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The democracy deficit in the UK and in Sri Lanka: a tale of two crises

As a Sri Lankan citizen living in the UK, the author finds himself in the eye of the two political storms tearing both these countries apart. He has four thoughts.

Amal de Chickera
19 November 2018
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Sri Lankan Parliament's speaker Karu Jayasuriya looks on as government and opposition members of the parliament confront each other during a special parliamentary session, Colombo, Sri Lanka. 15 November 2018. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis was conjured up out of thin air by President Maithripala Sirisena when he unilaterally and unconstitutionally sacked the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new PM, sacked the cabinet and appointed a new cabinet. He then prorogued parliament to buy time for the new (unconstitutional) PM to win a majority in the house (through bribery and horse trading) and dissolved parliament when these attempts proved unsuccessful.

Multiple political parties, civil society groups and private citizens petitioned the Supreme Court. The Court obliged by granting interim relief through staying the gazette notification by which parliament was dissolved.

Parliament was duly reconvened, but a no-confidence motion against Mahinda Rajapaksa and the ‘new’ government was obstructed by members of his party, and the resultant vote by voice, which the speaker conveyed to the president was not accepted. This process was repeated over the next two days, but on each occasion the chamber erupted into a brawl as MPs hurled objects at the speaker (who even needed police protection). The behaviour of these MPs was all the evidence needed to show that Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis grew out of a much deeper-seated political catastrophe.

The UK’s political crisis has been brewing in a Brexit sized teacup for months. The scheming, in-fighting and backstabbing within the Tory party, has been unravelling like an ultra-slow-motion car crash. The gist of it is that former Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum to resolve a growing party split between the far right wing which harks back to the glory days of empire, in which England (for let’s face it, this has little to do with the other home nations) was colonial master of the world, and the rest of the party which was happy to continue muddling along destroying the National Health Service while reaping the benefits of the single market and European Union.

The referendum was to advise the government on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. The government, which had routinely scapegoated the EU for many of its own failures, unconvincingly threw its weight behind the remain campaign.  The vote was lost, leading to Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May’s appointment as PM and a long list of shambolic events that followed.

Meanwhile, the Labour party was fighting its own demons, unable to unite, present a clear alternative vision on Brexit or capitalise on any momentum gifted to it by the Tories. Things came to a head when the PM’s deal with the EU was rejected by her own cabinet members (with multiple resignations) her own party members (with calls of no-confidence against her), her own coalition partner and the opposition writ large.

Caught up in these two storms, I am instinctively drawn to comparison and wider reflection. In many ways, the countries are poles apart. The UK is wealthy, with relatively strong democratic institutions. Sri Lanka’s economy is struggling and its political history is filled with violence. But since 2015, the UK’s democratic trajectory has been downward. Over the same period, Sri Lanka has moved in the opposite direction, though the gains have been painstakingly slow and marred by significant failures of government. All this is to caveat what is to follow with the acknowledgement that any attempt to compare may appear contrived and simplistic. But I forge ahead with four thoughts, for sometimes it is the simple truths that matter most.

Power corrupts, but it also isolates

Two of the central characters – our tragic (anti) hero and heroine – are Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and British Prime Minister Theresa May. While at first glance they may appear to occupy different worlds, similarities abound. Both are conservative, with dated views on LGBTQI rights for example, xenophobic and inward-looking tendencies. Neither Sirisena nor May cut larger than life figures and both spent much of their political lives as party workhorses until unexpectedly being thrust into the limelight.

Neither cut larger than life figures and both spent much of their political lives as party workhorses until unexpectedly being thrust into the limelight – Sirisena in spectacular fashion when in 2015, at great personal risk he accepted the challenge to run for president against the incumbent Rajapaksa; and May when she picked up the poisoned chalice that was Brexit.

Sirisena failed to implement his central campaign pledge to eradicate the Executive Presidency, which concentrated too much power in one unaccountable individual. A compromise nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, which limited some presidential powers, was passed. It is this very amendment that he violated to trigger the constitutional crisis.

May’s main job was to deliver Brexit. Unhappy with Parliament trammelling her freedom, she prematurely called a general election which exposed her for the one-dimensional, unimaginative leader she is. She barely clung onto power by conjuring up one billion pounds to buy the support of Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative DUP, thereby unsettling the fragile political balance and peace process in NI.

Sirisena and May have demonstrated their preparedness to push the boundaries of acceptable political conduct to remain in power. (It just so happens that the boundaries in Sri Lanka are larger and more porous.) Both appear increasingly isolated and unhappy at the top, as they fend off real and imagined foes from all sides. In May and Sirisena, we have two cautionary tales – leaders who prioritise self and party over people – to the disadvantage of all.

We face crises of leadership, integrity and imagination

The behaviour of many British political leaders has been nothing short of abhorrent. Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Nigel Farage – these men have shown no qualms about misleading and lying to the public in furtherance of their own narrow political ambitions. Sri Lanka boasts a similarly long list of abhorrent ‘leaders’. The establishment – big business, the media, the international community and the state itself – promotes, legitimises and profits on the back of these lying, corrupt politicians. The closer the alignment between capital and the political class, the more they protect each other and the less they are likely to suffer the consequences of their mistakes, deceit or corruption. It appears that the rewards for serving the few, are many.

How can we truly be represented by self-serving liars? This problem is further exacerbated by what is ultimately a lack of real choice for voters. Both the UK and Sri Lanka are for all intents and purposes, two party systems. Depending on where you live and what larger political ideology you subscribe to, there is very little choice. This lack of choice is further reinforced by the staggering mediocrity of many of those who put themselves forward for election. A choice between a liar, a fool and a thief is no choice at all. And so, barring a few exceptional politicians, parliaments are filled with self-serving individuals who lack integrity and imagination and have no real leadership qualities. This lack of choice is further reinforced by the staggering mediocrity of many of those who put themselves forward for election.

These characteristics were beautifully captured in a recent tweet by Dominic Raab. The (former) Brexit secretary announced his resignation from government the morning after the night before, with the tweet “Today, I have resigned as Brexit Secretary. I cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU…” Any outsider reading this tweet would be forgiven for not realising that it was Raab himself who negotiated this deal that he found so unconscionable. As Raab’s hypocrisy shines through, the real tragedy is that many before him have gotten away with much worse.

Confrontational Westminster style politics have failed us

The brawls in the Sri Lankan parliament caricature the worst of Westminster-style politics. A confrontational system, which places a premium on certain qualities – oratory, quick wit, the ability to secure cheap laughs and demean your opposition – attracts a certain kind of person. The masculinity and binary nature of the Westminster system is inadequate when the need of the day is consensus, compromise and collective responsibility. Theresa May could have pursued an all-party approach to Brexit, but her priority was to find agreement within her own party. She calculated that this would neuter the opposition’s opposition.

Theresa May could have pursued an all-party approach to Brexit, but her priority was to find agreement within her own party. She calculated that this would neuter the opposition’s opposition. This tribalism of Westminster style politics is dated, juvenile and not fit for purpose. A sharp witticism or powerful speech may provide a rush of adrenaline but it will not resolve an intractable conflict. No professionals in any other field take decisions or resolve problems by shouting at each other. We need a more mature, respectful and inclusive politics, which in turn would attract more serious politicians.

Referendums are not democratic

The disaster which was the Brexit referendum left an open wound in British society. Meanwhile fear abounds that President Sirisena may try to pull out a referendum from his bag of tricks. Progressives in Sri Lanka and the UK would convey their suspicion of referendums and of populist calls for differences to be resolved through referenda.

In the UK, this suspicion is based on the very raw experience of the Brexit poll splitting society down the middle. In Sri Lanka, there is a further reason. As a multi-ethnic country, we know that referendums are a majoritarian tool which silence the voice of minorities while amplifying that of nationalistic majoritarianism.

What I find surprising, is the lack of sensitivity to this reality among British commentators. The UK after all, is a devolved state comprising four nations. The referendum results in Scotland and Northern Ireland were very different to those in England and Wales. The majoritarian English vote overpowered the Scottish and Irish minorities in the UK in a manner that is undemocratic in a multicultural society. Democracy must protect and respect minorities. If not, it is just another form of oppression. Democracy must protect and respect minorities. If not, it is just another form of oppression.

A postscript

I’m a Sri Lankan who lives in the UK and works on statelessness. Stateless persons – who have no nationality – are by definition disenfranchised. They have no say in politics but are deeply impacted by the decisions of politicians.

As I fight for every stateless person’s right to a nationality so that they can politically participate on equal terms, I am acutely aware that these ‘equal terms’ are very much an illusion. If Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis and Britain’s Brexit fiasco teach us one thing, perhaps it is that democracy is too precious to be left to the politicians.

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