Lessons from Lanka

IN drawing rooms across Pakistan, the chattering classes often bemoan the antics of our politicians. For them, the only solution to our flawed democracy is a benevolent dictatorship.

Been there, done that. Many times over, in fact. But despite the repeated failure of our self-proclaimed Saladins, this yearning for a strong leader, preferably in uniform, never ends. Each time a long dictatorial innings begins with promises to clean up the system and usher in a period of accountability and good governance, it ends many years later with popular unrest and an embarrassed retreat to the barracks.

However, despite the proven inability of dictators to fix the country’s many problems, their fans in TV studios and sitting rooms continue waiting for the Messiah. Gen Raheel Sharif is now being promoted as such a figure. Hopefully, he, at least, realises that he does not need to actually take over to exercise power.

Hopefully, the Tamils will be brought into the mainstream.

Having spent a large chunk of the last 15 years in Sri Lanka, and having seen the country travel from being a vibrant democracy to autocracy and then back again, I can suggest that Pakistanis unhappy with elected governments spend some time here. It is just over a year ago that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the previous president who ruled for the last decade, lost a historical presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena.

Under Rajapaksa, opposition journalists were often kidnapped and beaten up; some were murdered. Nobody was ever arrested or tried for these crimes. Opposition members of parliament were routinely bribed to cross the floor. The judiciary was brought under executive control. Thus, all the institutions that serve as watchdogs in a democracy were neutralised.

Over his decade in power, Rajapaksa presided over a vast, nepotistic kleptocracy. Three of his brothers were senior figures in his government, with Gotabhaya, the defence secretary, being arguably the most powerful man in the country. The president’s son, Namal, was elected to parliament and was reportedly being groomed to succeed his father. Close to 190 members of the Rajapaksa clan served in various capacities across the entire bureaucracy.

Given his tight grip on power, and the tentacles the ruling family had spread across the government, I frankly did not see the end of Rajapaksa’s rule in my lifetime. But then a curious thing happened. The president, a deeply superstitious man, asked his astrologer to name a propitious date for the next election. This worthy (who, by the way, enjoyed more power and perks than most ministers) picked Jan 8, 2015 — over a year before the presidential election was due.

While a few weeks short of the Ides of March, this date proved almost as fatal for Rajapaksa as did that fateful day in March two millennia ago for Julius Caesar. Unexpectedly, the stars aligned for the opposition as they rallied around the mild figure of Sirisena, who, until he jumped ship from the SLFP, Rajapaksa’s ruling party, was largely regarded as a political nobody.

According to more than one report, the opposition coalition was cobbled together by the head of RAW in Colombo. Clearly, Indian intelligence would have been interested in ousting Rajapaksa as he strengthened political, military and economic ties with China at India’s expense. If true, the Indian spook’s masterstroke lay in persuading Sirisena to abandon his boss and run against him. He also talked Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the opposition UNP and the perpetual loser, into settling for the prime ministership.

Since no reliable opinion polling organisation exists in Sri Lanka, most people relied on guesswork and wish­ful thinking to speculate about the outcome. As the short campaign progres­sed, and despite the violence initiated by the ruling party, it soon became appa­rent that Raja­paksa had a fight on his hands. And when the opposition won, albeit by a fairly narrow margin, celebrations broke out across the island. It was clear that virtually all Muslim and Tamil voters had voted against Rajapaksa, and had made him pay for his divisive policies. When asked about the defeat, the presidential oracle is reported to have defended his record by replying that he had called the results of two out of three elections correctly.

Rajapaksa’s decline was confirmed in the parliamentary elections last September, and the ruling duo has a comfortable majority in parliament. It has moved a resolution to vote on a new constitution that would devolve power, and make the president a figurehead.

Hopefully, the Tamils will be brought into the mainstream, and a much-delayed process of reconciliation will finally be initiated. As it is, the country is cooperating with the UN in investigating alleged crimes against humanity that occurred in the closing phases of the civil war against the Tamil Tigers.

So while the glass is not quite full — and it never is in a developing country — it is not far from the brim. The Pakistani chattering clas­ses could learn several valuable lessons from Sri Lanka about the power of democracy.

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