Authoritarianism will remodel state structures

"Objectivity and caution" watchwords in dealing with the Gota regime


by Kumar David

The UNP is catatonic, its leaders Ranil, Sajith, Mangala, Rajitha, Malik and others are comatose, the JVP is licking its wounds and the TNA is contemplating its options. Yes it’s a shipwreck on our side. I use the adjective "our" to identify with the left-democratic and civil society organisations that opposed Gota. An alliance with the UNP was thrust upon us by necessity not philosophy. It is now imperative to recover and stand on our feet and to set-out our priorities for the short and long term.

The argument that freshly-minted Gota has the right to be given an opportunity to deliver on his obligations to the nation is unflawed; it would be churlish to deny him this space. At the same time it is imprudent to let one’s guard down before Gota proves his human and democratic rights credentials, or to overlook that he comes with disturbing reputational baggage and in tow with bad eggs in his entourage.

The important facts about the election outcome were that a) the Sajith UNP alliance was routed, b) Sinhala Buddhists (SB) voted for Gota in a 72% landslide while Tamils and Muslims shunned him c) my candidate Anura of the NPP/JVP came third, as expected, but with a disappointing 400,000 instead of 700,000 votes, and d) one can project that a Mahinda led party will do well in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Such are the facts; only fools bury their heads in the sand. To recall Lenin, it’s ‘Two-Steps Back One-Step Forward’. The two back are actually three: stark polarisation of the country on communal lines, Sajith’s flop and third Anura’s unimpressive showing. What on earth is the one forward step? Permit me a one paragraph digression first.

Superficial analysts opine that the April bombing was crucial in driving panicky Sinhala-Buddhist voters into Gota’s arms. This is ahistorical and a-empirical balderdash! There was an SB avalanche to Gota for deeper reasons (not discussed here) from much earlier; the bombing only added a few points to reach 72%. True it made it easier for the anti-Christ to stampede Catholics in Gota’s direction, but this cardinal intervention will sound a tocsin for the Church in years to come; it spells doubt and rebellion in the community. My point in this one para digression is that the effect of the bomb was peripheral; SB psychology had been hardening anyway. If we ignore fundamentals we do so at our peril; there is a national mood swing into a nativist-statist-rightist trajectory. The drift to anti-liberalism and to ethnic or religious zealotry, or a combination (Hungary, Poland, Syria-Iraq and more) is globally persistent.

The one-step-forward is that through the fog the opposition sees the need to work together for survival – though I am not sure yet. The JVP is notorious for sectarian mood swings; the UNP can sing in parliament and petition courts but it is no longer competent at grassroots mobilisation – unlike on R. Premadasa’s watch. Tamils and the TNA are caught between a rock and a hard place; betrayed effortlessly and repeatedly by UNP and SLFP (present SLPP leaders) the community distrusts Gota (Mahinda too, but less); so it will need time to work out its stance in any defensive compact. Muslims, well you know. The one group that comprehends the dangers immanent in the current conjuncture and understands the need for a protective compact, is civil society. It will have to exert itself, again, and get the heavyweights on board. The first step needed is a report explaining the prevailing conjuncture in ideology, statecraft and politics and spelling out the shapes in which immanent dangers are likely to materialise.

I fear people too often expect the past to repeat itself and look for danger up the wrong street. Eyes are alert for the return of white vans, abductions, assassinations, intimidation of journalists, baiting the Muslims and targeting Tamil youth. Some of this may recur – unless Gota, Mahinda and the SLPP have experienced an epiphany and are much reformed (hooray in that case) – but history may not repeat itself in quite so parallel a way. My contention is that if Sri Lanka slides to autocracy it will be less in these ways but more by insidious institutional changes. Such as what? "Reform" of the legal system and the Courts, putting the press on a tight leash (JR, Mahinda and Gota have graduated with honours in this department) and through nasty legislation. I wrote on these themes a fortnight ago and maybe some of you read it; I will not return to these today. I add a key additional dimension next.

Stable authoritarianism needs adjustment and reorganisation of the state; in our case it will be both state institutions and the influential corporate sector – electricity, petroleum, banks, and ports. In an insidious process starting at the top and filtering down to the work force, loyalists will need to be posted and ‘report’ back. It will not resemble the exhaustive assimilation of institutions as by the Nazis, nor mimic the powerful party committees functioning side by side with formal management in Soviet-day or the present Chinese systems. In Lanka it is likely to be personalised in consonance with the cherished ethos of our Fair Isle and start as nepotism, favouritism (personal or political) and cronyism. It is when this evolves to the next stage of subversive redesign of institutional structures to blend into a greater purpose and conform to a controlling of strategy that it becomes deadly. It is the potential longevity of a Rajapaksa-clan-regime that puts this option on the table.

Understandably, any new government needs to get persons who understand its strategies into decision making and implementing positions; that’s acceptable. Hence I go along with the edict that all chairmen and members of state corporations must quit to make way for new appointees. In any case most were incompetent or crooked, especially those appointed by the departing presidential nincompoop. (I can’t use a more fitting noun as this newspaper may fall into the hands of children). It’s when matters get beyond this stage that one has to be watchful. That is, when it seeps down, the numbers become large, and the sinecures are strategically situated. It is to distinguish between reasonable change of corporate boards and ministry secretaries and systematic institutional subversion to consolidate autocracy that I chose the double-barrelled watchwords "objectivity and caution" in my title lines. Ideally it should be enhancing the functionality of state structures while ensuring that they grow in democracy not autocracy.

Concerns and international experiences regarding this topic are worth a full length book, but alas I have to make do with three paragraphs. In strong long-established democracies, institutions are robust and not easily undermined by overreaching executive power. Case in point, Trump’s attempt to bring the Departments (Ministries) of State, Defence and Justice to their knees has, on the whole, boomeranged. There was rebellion in the impeachment hearings by senior officers. Sri Lanka’s institutions are not firmly anchored, liable to manipulation and checks and balances pathetic. Were Gota to go down this road and at the same time, if as is likely, corrupt apparatchiks were to grab the keys, he would have created on his watch not a Singapore style public administration but a venal Marcos like kleptocratic monster in control of the machinery of state. Lee Kwan Yu’s ruthless hostility to communalism was Singapore’s saving grace; if the Gota version blends with SB chauvinism - I don’t see how he can prevent it - the product will be the devil incarnate.

The conundrum is that Lanka’s state and corporate institutional structures are unproductive, wasteful, inefficient and corrupt. A strong case exists for sending them to the cleaners. An authoritarian initiative will kill two birds with one stone; reorganise for greater efficiency, which will be popular, and in the same exercise making structures compliant with the regimes imperatives. It is not going to be easy for a watchful public to separate changes for the public good from remodelling institutional structures in line with the prerequisites of authoritarianism. I have no general guidelines to offer and suggest a case by case approach. I am aware that my thoughts on this point are incomplete and inadequate. Others will no doubt take up the thread. State and corporate employees and the trade unions need to be watchful about changes that enhance political hegemony. The best thing of course will be if at the general elections next year the people redress the excess of power that they have bestowed on the Rajapaksas. It is vital to ensure that no constitutional changes can be made without bipartisan support.

The recipe for despotism is an all-powerful presidential mandate, a regimented bureaucracy in its tow, a fragile parliament and the repeal of 19A (Gota has said he wants to do this). The first piece in this game is already in place; we must stop the other three.

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