Countering The Threats To Sri Lanka’s Democracy

Can There Be Democracy Without Democrats?
Opinion01.08.2019Ravi Ratnasabapathy
Sri Lanka
FNF South Asia

Democracy is an unusual form of government. Throughout much of history, humanity has been ruled by monarchs or warlords who reigned through the power of the sword. It is the only system of government where citizens are actively involved in their own governance; they do not just passively accept the dicta of a ruler. The system rests on some counter-intuitive assumptions: that a government will choose not to use its power to stay in control; that politicians and officials accept that they don’t have a right to rule – only that they may temporarily exercise authority on behalf of people.

This conflict with the instinctive desire to hold and perpetuate power probably explains its rarity; the Democracy Index rates only 20 countries (of 167) as ‘Full Democracies’ (a further 55, including Sri Lanka, are classified as ‘Flawed Democracies’). This is also why it is inherently fragile.

History has demonstrated that, without constant vigilance, it is easily overwhelmed. Almost exactly a century ago, in 1919, amid much hope, Germany became a republic, adopting a liberal constitution. But by 1933, as a result of political intrigue surrounding Germany’s ageing conservative president, Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler was appointed as Reich chancellor, legally and constitutionally.

“Many people in Germany thought that Hitler would be a typical head of government. Some, like the conservative politician Franz von Papen and the leaders of the German National People’s Party thought that they’d be able to control him because they were more experienced and formed the majority in the coalition government that Hitler headed. Others thought that the responsibilities of the office would tame and steer him in a more conventional direction. They were all wrong.

Hitler won mass support between 1928 and 1930 because a major economic crisis had driven Germany into a deep depression: banks crashed, businesses folded, and millions lost their jobs. Hitler offered voters a vision of a better future, one he contrasted with the policies of the parties that had plunged the country into crisis in the first place. The poorest people in Germany voted for his opponents, notably the Communist Party and the moderate left-wing Social Democrats, but the lower-middle classes, the bourgeoisie, the unorganised workers, rural masses and older traditionalists—Protestants and evangelicals who wanted a moral restoration of the nation— switched their votes from the mainstream centrist and right-wing parties (save for the Catholic Center Party) and gave them to Hitler instead.” (A Warning from History, The Nation)

The world faces similar threats today, a new wave of populists is rising through democracies and threatening its foundations: in Hungary (Orban), Brazil (Bolsonaro) and the Philippines(Duterte).

Democracy is not a spectator sport. At a minimum, it needs a widely diffused will among the people to make it succeed. This may be why it is so difficult to transplant. A population with little previous experience in the process may not learn the skills fast enough to make it work in the chaotic aftermath of a revolution, as evidenced by the Arab Spring.

Sri Lankans have long experience with democracy and value the concept. A recent survey by CPA (Values and Attitudes Survey on 70 Years’ of Independence in Sri Lanka) indicated that 74% of Sri Lankans preferred democracy to any other kind of government.

The adverse public reaction to the abortive coup of October 2018, despite the unpopularity of the ruling coalition, was remarkable and probably contributed to its ultimate failure.

Yet, while support for democracy is strong, its more arcane aspects may not be as well understood; a lacuna that has been exploited to undermine the system from within.

Constitutional changes in 1972 and 1978 eroded personal freedoms but were carried out by popular, elected governments. Some changes should never have passed, but did. For example, both constitutions expressly precluded the judicial review of enacted legislation and limited it to judicial review of Parliamentary Bills (within a limited period). Was the danger of removing this important check on executive power lost on the electorate? Is the urgency of restoring this understood?

More recently, the unconstitutional dissolution of parliament and the call for fresh elections to resolve the October crisis was an attempt to subvert ostensibly democratic procedures to legitimise the unconstitutional. The ploy may well have succeeded, if not for the intervention of the Supreme Court.

These events should impress upon Sri Lankans that we cannot take democracy for granted. Its foundations, under attack since independence, are frail. Sections of the population have already called for an economic dictator. Could it end by voting democracy away?

The call from history resonates:
“‘We are living in economic chaos, and we cannot get out of it except under some kind of dictatorial leadership” (“Socialism and the Problems of Democratic Parliamentarianism”, quoted by Hayek in the Road to Serfdom).

“The problem is that economies are complex, reaching agreement on a plan becomes difficult so… the conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be ‘taken out of politics’ and placed in the hands of experts” (F A Hayek, The Road to Serfdom).

And in turn:
“Planning leads to dictatorship because dictatorship is the most effective instrument of coercion and the enforcement of ideals, and as such essential, if central planning on a large scale is to be possible…… There is no justification for the belief that so long as power is conferred by democratic procedure, it cannot be arbitrary; the contrast suggested by this statement is altogether false: it is not the source but the limitation of power which prevents it from being arbitrary”.

As Hayek observes:
“Hitler did not have to destroy democracy; he merely took advantage of the decay of democracy and at the critical moment obtained the support of many to whom, though they detested Hitler, he yet seemed the only man strong enough to get things done.”

If democracy is to survive in Sri Lanka, it must be sustained by an active citizenry; but to engage meaningfully requires knowledge, skills and the disposition to participate in civic life. But the habits of the mind, as well as “habits of the heart,” the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited but must be learned. This is the purpose of civic education.

Traditional civic education covers the themes of procedural democracy: principles, procedures, laws, good governance and the role, responsibility and rights of citizens. This alone is not enough.

The education must also cover liberal values because in practice procedural democracy, while the best available system, has a drawback: it is not a good way to resolve moral or ethical questions.  Democracy is built on majority views, but this may mean that alternative perspectives on issues that are in the minority, controversial, novel or particularly complex may be ignored. Th is is the problem of the tyranny of the masses.

“Democracy guarantees a system of government in accordance with the wishes and plans of the majority. But it cannot prevent majorities from falling victim to erroneous ideas and from adopting inappropriate policies which not only fail to realise the ends aimed at but result in a disaster” [Mises, Ludwig Von (1998a) Human Action].

Therefore, we must define democracy not merely in terms of procedures but as a mode of living founded on values: inclusiveness, pluralism, fairness, cooperation, dialogue and non-violent resolution of conflict. It is essential to transmit to younger generations a host of democratic values such as tolerance and respect for diversity, concern with the rights and welfare of others, freedom and justice.

These values are in perfect concord with the Buddhist values of Karuna, Maitri and Ahimsa. Parents may impart these values to children, but all too often their practise is restricted to family and friends. It must be extended to strangers, especially those that look, sound or live differently.

The war has ended, but the relationship between communities is still tainted by suspicion, fear, and a lack of trust. Half the population, women, face routine discrimination, harassment and violence.

Most people are comfortable interacting with people, behaviours and ideas that they are familiar with, but react with fear and apprehension when faced with the unfamiliar. Misunderstandings cause us to respond aggressively to perceived threats to the status quo or stability, even where none exist.

The recent hostility to Muslims is founded on ignorance, misunderstanding and fear. Sri Lanka has been independent for 70 years, but spent over 30 of those years in conflict. If the post-conflict era is to lead to lasting social peace, we must transform the unfamiliar into the familiar.

How should civic education take place?

It needs to be taught in schools, starting with the importance of a rules-based system. In Germany, it aims mainly to make students aware that no matter how negative the experience with democracy may be, it never justifies totalitarian ideas or behaviour, nor does it excuse violence as a way of dealing with different views.

Political education in Germany is founded on the conviction that democracy cannot be taken for granted, no matter how strong the democratic system seems to be and enshrines the following principles:

1. Prohibition of manipulation (no indoctrination)

2. The need for controversy and diversity (discussion of controversial political positions)

3. Adapted to the skills and competence level of participants, and focus on empowerment and initialising political or civic activity; not just teaching facts

It also needs to discuss current political questions and phenomena. Controversial topics must be tackled, but with a focus on arriving at common solutions for political conflicts so that people learn how to resolve differences peacefully.

Sri Lanka removed civic education from schools in the 1970s, but fortunately, it was reintroduced in 2007 for grades 10-11 and extended to grades 6-10 from 2015. The teaching guide for civics is quite encouraging - the principal areas outlined above (except gender) are included. Unfortunately, it seems limited to only classroom instruction, and there remains the question of how well it will be taught. A rote-memorisation approach will not foster critical thinking, media literacy and values are necessary.

Other aspects of the syllabus, particularly history, are a cause for concern. For example, on the contents of history textbooks, Wettimuny references Sasanka Perera.

“The legend of battles between ancient kingdoms documented in the Mahāvamsa promotes Sinhalese-Tamil antagonism and suggests ‘a long and bloody tradition’ between the two races. Thus, the reproduction of this version of the past in the Sinhala Grade 6 history syllabus is highly problematic. It claims that the Sinhalese King Dutugemunu defeated the Tamil, ‘foreign’ ruler Elara in a war to protect Buddhism, to ‘reunite the country’ and ‘liberate the country from foreign rule’. By contrast, the Tamil Grade 6 history syllabus cites Elara as a leader that ruled ‘with justice’.”

Children sitting in linguistically segregated classes who learn diametrically incompatible versions of history, which emphasise historical injustice and continuing victimisation from irreconcilable textbooks, will not be well prepared to receive lessons in tolerance in a civics class.

To have a lasting impact, it must change attitudes so it must include practical aspects, involving cultural, extra-curricular activities as well as exercises and classroom lessons. The aim is that differences in viewpoint and culture are to be cherished and appreciated rather than judged and feared.

As the Dalai Lama pointed out: “Coexistence takes effort, but we should work to make this century an era of peace and non-violence. We need a human approach to solving problems between us. We need to talk instead of fighting, engaging in meaningful dialogue based on mutual respect. Anger is rooted in having a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We need instead to respect others as members of humanity like us.”

This article was originally published here.