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Defending democracy in a time of fear

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 21 May 2019 00:00


The failures of the current Government created the political space for the far right and its racist mobs to take advantage – Pic by Chamila Karunarathne



By Devaka Gunawardena

The racist mob attacks that happened this week were another sign of the initiative taken by Sinhala far-right forces in the context of the continuing breakdown of the current Government. People are quickly losing faith in democratic institutions. The current leadership came to power on the back of calls for democratisation. Now that it has failed to achieve its mandate, many are resigned to the arrival of a strongman who can take charge. 

The danger is that while the mob attacks may have had backing from junior politicians in the current Government, an open vote for authoritarian government will further embolden the far right. The weak-strong state is the paradox of the discourse of national security many have noted: the state seems unable to control mobs, but it appears adept at curtailing freedoms in general and targeting marginalised groups.

There is less of a paradox though if we look at who the national security state is designed to benefit. Demanding militarisation to solve collective problems enables far-right forces. Even though they often take extra-legal action, these actors understand that the state is “theirs”. They can operate with impunity. In contrast, the discourse of national security inevitably suppresses dissident and minority voices.  

The challenge after the Easter Sunday massacres was answering the very real threat of further attacks by identifying specific perpetrators, versus using the discourse of national security to solve collective ethnic, religious, and social tensions in general. The former would have required an honest reckoning with the negligence, incompetence, and bias of state institutions that ignored information and downplayed the potential for attacks. The issue was exacerbated by the sensationalised media reporting of each object discovered in raids in the Muslim community, and, of course, the “burka ban”. 

Because the Coalition Government came into power with the tentative promise of dismantling the previous Government’s repression, it makes sense that people now prefer the “real deal” if it is going to return to the same tools to solve problems entailed by its political dysfunction.

The mass constituency

Even as frustration and resentment threaten to take hold of society though, it is critical to distinguish between the impulse behind the change in government in 2015 and the trajectory of the Coalition Government itself. For many, the goal was to create a mass constituency for democratic demands, including abolishing the executive presidency and changing the constitution. The problem though is that analysts and experts often focused on policy and neglected messaging. The slogan of good governance could have become embedded in the popular understanding. Nevertheless, it often took on a narrow legal framing. 

The emphasis on liberal advocacy alone meant making demands on politicians or appealing to international organisations without identifying the on-the-ground constituency that could be mobilised politically to put pressure on the leadership. We are seeing the outcome of this strategy in the unchecked reign of racist mobs. An organised counter-force of anti-fascists embedded in a mass movement could have stemmed the tide. Instead, we find ourselves pleading on social media for good faith from actors in Government.

The question is, what would it take to revive a movement for democratic change in a time of fear, terror, and racist mob violence? Liberal advocacy implies an expert way of doing politics that does not prioritise the urgent need to communicate a mass message (regardless of whether it is in Sinhala, Tamil, or English). Instead, we must reassert the connection between NGOs and think tanks that deal with policy specifics and organisations such as trade unions that represent a membership.

When it comes to political issues though, trade unions have also focused on specific bills such as the Counter Terrorism Act without providing the membership a concrete language to connect the struggle for democratic rights to their everyday lives. Only a narrow stratum of people can participate in technical debates about the nature and language of bills or anticipate the potential impact of militarisation on workers’ protests. A more immediate message to demand representative oversight to hold officials accountable could appeal concretely to people’s self-interest and therefore resonate better.

In general, the leadership of trade unions has struggled to connect with its members. Trade union struggles are a potential terrain for creating solidarity between people across ethnic and religious groups fighting for shared economic rights. Given that these fights have been on the backburner for decades, however, it will take time to revive the shop floor activism that could see new leaders from marginalised groups such as women and minorities take over, transforming the popular images of these groups. 

In addition, the need to respond to the terror attacks and mob violence puts pressure on the long-term need to change the discourse about the economy to demand a fair, just, and sustainable future for all. While that debate must continue, for now we must also respond directly to the recent tragedies.

Trade unionists acknowledge the importance of time-sensitive political struggles. Given their competing ideological and organisational affiliations though, they often find it difficult to agree on messaging about democratic rights. Moreover, internally, the long decline of their organisational structures that could guarantee the democratic participation of diverse layers of membership is at stake. 

The intersection of these trends means the working-class base has become more and more disconnected from the leadership. It can be drawn into the racist rhetoric of the far right. The challenge for trade unionists, liberals, and anyone else who considers themselves progressive is to identify an everyday way of talking about democratic rights—the initial impulse behind the change in government in 2015—and to build a movement from the bottom up that can put pressure on elected leaders.

Representation and accountability

Regardless of the specific actors involved, this movement will require a conception of the State different from the one expressed by political elites who led the change in government in 2015. Instead of making the state lean to attract investors, we require a State that can deliver better public services for all. 

One of the missed possibilities of the past several years, for example, has been connecting the campaign to demilitarise the north to issues with repression in general, including Police brutality, economically unfair fines and penalties, and dismissive attitudes toward gendered violence. 

One of the most common complaints on the street remains, “two types of law: one for the rich and one for the poor”. In general, we need a State that is more representative, which means going beyond the narrow demand for “transparency” and “independence,” to strengthening public participation in democratically-elected institutions. This agenda includes enabling these institutions to hold officials accountable.

The failures of the current Government did not start the riots, but they created the political space for the far right and its racist mobs to take advantage. It should be obvious who the presidential candidate most naturally aligned with this movement is. But more importantly if we want to restore people’s faith in democratic institutions and develop an effective counter-force to the mobs, we need to move beyond the narrow ways in which “Yahapalanaya” was initially articulated, to demand political rights that are relevant in people’s everyday lives. 

That means increasing the representative scope of institutions to demand better services from a state that is supposed to protect all who live on this island; not by narrowing its mandate to security for some, fear for others.

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