist opposition. Scared of being branded a traitor to the Sinhalese-Buddhist nation? Scared of being killed, like her father in 1959? Scared of losing the next election?


This ruling class fear of Sinhalese nationalist opposition is the other half of the explanation of the paradox of the many stalled peace processes in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese nationalist opposition is mobilized by small political parties using Buddhist monks as well as ethno-religious symbols in their public campaigns. They appeal to the deep-seated fears of the majority community about how its future is threatened by the minorities and political parties who seek minority votes to win elections. In social terms they come from various intermediate social strata, particularly in the limited urban milieu. But neither the UNP, nor the SLFP, the political parties representing the Sinhalese ruling class, seem to have any capacity to ignore, resist and combat the politics of ethno-paranoia of the small Sinhalese nationalist groups whose actual electoral strength is not very strong, not even ten per cent of the total electorate. Clearly, Sri Lanka has a weak ruling class with no organic links to other class groups in society.

All these incidents are symptomatic of the kind of democracy Sri Lanka has made for itself over the past several decades. At elections, almost as a rule, ethnic social contracts – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – are re-negotiated and revalidated. Between elections, ruling parties make half-hearted attempts, with no firm will or conviction, for a negotiated peace. They are easily intimidated by small, yet active, extreme nationalist groups who the media projects in a larger-than-life fashion. This helps develop a political logic in which the fringe controls the centre, instead of the other way round. Thus, cowardice does seem to pay, at least in the short run. It will hardly pay in the long run. But, ethnic out-bidding for power and ruling class vacillation has been a deadly combination for a political solution.

That, sadly, is how democracy has been working in Sri Lanka. It may be called a democracy that has facilitated the hegemony of the fringe. The disproportionate power that the nationalist or religionist fringe appears to exercise over the mainstream political parties and institutions constitutes an enduring paradox in at least three South Asian countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The paradox is that the ethno-religious extremist parties, often claiming to represent the interests of the numerically majority community, might not even get a few per cent of votes in democratic elections. Nevertheless, they have acquired the ability and capacity to shape the terms of national political debate. That is why despite their weak electoral strength, the mainstream political parties, the state institutions, the bureaucracy, the media and even the judiciary, often capitulate before them. One way to reverse this ‘counter-revolution’ is to subvert, appropriate or turn around, in a Foucauldian sense, this dominant political discourse.


But, to subvert an existing hegemonic discourse, one needs to have a radically new alternative political vision concerning the state. This is where democracy can have some fantasizing value in a pan South Asian framework. Actually, the initial aesthetics of modern democracy in South Asia has been largely in its being a social emancipatory fantasy. What South Asia needs today, as imagined from the perspective of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan is a post- democracy fantasy, a dream that can facilitate an imagination that can and should subvert the existing master mode of imagining the nation and the state.


Such a radical fantasy would be to see South Asia as a confederation of a number of democratic and autonomous republics. Being republics in a large democratic confederation, which should be an advanced form of the present European Union, there would be no need for secessionist warfare. In a confederation that guarantees autonomy to each republican unit, no republic needs to feel threatened by its neighbours or its dissident citizens. Such a de-centred South Asian Federation of Democratic Republics could be an utterly exciting form of political future for the peoples in South Asia in which ethnic identities, identity rivalries, violence and war can give way to multiple citizenships, free movement of labour, capital and technology, flexible borders for the protection of which nuclear weapons are totally unnecessary. In this vision, the massive standing armies can be no more than transitory state sector employment agencies for young men and women.

Does this sound utopian? Of course it does. But it tells us that to get out of the multiple predicaments which Sri Lanka and our South Asian neighbours find themselves in, we need to search for a democratic utopia. Paraphrasing Lenin, we may say that a good democratic utopia will have the capacity to become a material force, capable of mobilizing the people into action for ethnic peace through democratization. This is where a fantasy of democracy is more useful for political transformation than a mere academic theory of democracy.