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The Economics of Democracy

Picture courtesy Colombo Gazette

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

on 10/19/2015

Want to buy some illusions,


Slightly used, second hand?
They were lovely illusions,
Reaching high, built on sand.
(Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair)
After emergency laws are lifted, constitutions are drafted, and elections are
held, policymakers in the Middle East will be faced with a tough practical
challenge: how to create economic opportunities for the regions teeming
millions. This was what two analysts, Bassem Awadallah and Adeel Malik,
wrote in October 2012 [i]. The importance they accorded to economics in
bringing about and sustaining positive political change is valid beyond the
Middle East.

The need to be free of autocracy did play a role in ushering the Arab Spring.
But it was just one contributory factor. For the vast masses, economics was
more important than politics. They wanted their political rights. But for
people who were mired in economic want, the right to life also meant the
right to a liveable life, characterised primarily by bearable living costs and
decent jobs.
For this majority, democracy was a means to an end. If democracy did not
bring about an immediate, real and lasting improvement in their living
conditions, their faith in democracy eroded. Extremism, ethnic, religious or
tribal, is the main winner, when the democratic experiment fails. This is as
true in Colombo as it was in Cairo.
A plethora of reasons contributed to the defeat of the seemingly invincible
Rajapaksa juggernaut. Among these, economics played a pivotal role. The
minorities turned against the Rajapaksas for obvious political reasons. But
this loss in and of itself would have been insufficient to defeat the
Rajapaksas electorally. If the Siblings managed to retain their 2010 supportlevel amongst Sinhala-Buddhists, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have scraped
through on January 8th. That was what he was counting on.
As the CPA survey of 2014 revealed, 58.1% of the Sinhalese wanted the
regime to focus on reducing living costs [ii]. The Rajapaksas did anything
but. They believed that a combination of patriotic rhetoric, toxic attacks on
the minorities and shrill warnings about international conspiracies could
make a sufficient number of Sinhala-Buddhists forget their very real
economic problems.
In 2011, 70% of Sinhalese thought the general economic situation will
improve in the next two years. In 2013 only 38.5% of Sinhalese thought the
general economic situation will improve in the coming two years [iii].
Official figures confirmed the trend. According to the Department of Census
and Statistics, 53% of the urban population, 73% of the rural population

and 81% of the estate population did not receive the minimum income
necessary to pay for food and other basic needs [iv].
In the end, everyday experiences trumped grand slogans; real facts
trounced imagined fears.
It is not absolute poverty which gives birth to political dissent, but relative
poverty. The ruling family atop a bloated political caste enjoyed the good
life at public expense even as ordinary people struggled to make ends
meet. The regimes refusal to acknowledge the economic sufferings of the
people added insult to injury.
The vote against the Rajapaksas was a vote in the main for a more
responsive and caring economic regimen. If the new administration forgets
this fundamental fact, the advances made on the political front will be at
risk.
Imitating the Rajapaksas?
Last Monday, the police baton-charged a group of protesting villagers in
Bandagiriya. The protest was peaceful, the police attack indefensible and
the government silence about the anti-democratic response baffling.
The protestors were demanding clean drinking water. Bandagiriya is in the
Hambantota district, the bastion of the Rajapaksa clan. The fact that the
people of Bandagiriya are without access to something as fundamental as
clean water, after almost a decade of Rajapaksa rule, is a damning
indictment of Rajapaksa economics.
It is also a warning to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.
During the Rajapaksa decade, no expense was spared to turn Hambantota
into a megapolis. A port, an airport, an artificial island, an international

cricket stadium and an international convention centre were among the


many infrastructure projects Hambantota was saddled with. Another
Rajapaksa term and Hambantota would have ended up like Naypyidaw, the
massive ghost-capital Myanmars military rulers built, a place replete with
buildings and bereft of people.
In the rush to provide Hambantota with all the trappings of a glitzy supercity, the Rajapaksas forgot the ordinary needs of ordinary people; such as
water. Hambantotas innumerable new additions include a botanical
garden, with many wet-zone plants. To keep them alive in this rain-poor
district, bowsers of water are brought from outside. If people know the true
extent of the water being wasted here, there will be a riot, a university
professor, who refused to be named, told the AFP [v] .
That is what the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should have done.
Told the protesting people of Bandagiriya what the Rajapaksas did with their
water.
The Bandagiriya protest provides incontrovertible proof of the failure of
Rajapaksa economics. In the Rajapaksa development plans, the people
didnt count and their needs were de-prioritised. So living costs soared,
basic requirements went unmet and hopes for a better future eroded. The
gap between the Rajapaksa rhetoric and the everyday experiences of
ordinary people widened. The regime did not understand what the people
were going through and the people lost faith in the regimes capacity to
improve their lives.
Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency. History was made.
During the time between the presidential and parliamentary elections, the

Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government acted as if it has learnt the necessary


lessons from this Rajapaksa-failure. Since that victory, the new
administration seems to be inclining increasingly towards Mahinda
Chinthanaya, not just in matters such as leader veneration and family
bandyism but also in the all important area of economics.
Had the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration remained sensitive to the
ordinary needs of ordinary people, it would have embraced and not ignored
the Bandagiriya protest. This protest over something as basic as clean
water in the Rajapaksa-heartland revealed the hollowness of Rajapaksa
development. With the money spent on any one of the mammoth
infrastructure projects, the entire populace of Hambantota could have been
provided with clean drinking water. The Rajapaksas didnt do it. That shows
their real nature.
The new governments incapacity to understand the explosive political
potential of this incident is indicative of a malaise which, if left unattended
to, can have devastating consequences.
Ever since the parliamentary election, the new government has succumbed
to a Rajapaksa-like indifference about the adverse effects of its policies on
ordinary people. The price hikes of the last two months, caused by the
depreciation of the rupee and increased taxes, have caused living costs to
jump up again. The sudden axing of subsidies has resulted in plummeting
rubber prices, pushing small-and-medium rubber growers into a serious
crisis. Tea sector is facing its own crisis while the governments promise to
make vehicles accessible to the new middle class is turning into a
grotesque joke.
There is growing public impression that having secured power, the new
rulers are acting with the same arrogance and callous disregard as the old

rulers. With every mistake the administration makes, with every act of
insensitivity, with every broken promise, the gap between it and the
Rajapaksas erode.
A more dangerous situation for Sri Lankas restored democracy cannot be
imagined.
Sustaining Reconciliation and Democracy
Vasanthy Ragupathy Sharma is Tamil, a mother of three and a prisoner.
Recently the Colombo High Court acquitted her of the charges against her.
By that time she had spent 15 years in jail under the PTA, for a crime she
did not commit [vi] .
The plight of many PTA detainees is even worse, because they have never
being charged. The war ended more than six years ago. Yet these men and
women languish in detention, while the likes of Kumaran Pathmanathan
(KP) are free. The least the Attorney Generals Department can do is to
press charges where possible and release the rest.
That was the demand of the PTA prisoners who commenced a death-fast
last week: press charges or release.
The governments rapid response to the fast highlights a key positive
difference between the past and the present. The Rajapaksas would have
sent in the commandos. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration
initiated talks and promised a resolution.
The Geneva consensus is far from perfect. Still it is indubitably a step in the
right direction. Not just accountability and justice but even common-orgarden acknowledgement that civilian lives were lost was rendered
impossible thanks to the Rajapaksa insistence on the myth of Humanitarian

Operation with zero-civilian casualties. Since only Tigers were killed by


the military, even mourning for the war-dead became outlawed.
Israeli human rights activist and co-founder of BTselem, Daphna GolanAgnon, points out that there are multiple layers of denial operating in Israel
on the war crimes issue: literal denial (it never happened); denial of
significance (these werent really war crimes); justification (we had no
alternative). A similar system of collective denial was deliberately
encouraged by the Rajapaksas. Even if there is no justice, this denial, the lie
that the war was won without harming any civilian Tamils must end. The
nature of the LTTE made the war necessary; but that does not mean it was
humane or desirable. That distinction needs to be made.
The conviction of four soldiers by the Jaffna High Court for gang-raping two
Tamil women in 2010 is a welcome development, but much more needs to
be done, if Tamils are to gain some faith in the judiciary.
Accountability, reconciliation, hopefully even a political solution to the
ethnic problem for any of these to happen, there must be a minimum
level of consent from the Sinhala South. Support would be ideal, but benign
indifference would do. And that would depend primarily on how successful
the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is in alleviating the economic
burdens of ordinary people.
Democracy, accountability and reconciliation require a minimum degree of
economic contentment in the South. If people feel their economic burden
has lessened, they will have hope for the future. Such a people would be
more capable of resisting the lure of majoritarian extremism and minorityphobia. That was what happened on August 17th.
If the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration governed from January to

August, as it is doing now, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have won the


parliamentary election.
Internationally, democratisation projects suffered violent failures in the
recent past due, in part, to the erroneous equation of democracy with neoliberalism, a mistake to which both opponents and proponents of
democracy are prone to. Newly emerged democracies need time to
consolidate their gains, and this time can be brought not by imposing
austerity on an already traumatised populace, but by providing muchneeded economic relief to ordinary citizens.
Sri Lanka is a deeply divided nation, ethno-religiously. The Rajapaksas
exacerbated these divisions as part of their political strategy. They failed
because they did not get the economics right. Post-defeat, they are staying
the Sinhala-Buddhist course, hoping to regain power the only way they
know. And they might succeed, if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe
administration continues to get its economics wrong.
Decent jobs are key to ending poverty in its most extreme forms and
transforming the lives of millions, ILO Director General, Guy Ryder,
reminded the world recently [vii]. Youth unemployment hovered around
19%-20% at the end of Rajapaksa rule. Addressing this problem is another
urgent task. High levels of youth unemployment played a role in making
and unmaking the Arab Spring. Its a warning Sri Lanka cannot ignore.
Marc Stears was former Labour leader Edward Milibands chief speechwriter. Recently Prof Stears argued that to win the next election, Jeremy
Corbyns Labour must do what Ed Milibands Labour couldnt: convince the
British public it respects them and takes their lives seriously. [viii]
The Rajapaksas didnt and paid the price. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe
administration must not tread the same path.

i http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bassem-awadallah/the-economics-of-thearab_b_1196473.html
ii http://groundviews.org/2014/09/19/infographic-views-from-uva/
iii http://www.scribd.com/doc/182597529/Top-line-survey-resultsDemocracy-in-post-war-Sri-Lanka
iv Question Time reveals colossal waster of public funds while masses
struggle Chandani Kirinde The Sunday Times 27.7.2014
v http://srilankabrief.org/2015/07/hambantota-white-projects-eat-upeconomy/
vi http://groundviews.org/2015/10/05/court-acquits-tamil-mother-after-15years-of-detention-under-pta/
vii Daily Mirror 17.10.2015
viii http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2015/09/day-earth-stopped
Posted by Thavam