The parliamentary elections on 5 August will determine the trajectory of our fragile democracy – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
“The whole business is the crudest sort of stratagem, since we have no way of foreseeing it to the end. It is a mere paying out of rope on the chance that somewhere along the length of it will be a noose” – Isaac Asimov, in ‘Merchant Prince’
A two-thirds majority will give the ruling party a monopoly on power. It will serve another more salutary purpose. It will introduce method to madness – a spick and span majesty to pure and simple lunacy. It is an invitation to the lynch mob.
The 19th Amendment has many flaws. They must be fixed. That said, we must not overlook its primary purpose which was to abridge and truncate excessive centralisation of executive power and enhancement of the authority of parliament. The 19th Amendment arrested the slide into an authoritarian abyss.
Presidentialism and parliamentarism are two distinctly different systems. The 19th Amendment created a reasonable fusion of the two that made governance subject to democratic compromise.
For it to work, we must have both faith and hope in liberal democracy. Herein lies the danger. It was first recognised by a brilliant legal theorist – Carl Schmitt who later turned out to be the principal legal authority of Nazi Germany.
Carl Schmitt quite rightly found that liberal democracy carried the seeds of its own destruction. Representative democracy and the idea that all citizens can be treated as political equals was a lot of nonsense. Politics in its raw primitive form is not about compromise between equal individuals. It was all about conflicts.
A task force headed by a uniformed general is better able to contain conflict than an argumentative committee of liberal minded bozos!
A slight digression cannot be resisted. Another great German humanist Karl Liebknecht explained what militarism was. Militarism is the expedient process that blindfolds justice! Militarism is brutalisation of society, a sort of intervention that makes people endure the unendurable!
Make no mistake. The parliamentary elections on 5 August will determine the trajectory of our fragile democracy. A two-thirds majority would be an open license for authoritarian militarism.
Authoritarian rule fosters oppression. Given the nature of patronage politics we have indulged in since independence from colonial rule, authoritarian governance will introduce a new factor into our dysfunctional democracy. It will introduce servitude. It will infuse cruelty that will assault the mind.
Xi Jinping is the classic 21st century autocrat who now presides over the Chinese Communist Party and the peoples’ republic founded by Mao Zedong. He is in absolute command of the ‘vanguard party’ that is now revising democracy in Hong Kong while the world is preoccupied with a pandemic.
The Chinese Communist party never bothered with the question of its right to rule until the current leader who has now become the leader for life. These new autocrats are legalists!
In September 2015, Wang Qishan Vice President of the republic and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s de facto right-hand man explained the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) at the World Dialogue 2015 conference in Beijing. The idea was not to explain to the Chinese people. The idea was to tell the world.
He explained: “The legitimacy of the Communist party of China that practices free market capitalism was enshrined in history and popular support from the people. The Party is the choice by the people. The party was the voice of the people.”
This brand of contrived legal ‘Authoritarianism’ seems to be another new virus with a global reach.
In Sri Lanka, we now hear of the massive mandate given by ‘the sixty-nine lakhs ‘for an efficient governance mechanism’ with a strategy to ‘Remove all inefficiencies and make people’s responsive government’ (National Policy Framework Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor)
That is how it unravels. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The 21st Century legalistic autocrat converts an election victory to an office for a defined period, to enact legal reforms for all time. The envisaged constitutional changes have only one purpose – the resolute command and grip of all institutions of the state.
A democracy can easily slide into a tyranny. When a society is reconciled to pervasive pillage of the public purse, when civic society is all but extinct, when the ruling elite is dedicated primally to enrich themselves and the people are devoid of any kind of civic virtue the democracy morphs in to a tyranny.
As Hannah Arendt understood, laws and constitutions are paper tigers. In the face of political power, and even in the face of violence, laws offer little protection – unless they are defended.
World over, legal autocracy is on the rise. The existing constitution and the existing democratic space are both used to subvert and crush both.
Autocratic rule produces an interesting by-product. It fosters idiocy. The Argentinian novelist Jorge Luis Borges who wrote the classic short story “A tired man’s utopia” described the mind as the greatest asset of a human. For, without a mind a man is nothing. The more oppressive the political order, the greater is its compulsion to assault the mind of the citizenry.
“It is not enough for the autocratic state to oppress and exploit. It must make the people idiotic as well,” wrote Borges. “The wrong full bullet is preceded and accompanied by a series of idiotic lies and the moronic intelligentsia being so accustomed to such regular morainic diets will not even dare to squirm.”
The parliamentary elections on 5 August is the window of opportunity for the powerless to demonstrate power. How do the powerless assert their power? It is by dissent and opposition to those who demand a two-thirds majority to rewrite the rules.
All of us are either victims or agents of oppression. The political class will survive the ordeal. We the powerless can survive only by one means – dissent and opposition. That requires us to trust truth and challenge the false and the fake.
The Czech playwright Václav Havel who later led his country as President for four terms wrote a powerful essay which he captioned – the Power of the Powerless.
He wrote it when his tortured land was gripped in moral rot. He was contemptuous of socialist tyranny and heartless free marketeering. Both were evil. The political system was infused with lies and misrepresentations.
The ‘Power of the Powerless’ identified the concerned citizen with a conscience as the true repository of power that can change the system. If you bang your head against the wall of tyranny long enough and hard enough, sooner than later, the wall will crumble.
On 5 August we must record our dissent and opposition to a system where lies are inherent, and hypocrisy permeates all levels.
By playing the game as Havel told his people in his essay: “Citizens actively support this legitimization by playing the game and buying into the lie. All those who live within the lie confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system”.
That is fair enough but there is no dignity in living a lie. The only way to lead a dignified life is to view one’s life, and live it, as a moral act by always seeking the truth.
In its simplest form, dissent is the attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility. It is a conscious decision that anybody can make, at any time, despite the pervading ideology one might be living in.
We must resist and reject the hypnotic charm of the vistas of prosperity and splendour as promised by the virtuous disciplinarian.
Common sense dictates that we should be guided by the current market prices of Masoor Dhal and canned Jack Mackerel.
Our democracy has become a spectacle of ephemeral promises. The language of politics is unhinged from reality.
What is frightening is the fear that the person who calls the bluff of the corrupt system is perceived as a fool, eccentric or both. Dissent is not an option. It is an imperative.