Polity turns 30!

30 years ago, the Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) of Sri Lanka began publishing in print an English-language periodical of progressive opinion on current affairs, under the direction of Charles Abeysekera, Shani Jayawardena, and Jayadeva Uyangoda. There was no lofty statement of purpose or ambition. Perhaps to simply exist in November 1991, when so many had ceased to do so, was enough. The number of unsigned and collective contributions was another sign of the times.

The contents of the first issue of Pravada (as it was then titled, with meanings in contemporary Sinhalese usage including theses, concepts, and propositions) convey preoccupations that resonate over the past three decades: South Asian regionalism including Sri Lanka’s ‘India policy’; human rights protection in the cross-hairs of devolution and centre-province relations; constitutional crisis in the wake of the attempted impeachment of President Ranasinghe Premadasa; freedom of expression particularly concerning the print media (in Britain, India, and Sri Lanka); performance and prospects of the Sri Lankan economy; the search for justice for the abduction and murder of Richard de Zoysa; the politics of literature (Nadine Gordimer and apartheid South  Africa);  higher education reform; campus concerns ranging from the inception of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights in the University of Colombo, access and support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, combating sexual harassment; and human rights fact-finding in the conflict-affected north and east.

Subsequent issues of Pravada renamed Polity in 2003, have provided a space for analysis and advocacy by academics, researchers, and activists, on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, state reform, nationalisms, religion, anthropology and sociology of development, human rights crisis, women’s movement, sports, labour movement, gender justice, Left history, among much more. These original contributions were leavened (in the pre-internet age when access to the international press was limited), by the writing of dissenting scholars and public intellectuals from South Asia, the global south, and the global north, to contest the insularity of domestic discourse and as acts of solidarity and internationalism in the epoch of capitalist globalisation.

In 2021, Polity aims to renew and carry forward this legacy, while navigating a transformed terrain of information and dissemination. To produce and sustain a regular publication, both print and online, is an ongoing struggle for the Social Scientists’ Association and the editorial team amidst financial, institutional, political, and intellectual constraints.

 Digital media – including social media as a dynamic platform for expression of opinion, ideas, and arguments – has been both bane and boon for print publications: in competition for content and attention, while also providing a speedier and less costly medium. Recognising this reality and its radical democratic potential, Polity went online earlier this year seeking to seize the opportunity to expand its audience, diversify its format, and broaden its contributors.

This month, to signal and take stock of our 30th anniversary in what was then, as now, bleak times for the freedoms and rights of the peoples of this island, we republish the first editorial in Pravada, titled ‘Towards Democratic Reforms’.

Inviting the reader to see beyond the individual in executive office, to address the system and structure of politics and the polity, the editorial posited that the “greater centralization of state power, rise in the repressive and interventionist capacity of the state, the decay in democratic institutions, and the erosion of democratic and human rights are some of the key trends which have, during the past decades, characterized the broad political context for the weakening of democracy in our country”.

Three decades later, amidst the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution; rise of 'executive authoritarianism'; militarisation of State institutions and functions; non-transparent constitution-making; application and attempted extension of the Prevention of Terrorism Act: arbitrary arrest and detention of trade unionists and social activists in the guise of COVID19 restrictions etc., these trends are far from being reversed and have indeed accelerated, even after war's end.

Polity remains committed to critical reflection on, and progressive alternatives to, Sri Lanka's multiple crises. However, it can only do so if embedded within the causes and struggles around us, and anchored by writers and readers, engaged not only in interpreting the world, but also in changing it.

Towards Democratic Reforms

The political debate generated by the impeachment controversy has given rise to discussions on a wide range of issues concerning our political system. At the centre of these discussions are the 1978 Constitution and the executive presidential system that have been in operation in this country for the past thirteen years. Merits of the parliamentary model are also being examined on the assumption that it should replace the presidential system which has led to excessive concentration of powers in the executive branch.

 It now appears that many immediate issues of political competition between the ruling party and its opponents and dissidents have come to occupy the centre stage of the debate. As a result, the opportunity opened for a serious public discussion on desirable constitutional changes and political reforms may run the danger of being clouded by partisan and immediate compulsions of power politics.

 Pravada spoke to a number of individuals concerned about the future of democracy in Sri Lanka. The general consensus which emerged in these discussions is that democratization of our polity should be in the immediate political agenda. A concern was also expressed with regard to the likelihood of any democratic initiative being aborted by the imperatives of populist and ethno-nationalist politics.

 It is indeed superfluous to reiterate that the constitutional bases and institutional composition of our system of government need far reaching reforms in the direction of strengthening democracy. While acknowledging that the1978 Constitution has created an authoritarian system of the Bonapartist mould, it is nonetheless important to assert that all ills of this system cannot be attributed to mere individuals alone, however much they have utilized the anti-democratic opportunities inherent in the Constitution. Parallel with constitutional authoritarianism there have been other disturbing trends in the political process. Greater centralization of state power, the rise in the repressive and interventionist capacity of the state, the decay in democratic institutions, and the erosion of democratic and human rights are some of the key trends which have, during the past few decades, characterized the broad political context for the weakening of democracy in our country. The political context of un-democracy in this country has also been characterized by almost twenty years of Emergency Rule which has kept under suspension many procedures of normal law and made, ironically, the Emergency an ‘ordinary’ state of affairs.

 There are indeed long-term interests of democracy which no reform-minded political constituency should lose sight of. However, greater interests of democracy can in no way be served by delegating the responsibility of constitutional and political reforms to a few legal experts and party caucuses. During the impeachment controversy itself, there were proposals, which one must consider inappropriate, to entrust to a handful of individuals the task of drafting a new constitutional scheme. Two points need to be made clear in this regard. Firstly, in the current political climate in Sri Lanka, constitution-making is too serious a matter to be left to a few professional politicians alone. Informed public opinion and democratic inputs should by no means be left unmarshalled. Secondly, the terms of the constitutional debate should be broadened as to subject to critical scrutiny and interrogation all reform options proposed and desired.

 Proposals for constitutional changes should extend beyond a mere choice between the executive presidential system and the parliamentary model. Given the fact that excessive concentration of power can happen under both systems, it is crucial that an effective and innovative system of checks and balances is created so that no branch of the government– whether executive or legislature – is privileged to disregard democratic norms of governance. Even assuming that there is a broad consensus in the country that the parliamentary system should be restored, the question still arises with regard to the possibility of the political executive – the Cabinet – acting arbitrarily in the name of legislative sovereignty of the people vested with Parliament. Therefore, what Sri Lanka would need is not a parliamentary model as such, but a reformed and more democratic one.

In order to initiate a discussion on a wide range of issues relevant to a democratizing reform effort, Pravada wishes to make a series of proposals.

 The creation of an effective system of devolution, transcending the limitations of the existing Provincial Councils system, is a major priority in Sri Lanka’s political reforms. Federalism would provide the broad framework for such a devolutionary arrangement. It will, in the first place, constitute a useful starting point for working towards a political solution to the ethnic question. Secondly, it will be a most effective deterrent to tendencies for centralization of state power. Moreover, a federalist model will facilitate political pluralism in governance. 

A well-defined system of separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the state, supplemented with adequate checks and balances, is a long-felt need for Sri Lanka. Excessive use of state power by both the Legislature and the Executive has been a particularly undesirable trend in Sri Lanka’s politics during the past two decades. The practice of Judicial Review of Legislation empowering the Supreme Court to determine the validity of legislation enacted by Parliament is specifically relevant to Sri Lanka’s democratic needs. A point that warrants emphasis in this regard is that the notion of legislative supremacy of Parliament needs to be abandoned as being anachronistic with the need to diffuse law-making powers to sub-national units. Citizens should be constitutionally empowered with the right to seek judicial redress if and when the legislative bodies transgress the boundaries of fundamental rights, freedoms and natural justice. 

 While re-constituting the institutional relations of different branches of the state, it is also necessary that secular foundations of the state are strengthened. Secularism of the state becomes all the more important in view of growing tendencies of ethno-religious fundamentalisms in our society. As we have witnessed in recent times, religio-ritualization of the state is a distinctly disturbing development in modern Sri Lankan politics. The multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural composition of our society necessitates the separation of the state from religion and culture, particularly from that of the majority community, as an essential tenet of political secularism.

 The question of fundamental rights has assumed, particularly during the past decade, crucial significance in our state-society relations. Although not quite in parallel with the sheer magnitude of rights violations, the masses have now become increasingly conscious of their fundamental rights and the right to seek judicial redress. Yet, there are still constitutional and procedural impediments to a satisfactory rights regime. To overcome the existing barriers and inadequacies, the Constitution as well as the governmental structure should extend fundamental rights to the same extent as has been guaranteed by international human rights law under which the government of Sri Lanka has undertaken international obligations. A Bill of Rights should be included in the Constitution as the minimum guarantee of all fundamental rights. 

 Abuse of political power, corruption in public life, excessive bureaucratization of public affairs, and the arbitrary use of state power by those in office with scant disregard for social accountability are but a few symptoms of a long process that has characterized the institutional decay in our body politic. If our political order today lacks public legitimacy and credibility, it is as much a product of the disintegration of politico-moral bases of governance as an institutional crisis. Worse still, the public outrage about these negative trends is often exploited by political parties solely for partisan political gains. Remedial promises are often forgotten when critics become office-holders. Our society has obviously reached a point in which effective and tangible mechanisms for political accountability have to be built into the constitutional outlines of government. In other words, accountability of the government is no longer epiphenomenal, but central, to any meaningful debate on political reforms.

 Freedom of expression and specifically the guarantee of the people’s right to receive and disseminate information is a mechanism vital to ensure a democratic polity. Moreover, a media free of state control can also be an effective social check on the abuse of power by those in power. Similarly, media should be made accessible to all sections of opinion.

 The introduction of the right of recall in which MPs and all elected officials of the state could be recalled by a process initiated by the voters can be considered a necessary step towards ensuring public accountability.

 Elements of direct democracy would be of extreme value to supplement the existing institutions of representative democracy which paradoxically have lost, to a considerable degree, their democratic bearings. This is all the more important in the context of the existing constitutional provision for referendum belying its plebiscitary spirit. Mechanisms for direct democracy can be fruitfully utilized in a system of diffused legislative power where people’s participation in provincial, municipal, and rural administration is secured through plebiscitary initiatives.

 Our electoral system too needs reforms. While recognizing that Proportional Representation is more democratic than the first-past-the-post mechanism, particularly to a plural society like ours, the undemocratic elements of the PR system presently in operation in our country should be removed. It should be changed to ensure better relations between the electors and the elected. Similarly, the present system of the political party constitution prohibiting the freedom of MPs in parliament should be abolished.

The 1st Pravada  Editorial (November 1991)