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Sunday, 23 August 2015

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A new Government

A new government will be formally established and 'operational' by the end of this week. The Cabinet of Ministers will be appointed over the next few days. Once the Cabinet and non-Cabinet portfolios have been sorted out, it is 'all systems - go!' for Ranil Wickremesinghe and his team.

In a 'normal' democracy - which is what Sri Lanka used to be at one time - the citizens, having done their duty and cast their vote decisively, can now sit back, sip their tea and turn on the TV to their favourite teledrama or watch a ball game.

Sri Lanka, however, is not - yet - a 'normal' democracy. In the first decades after freedom from colonial bondage in 1948, this country did nurture a British-style 'parliamentary democracy' which seemed to have been quite enthusiastically adopted by the populace. In those first years, our former colonial masters tended to look fondly at our island nation as a kind of 'model' Third World democracy in the European tradition.

But inter-ethnic differences, already exploited to their advantage by the colonial rulers, began to be exploited in the electoral contest for vote banks. The legacy of indigenous feudalism, not easily eradicated by colonial modernity, added caste, clan and kin loyalties to the potent mix of communal vote bank politics.

Even as ethnic rivalries worsened into ethnic conflict, heightened socio-economic expectations pushed class politics also on to the national stage. While the marginalised, rural poor began to be mobilised towards 'class warfare' on the one hand, the social elite impatiently pushed for more authoritarian 'quick-fix' development strategies. Hence the rapid turn away from a purely 'Westminster' system and towards 'Gaullist rule' with centralised executive power. Rival class leaderships on the Left similarly pushed toward a 'socialism' of sorts that ignored the niceties of democratic governance.

The urgency of power politics saw the country lose the liberal democratic trend first with Leftist experiments in governance and later with Rightist experiments in 'open economy' and the presidential system. Both experiments ignored any strict adherence to liberal democratic practices.

Thus, the centre-left United Front brought in direct political interference in administration for the first time - rationalised as 'workers committees' - and also the MP's 'chit system'. The following right-wing UNP regime may have taken the country out of the pseudo socialist straitjacket, but the 'chit system' was formalised as the Job Bank and such direct political interference in administration was worsened by a near-dictatorial executive presidential system. The virtually rigged, infamous 'referendum' that extended the tenure of Parliament in 1982 took the country further down the road away from fully legitimately elected governments towards governments that took power or retained power through a mix of democratic practice, coercion, repression and constitutional gimmickry.

The July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, while it drastically split the nation on ethnic lines, was actually only a new, added, dimension of an eroding democracy, weakened by both political authoritarianism as well as ethnic hegemonism.

Even if later governments did attempt to reverse the trend away from ethnic oppression and authoritarianism, those initiatives - such as the joint government and the new draft Constitution of the 1999-2001 period and the new draft constitution - could not be fully implemented. Subsequently the country relapsed into an even worse period of inter-ethnic war and extreme authoritarianism during the past decade. The country was at the brink of systemic collapse.

It is the sheer extremity to which the country had fallen in recent years that has galvanised both political society and civil society. The more intellectually equipped political leaderships from across the ideological spectrum have, in a clear reaction to the brutish, un-intelligent governance of the times, opted to give up their different political goals to build a broad consensus-based reform movement.

The depth of the crisis has sustained this unified political mission through a successful presidential election and, now, through a hard-fought parliamentary electoral contest. Personal and party political ambitions have been sacrificed on the altar of national need.

The 'national government' that was attempted and failed at the turn of this century, has now successfully been birthed by a nation that flexed its political muscle in a historic, unified movement.

Citizens and politicians have worked together successfully. A new Prime Minister has crowned their success with a great political achievement in gaining a record personal preferential vote.

Thus crowned by popular mandate and civil society accolades, the new Government must now tackle those already acknowledged urgent tasks of systemic repair and innovation.

It is time to put all past failures and blunders behind us. Constitutions need to be fixed. Cultural tolerance needs to support inter-ethnic equality and nation-building and, social stamina is needed for economic struggle to face the harsh winds of massive external debt and resource wastage. These huge challenges can only be overcome by surmounting the biggest challenge of all: the lure of self-aggrandisement, individual power, and iniquitous wealth.

Parties and politicians that have banded together in 'national government' must work together with professional dedication to that form of consensual governance and resist the temptations of party rivalry and personal ambitions. Democratic 'normalcy' is just round the corner if this national government works. Prosperity, too, beckons. Till then, the citizens cannot relax fully.

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