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
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
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.