Democratization and Reform in South Asia: Lessons from Sri Lanka

I have been invited to speak this afternoon on lessons from Sri Lanka relevant to South Asia. In this talk, I will try to explore a theme that also reflects my own intellectual dilemmas that trouble me at present. You may find that the key conceptual categories I employ in this talk still remain under-defined. It is because this talk is work in progress. What I share with you are preliminary reflections that require more research, greater reflection and adequate theorizing.


First, I want to suggest that there is a really good, positive lesson from Sri Lanka to South Asia. It refers to the emergence of a substantive idea of politics and its partial consolidation, with the capacity to re-ignite public imagination for democratic change. I am here talking about what has appeared in Sri Lanka during the past a few months as the conversation about ‘good governance’, or yaha palanaya. It is true that the concept yaha palanaya has now fallen from grace, and that partly constitutes the problem I want to reflect on.  This concept has also fallen victim to adversarial electoral politics. In some quarters, it has even been subjected to ridicule and disdain. Nevertheless, a few months ago, it captured the public imagination leading to a partial regime change in Sri Lanka. It was a change that did not appear possible even three months before the January 08th. Although subjected to ridicule by its distractors, and abuse and misuse even by some of its self-proclaimed practitioners, this is the only political concept in recent years to have animated political imagination of large sections of our society. The present parliamentary election campaign has not thrown up an idea with such potential. Its significance perhaps lays in the capacity it had to offer a framework for substantive re-thinking of state-society relations and re-democratization of governance in our country. Hence its relevance to South Asia too.


In Sri Lanka, in recent years, there have been three somewhat different templates of politics. The first is the politics of resistance and rebellion. The second is the normal parliamentary politics that co-existed with authoritarianism. The third has been associated with the governance discourse, promoted by the external donor community. The idea of yaha palanaya emerged as an alternative metaphor for political change


The first, the politics of rebellion, was a key process that defined Sri Lanka’s politics for four decades, beginning in the early 1970s. It offered a specific kind of politics that radically rejected the existing political order and argued for either total change or breaking away from the existing state. That politics had an appeal among certain sections of society, but in its war with the state, it could not survive. The politics of rebellion does not seem to be having much appeal, romance, space or legitimacy any longer. The basic political weakness of the politics of rebellion in Sri Lanka is that it has not empowered citizens, the people, whose fate and future it sought to represent. Using war and violence as the sole means of practice, the politics of rebellion also became anachronistic with the political possibilities of the age of mass democracy.


The second, normal parliamentary politics, survived four decades of rebellion and insurgency, but transformed itself into a hybrid democracy. There are two distinct features of Sri Lanka’s hybrid democracy. The first is the co-existence of democracy and authoritarianism, leading to a particularly Sri Lankan phenomenon of authoritarian democracy.  Sri Lanka’s rise of authoritarianism, since the late 1970s, did not require the overthrow of democracy. Interestingly, democracy was flexible enough to accommodate authoritarianism and authoritarianism in turn had the enough capacity to tame, alter, discipline, and co-exist with a substantially weakened rule of democracy. The second feature of the hybrid democracy is the hollowing out of the democratic core of political institutions. Some political analysts have called this phenomenon ‘institutional decay.’ In a paradoxical way, the weak and weakened democratic institutions — such as parliament, the cabinet, political parties, the judiciary, the media — could survive without collapse precisely because their survival as formal institutions, minus substantive democratic content, was guaranteed by structures of authoritarianism centered on the executive branch of the state. Thus, the continuation of authoritarian democracy had no potential for generating political reform. In fact, as we saw particularly since 2009, it set in motion a rapid process of counter-reform.


The third perspective was a part of the global transformation of how politics and functions of the government should be re-constructed within a narrow paradigm of effective decision-making and implementation. It also introduced a version of democracy highlighting the centrality of formal proceduralist aspects of democratic rule. This new notion of democracy as governance differed in a fundamental way from another concept we all are familiar with – government as public affairs.  Thus, the idea of governance referred to ‘decision-making’ at both government institutions and institutions outside the government, such as companies, corporations, non-governmental entities. In its subsequent usage by the UN, the European union, donor communities, and international financial institutions, it acquired a slightly wider meaning to refer to processes, institutions, and practices relating to making and implementing policy decisions.


This particular notion governance as an analytical as well as prescriptive concept is not very old. Its relatively recent genealogy is closely linked to free-market economic reforms in the West and the rest of the world that began in the early the 1980s, during the Reagan and Thatcher years. In fact, it came to circulation first among the UN and World Bank circles in the late 1980s. Later, it became a part of the regular policy vocabulary of international donor agencies and financial institutions. It has also been a part of the new vocabulary of public management scholars who viewed the state and government through the prism of business models. In this thinking, the president or prime minister of a country is viewed and evaluated as a CEO, the head of a big, profit-seeking private cooperation, accountable to creditors and share-holders.


The 1980s and the 1990s were also the period during which state-driven politics came to be substituted by what Colin Leys called in his book ‘Market-driven Politics: Neo-liberal Democracy and Public Interest, as  ‘market-driven politics’ (Leys, 2001).  Leys argued that market-driven politics began to expose society more and more to market forces.  And in the process, the market logic was brought in to re-define state-citizen relations as well. Thus, the neo-liberal reforms were not only about altering the conditions, institutions and practices in the sphere of economy – production, consumption and exchange. It also sought to alter the nature and functions of the capitalist state as well as its relations with society and citizens.


One of the most pernicious consequences of the market-driven politics, as we could very clearly observe in Sri Lanka after the mid-1980s, has been the diminishing role of parliament and the cabinet – key political institutions – in crucial policy making relating to the economy and society. This was paralleled with the emergence of a micro-elite of economic policy makers comprising occasionally of the president of the country, the finance minister and a handful of cabinet ministers, treasury secretary, governor of the Central Bank, resident representatives of the World Bank and the IMF, and a tiny coterie of highly paid – usually in dollars –expatriate policy consultants. Many of the latter have been of South Asian origin!


As it really happened in Sri Lanka, most Presidents or Prime Ministers have had a very little or no knowledge of how the country’s economy functioned in a complex world of globalization. But, their presence was important in this small elite group due to two political reasons. First, they represented the state, at least nominally, in this powerful, yet miniscule, policy-making entity. And secondly, to provide political legitimacy and backing to crucial policy decisions made by officials the majority of whom – and this needs to be repeatedly emphasized — were unelected, and therefore not politically accountable to citizens.  In fact, they were not required to be accountable to anybody other than their employers.


It is along with these crucial features that the new policy regime of governance evolved since the mid 1980s in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In Sri Lanka’s case, governance with a limited or no role to political institutions of government was paralleled with another domestic political process, that is, the rise of the executive branch of the state. The introduction of the so-called executive presidential system of government in 1978 had already created a structure of government in which the traditional role of both the cabinet and parliament in national policy-making, under the Westminster model, became severely diminished.  It went to the bizarre extent of expanding the number of ministers – cabinet, non-cabinet, to even one hundred.  In a very interesting reverse logic, the ever-increasing size of the cabinet of ministers in Sri Lanka had a direct relationship with the ever decreasing policy decision-making role of this pivotal institution of democratic governance.


There has been another complementary process of the decline of parliament’s role too as a central political institution of policy-making.  A study conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives a few years ago on the legislative performance of Sri Lanka’s MPs in parliament showed that in parliamentary debates, a vast majority of the MPs had failed to make any direct or meaningful contribution to the draft law or policy issue under debate. Screaming on points totally irrelevant to the topics of debate, exchanging of insults, repeated interruptions and superficial and rhetorical responses to criticism have been the most frequent behavior pattern of legislators who are quite aware of the fact that they are no longer policy makers, but providers of political legitimacy to decisions made elsewhere, in the new regime of governance.


This is the moment for us to turn to another key concept emerged in the governance discourse, ‘quality of governance.’ The World Bank, which has been in the forefront of the global project ensuring neo-liberal economic, social and political reforms, has produced six indicators to measure the quality of governance.  The six indicators are (a) citizens’ voice in electing governments and accountability by means of freedom of expression, (b) political stability and the absence of violence, (c) government effectiveness in improving the quality of public services, (d) regulatory quality to ensure the ability of the government to formulate and implement sound policies and regulations that permit and promote private sector development, (e) rule of law, in particular the quality of contract enforcement, and (f) and control of corruption.


What is missing in these indicators of the quality of governance are concerns that have been central to political struggles in our societies – social justice, social and economic egalitarianism, human rights, substantive democracy, women’s rights, rights of the marginalized ethnic and caste communities, access to education, health, housing etc., and human dignity. They are missing because they cannot be accommodated in this minimalist conceptualization of politics propagated through the doctrine of governance.  These are indicators of the quality of governance that foregrounds the interests of global capital.  Market-driven political ideology of neo-liberalism does not see politics and democracy in substantive terms, or in conjunction with social struggles for politics beyond governance. It views social struggles either as signs of conflict and security threats. In this perspective, politics is seen in procedural and transactional terms, in line with the understanding that politics is about who gets what, when, and how. Procedural politics is minimalized politics, grounded on the questionable assumption that policy-making is a transaction between political elites, officials, and interest groups through lobbying and back-room negotiations. Thus, the dominant discourse of governance is a discourse of minimalized politics, totally devoid of normative concerns that are embedded in social struggles. Governance without normative goals has little or no relevance to political struggles that always animate political imagination and action.


One area in which this particular governance discourse of minimalized politics has become significantly evident is the role of citizen in neo-liberal, market-driven politics. It views the citizen as a consumer, and not as a substantive rights-bearing member of the political community. As we know, the classical liberalism did not have a political theory of active citizenship. When procedural democracy is in place, there was no need for citizens to demand their rights by means of organizing protest campaigns, demonstrations, and through the politics of mass mobilization.  Thus, citizen participation in politics was viewed as a minimalist public affair in which citizens have the privilege of passively enjoying their rights and liberties – ‘negative’ rights and liberties — as autonomous and free individuals.


This myth of liberal and passive citizenship was countered by the republican theory of citizenship through the concept of active citizenship. The political philosophy of republicanism in its classical as well as contemporary versions advances the following thesis about citizenship: unless the citizens organize and mobilize themselves to demand their rights and freedoms and thereby actively engage in politics as conscious and alert citizens, the liberal state has no obligation to ensure the rights of all citizens. In this version of active citizenship, citizens are political citizens to begin with. They are right-bearing citizens not because of the liberalness of the state, but because of the political struggles they engage in. In all our societies, citizens, particularly mobilized by social movements and activists civil society groups, do act in this republican spirit, even though they are probably unaware that they are inheritors of the great Aristotlean legacy of politics.


One interesting observation we can make at this point is the following: substantive ideas and practices of politics do exist in our societies, parallel to, and of course despite, the minimalist conception of governance promoted through the neo-liberal reform project. It is a superior conception of politics that can ignite popular imagination for action, change and transformation. Sri Lanka’s political experience during the past eight months shows a particularly exciting manifestation of how a substantive idea of politics has emerged, employing the concept of governance as a metaphor to produce both a critique and a vision of political change. Here I refer to the idea of yaha palanaya which captured the popular imagination in Sri Lanka in an almost revolutionary fashion.


Yaha palanaya is the Sinhalese equivalent of the English word ‘good governance.’ The word has been in circulation for some time among bureaucratic as well as civil society circles, partly inspired by the neo-liberal discourse popularized in Sri Lanka by the UN and donor agencies. However, in the civil society use of it, the idea of yaha palanaya took a specifically vernacular and political meaning, initially as a critique of the arbitrary, authoritarian and the violent and tyrannical behaviour of the government in power.  From that critique emerged a vision for alternatives that foregrounded human rights, justice, peace and political accountability on the part of rulers. Thus, the idea of yaha palanaya came to mean the framework of democratic government which was a political critique of the UPFA government’s illiberal-national security regime. It was this spirit of critique and vision that one opposition candidate successfully adopted as his main election campaign slogan during the last presidential election.


This marked an unusual twist to the neo-liberal idea of good governance: its complete transformation into a substantive and normative political idea capable of an imaginative critique of an illiberal regime. It encapsulated four fundamental ideas (a) a corruption free governance, free of abuse of political power as well (b) democratic state reform, (c) re-framing regime-society relations on the principle of democratic accountability so that the state-regime distinction is re-established, (d) moderating the rulers’ personal style of governance so that public good, and not personal gain, is the end of political power.


Implicit in these four ideas was also a radical critique of two new, and disturbing, tendencies of politics that defined the nature of post-civil war politics in Sri Lanka: financialization of democratic politics, and cartelization of governance.


Financialization of democratic politics means the capture of the democratic process and institutions by political and business actors who use their access to state power for further accumulation, promotion and reproduction of financial and rentier capital. It is prompted by the need to have massive amounts of capital to conduct, engage in, and of course to succeed in electoral politics. Thus, politics becomes a form of entrepreneurship. Those many stories of corruption by politicians in power, which we have been reading in the newspapers for the past several years, provide us many insights into the nature of what one may call ‘new politics’ in contemporary Sri Lanka. The symbiotic coalition between money and politics is so dramatic that, as many media stories of political corruption reveal, most professional politicians have become investors after becoming politicians. In any ruling party, only a few MPs and ministers remain with no large – scale business involvements. Most politicians, particularly party leaders and ministers, are making use of business opportunities made available by the relatively free movement and exchange of financial capital under conditions of globalization.  Availability of political power makes them very successful accumulators and investors as well. Malaysia provides a full-blown example of this symbiotic model of political and financial entrepreneurship.


This has led to the other complementary phenomenon, cartelization of governance. This trend became particularly open and even quite dynamic in recent years. Cartelization of governance occurs when politicians group together under the patronage of the head of state or head of government, to benefit from transactions in the political as well as economic domains. Shared interest in securing financial gain in high volumes is the main factor that binds them into a closely-knit cartel, possessing means and capacities to control politics, institutions of political and economic governance, and the strategic areas of investment and circulation. Massive development projects for harbours, airports, modern stadia, multi-lane highways, mega cities, telecom and broadcasting, etc., usually with the participation of foreign investors, and sometime financed by gigantic government-to-government loans, have become enormous sources of accumulation of rentier capital for a few politicians and their fellow business partners.


The new cartel that controls strategic areas of investment, state power and institutions of political as well as economic governance spreads its controlling capacities to the private sector of the economy, public institutions that are meant to govern the economy, and the media as well. Reports of alleged malpractices at the stock market, the central bank, public sector banks, customs and the port, as unprecedented in scale as they are, are probably the tip of the iceberg. Forcing the judiciary and institutions of checks and balances into submission for their survival is not an isolated aberration, but part of a new moral economy of financialized and cartelized politics. We at present have only impressionistic evidence, provided by the media in reports that are either sensationalized or controlled accounts of what the journalists know. In serious research in to governance, these are areas that should attract our attention.


Now, financialization of politics and cartelization of governance are faintly visible manifestations of a transition of what the media calls ‘crony capitalism.’  Sri Lanka seems to have reached a mature stage of crony capitalism, partly facilitated by the alteration of politics under the neo-liberal governance reforms. This has become visible in Sri Lanka, perhaps more than any other country, except the Maldives.  The Maldives seems to have reached a higher stage of cartelization of governance, due to specific political and historical reasons. The exact dimensions of this new stage of crony capitalism in Sri Lanka are hard to pin down, because of the paucity of concrete, empirical evidence. To get such concrete evidence, only the state, supported by more powerful states, will have the resources and capabilities. A credible state-led investigation report into corruption, out flow of kick-backs, commissions and other forms of rentier capital will be a gold mine of information for future researchers to get a better picture of the new political economy of Sri Lankan politics.


Meanwhile, we need to acknowledge that Sri Lanka’s substantive political reform project is at present at risk. In fact, it is facing a serious crisis of continuity as well as credibility. The main reason is that the substantive governance reforms call for the dismantling of an informal structure of governance that is not easily visible. It is indeed intangible, because it has emerged outside, behind and in the shadow of formal institutions. Thus, it is not easy to identify and pinpoint where exactly the good governance reform agenda should seriously begin. Constitutional reform? Electoral reforms? Restoring independence of the judiciary? Depoliticization of the public service? These are components of an somewhat outdated governance reform agenda which we cannot abandon. The core challenge before us is about dismantling of the structures and networks of cartelized governance, which, paradoxically, remain beyond the pale of empirical verification. Not unexpectedly, we have begun to see evidence of reshaping and re-emerging the structures of cartelized governance under the rule of good governance as well. That is why dismantling of these structures is crucial for re-democratization of politics.


There is an equally significant second reason why the substantive political reform agenda in Sri Lanka is facing a risk. It is rooted in the partial, piecemeal and what one may call ‘opportunistic’ appropriation of the political reform agenda by political parties. The current parliamentary election campaign offers very little in terms of democratic reform imagination. We see nothing of the freshness of political ideas and imagination that made the past presidential election campaign so exciting. Political parties are now engaged in a Hobbesian struggle for survival and power.


This highlights one of the inescapable and difficult dilemmas which reformist social movement politics will eventually face. Social movements often succeed in generating, advancing and popularizing political and social reform ideas which political parties, because of their embedded institutional conservatism, fail to imagine. Social movements are usually very good at articulating, conceptualizing and projecting on a macro screen the micro processes of social thought. However, to concretize those imaginations as policy, social movements need politicians and political parties. It is the politicians, not social movement activists, who are legislators. And legislators are professional politicians with their own political and personal agendas and priorities. In the age of finacialization of politics and cartelization of governance, political parties have become feeble agents for substantive political change.


This dilemma became quite manifest during the massive confusion that characterized the efforts towards constitutional reforms, electoral reforms as well as corruption investigations simultaneously, during the past few months in Sri Lanka. In that controversy, the political problem emerged centered on the dilemma whether governance reforms should mean reforming formal institutions of the state, or dismantling the informal networks of cartelized governance.  Both these components of the reform project have now reached a deadlock. It would be extremely interesting for us, students of politics, to wait and see in which direction the outcome of the next parliamentary election will take the good governance reform project that evolved as an agenda for substantive political reform.  A pessimistic reading would be that that the reform agenda is dying of political malnutrition.


Finally, let us identify a few lessons from Sri Lanka for South Asia. If we generalize Sri Lanka’s experience, our societies have not yet exhausted their social energies for new forms of political imagination. This indeed is great news. New political imaginations throw themselves up in unanticipated circumstances, and in unforeseen idioms. Who would have expected a category of conservative, neo-liberal ideology to be transformed into a metaphor for a substantive idea of politics, as it was in the case of the yaha palanaya slogan?


The second lesson brings to us bad news. The transition of a reform imagination into a material force capable of actual political change is fraught with uncertainties and serious risks. These uncertainties and risks emanate primarily from the fact that political parties have ceased to be effective agents for substantive democratic reform. There can be many reasons, country-specific ones, for this. If we learn from Sri Lanka’s own experience, political parties when in power, particularly under the conditions of globalization, tend to be captured and hegemonised by financial-political cartels. This has produced a peculiar situation in which parties enjoying political power are transformed from being managers of the state into managers of cartel interests as well. Parties out of power are immune to the effect of cartelization only so long as they do not manage state power. Once in power, political parties are called upon to manage the state as well as political-financial cartels. We can sense that the combine effect of financialization of politics and cartelization of governance has changed the nature of political parties in power as well as out of power.  Understanding the nature and dynamics of this change in concrete terms requires new qualitative research in political science and political economy.


The third lesson is about the social struggles for democratic reform. We are still operating within the old paradigm which tells us that democratic political reforms are about constitutional and institutional alteration. Yet, Sri Lanka’s contemporary experience tells us that constitutional and institutional reform is a necessary, but not adequate, condition for democratization of the state, governance and politics. It calls for the dismantling of the structures of financialization of politics and marketization of governance. However, it is not an easy undertaking, because these structures are not particularly visible and tangible.  We know they exist, but we can’t point our finger at them. How can we dismantle invisible structures of power by making them visible, vulnerable and subject to dismantling? This is a challenge of our time.