Sustaining democracy

Tuesday, 25 December 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both” – Niccolo Machiavelli, Prince 1532


St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ was perhaps the book Sirisena was following since the beginning of his presidency in 2015. A kind and calm leader from humble beginnings was seen trying to be righteous yet appeared cornered, isolated and perhaps pushed to the wall by his coalition partners. 

That is why, it seems, he decided to borrow political ideas from another book which was banned since as soon as it came into print. This book is another Italian masterpiece, ‘Machiavelli’s Prince’. This book had once helped Queen Elizabeth to create a golden age while assassinating the people who went against her; a terror far worse than her father Henry the VIII’s time. 

Machiavelli advised in the Prince to be a lion and a fox at the same time; former to frighten wolves, the latter to detect snares. Elizabeth was a combination of both, turning adversaries against each other keeping steady on the tightrope she walked with patriotism. In the same manner, President Sirisena appointed Rajapaksa – a move that the entire nation or the coalition partners never contemplated – dismantled and stripped power of the former Prime Minister the same way as he treated Sirisena according to a Presidential adviser who completely ignored the advice of the President when making decisions in the bipartisan model. 

Matching to the last trick, in 1571 the most elaborate plot was to assassinate Elizabeth and install Mary Stuart to the throne. A Florentine banker Roberto Ridolfi was planning this plot connecting Pius V, King Philip and Duke of Alba which Elizabeth’s spymasters tracked and exposed at the right time.

In the same way the assassination plot of Sirisena was revealed with recorded conversations and investigations taking place at the same time where another nation appeared involved, indirectly. The investigation will tell if there was such real plot to assassinate the President. 

Just like in the ancient time Sirisena will use exacts words of Machiavelli to crush all his adversaries with the help of the man who he contested against in 2015 and perhaps use the same nation who supported his election victory calling and requesting assistance on the assassination plot. So in an article titled ‘Leviathan’ (Sea Monster) authored a few months ago, I had appealed to the leader to follow work of Hobbes who wrote of a central figure with authority than a weak figure at the centre who was seen by many as a puppet on strings. 

Sirisena, like Elizabeth, was a strange leader perhaps never took advice. The Ambassador to Philip of Spain in England Count de Feria wrote: “Elizabeth is a very strange sort of a woman…she is determined to be governed by no one.” She was calm to the public even at the time of much rebellion and chaos, in the same way Sirisena was seen calm and was watching the success of his pet project Moragahakanda reservoir opening the sluice gate while one of the gatekeepers of democracy, the Parliament, was in chaos and trending on social media and television screens. 

The entire nation observed fist-fighting between the honourable representatives of the highest democratic institution. Perhaps a question could be raised if political parties who are an essential gatekeeper of democracy had given election nominations to the right kind of candidates to become people’s representatives?

While many leaders from history practiced Machiavellian philosophy, another document keeps leaders from engaging in authoritarian acts. National constitutions represent that document with long history from the ancient times of Hammurabi’s code which codified 282 laws to govern Babylon to the modern-day English Protectorate introduced after the English Civil war by Oliver Cromwell. But all constitutions also have had their flaws. 

The US Constitution does little to prevent the President from doing undemocratic things such as filling the FBI or other independent Government agencies with obedient subjects nor does it prevent a president from acting by decree issuing executive orders. President Trump is seen today exercising all these undemocratic practices and further interfering with Judiciary by calling his Chief Justice an Obama judge while the Judge denies this allegation.

So how does democracy sustain its credibility? What keeps democracy going is an adherence to the unwritten rules and it thrives on two things which are mutual toleration and institution forbearance according to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book ‘How Democracies Die’.

Mutual tolerance means participants of a democratic system that is political rivals to power are not branding each other enemies, traitors or criminals. In recent past this axiom has been repeatedly undermined in Sri Lankan parliament. In nations like Chile during 1960 mutual tolerations began to erode between the two political camps. In 1973 August when the chamber of deputies declared government unconstitutional it triggered a military coup led by right wing power and for the next 17 years Augusto Pinochet was in power. There is a grave danger when mutual toleration is lost and the political opponents are seen as traitors or part of a plot to assassinate the Executive. 

In a similar manner, autocracy could creep into system with gradual erosion of democracy. In Peru when Alberto Fujimori failed to deliver economic progress through democratic means he took over the law to his hand ignoring the courts and the constitution. On 5 August 1992 he dissolved congress and suspended the Constitution. Fujimori transformation from a democratic leader to a dictator was piecemeal.

Institutional forbearance means refraining from actions that would undermine the spirit of democracy -- even if the act is technically legal or not prohibited by the constitution. For example, George Washington exercised this by limiting his term serving only twice as President even when there were no set term limits in Constitution. 

In Sri Lanka institutional forbearance was lost when the past regime scrapped the presidential term limit and took control of all independent commissions – an act which made the former President unpopular. However, President Sirisena’s recent move to remove Prime Minister was done on many grounds according to the President but there was one point which made his case accepted. 

This was breach of national security by the former Prime Minister during his conduct at office, seen by some as being an agent of another nation not working on national interest. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga fired the same Prime Minister on the grounds of national security since he signed an agreement with another nation without her consent in 2004.

The present situation has to return to normalcy at some point. Hope perhaps lies in going back to the people to unlock the present gridlock between the Executive and the Legislature. In the long run political culture of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance need to be restored to preserve South Asia’s oldest democracy. Else, Sri Lanka could drift towards a worse form of government, a dictatorship with its main gatekeeper of democracy the Parliament crippled and Judiciary undermined. 

President Sirisena should shelve Machiavelli and revisit the work ‘City of God’ of St. Augustine. It is important to understand that dismantling of democracy can be a gradual imperceptive process that may allude our day-to-day priorities. But once begun, this drift can take a long time to restore and redo what is lost which may take real long time to rebuild.

(The writer is the Director General of INSSSL, views expressed are his own. The article was initially published by South Asia Journal

Recent columns