Democracy: a tale of two strategies

Tuesday, 4 December 2018 00:56 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREECH: It’s par for the course for politicos driven by petty, personal or partisan ambition to call for polls. But when a former president calls for general elections in the context of his premiership failing successive floor tests and other democratic probes into his legality as prime minister, the legitimacy of that call itself could be called into question. Since the post-coup apparatus of state lies in the hands of the de facto powers that be, a trip to the booth – whether general or executive – would be a tough one to call… or contain, if history is anything to go by
– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

The problem with democracy these days is that it tends to be defined not by the people, but by the politicians they elected to represent them. In both parliament and presidency, the players strut and fret their hours upon the stage. And expect us citizen spectators to applaud what they probably feel are star performances.

These are not petty actors. But rather than discharge their roles according to constitutional scripts, they’ve opted to ham it up and lord it over their cast and crew. And we the people have been relegated to the gallery. Is there something we can do about this three-ring circus?


Regrettably, at least in-between elections, there is little if anything we can do to alter the way the play is going. Certainly, civil society can call upon the bastions of a democratic ethos – a sterling judiciary, an equally stalwart set of independent commissions, the free media perhaps – to do its bit and put pressure on the institutions established by the 19th Amendment.

However, if the constitution was meant to safeguard citizens, it has proven a damp squib in the face of coup executives and attendant prime usurpers. Therefore, our five-act play has been hijacked by the players – and we its sponsors and stakeholders have not much choice but to sit back, grit our teeth, and get on with the nuts and crackers and tax-free sugar-high fizzy drinks.


Thankfully (and one must choose one’s words carefully here, lest a dramatic irony is invoked), a major player has cried halt. Mahinda Rajapaksa, that great ham actor, has called for general elections.

Now on the surface of the script, this is the democratic impulse showing throw the veil. But scratch the subtext, and the mask falls. And the cynical would be forgiven for conjecturing that this is no more than savvy posturing by a performer who has survived – if that’s the right term – two no-confidence motions, a quo warranto appeal and what promises to be a series of floor tests ad infinitum unless his boss the executive director comes to his senses. There is a major legal hurdle to be surmounted this week starting today. This is a career politician playing his most challenging role to date. And working the crowds.


He has little competition worth writing home about from his opposite number. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have depth as a character actor. But not the charisma to pull it off. And comes across as a methodical plodder. That may be his greatest asset in the end. Underplaying every role. From being a tyrant in his home party. To that of a democrat about a republican world at large. When appearing statesman-like suits his purposes.

Being upstaged by a barnstormer like MR has brought out a hidden fire in him. But it might be too little, too late. Also there is the niggling matter of his refusal to let his own party’s democratic impulse shape his latent ambition to win an Oscar for playing a convincing head of state. It has dampened the enthusiasm of the ranks of Tuscany. Who had hoped that the veteran would content himself at least now to a cameo role in the wings.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The champion of the reforms agenda resisted every attempt – and there have been many: post electoral defeats as much as while embroiled in bond scam egg in the face – to streamline and democratize his own party machinery.

It’s a pity that democrats like Ranil don’t recognise the irony in the ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ routine for what it is – inconsistency at best or hypocrisy at worst. Because democracy arguably is the worst form of government. Except, of course, for all the others. And RW demonstrably is the worst democrat to fall off a high horse. Except, of course, for all the others.

But their horses never occupied (much less stamped about so haughtily – some may essay hypocritically) on such high moral ground as the light-brigade cavalry charge that was ‘good governance’. Even now, a sense of shame or proportion eludes some of the self-righteous. While those who are clearly the villains of the piece trot out of parliament with no impunity. Canter away from proving a majority time and again. Gallop towards rumours of a possible military coup if the political one fails…

Strategies and stratagems

So the republic under pressure of a coup running out of steam boils down to this. Which of the two contesting ‘democrats’ will be the caretaker premier, once the dust of House and Court has settled?

For his part, and if he can successfully manoeuvre out of legal knots (like joining the SLPP to head it without first resigning from the SLFP), MR will pull every string to persuade his president to continue to ignore all those democratic niceties like floor tests. But convincing Maithripala Sirisena – who’s no Chamal Rajapaksa – to ignore jurisprudence and/or impeach a nine-member bench like they once did a recalcitrant chief justice might take another coup. And that does (and does not) bear thinking about right now. And with Karu firmly in the UNP camp, despite all his protestations of being an impartial speaker, MR will have no parliamentary apparatus available to engineer another plot twist short of going to the country again. Ergo the rallying call to his plebs and sundry to go to the polls to settle the vexed issue.

Then there’s the enigma wrapped in a puzzle shrouded in a conundrum that’s RW. What’s he thinking, in sphinx-like silence? Reduced to allowing his hyenas in the House snipe and foxes in Court snip and snap? Short of consistently signalling to civil society that he’s the only true democrat left standing, Ranil has done little to convince the rabble that he’s in the right. While he lacks the charisma of the charming rogues who kiss everyone warmly, etc. but kill editors, et al. in cold blood – it might be just this lacklustre semaphoring that does the judicial trick come end-week.

On the one hand, he’s got the international community including those all-important aid agencies on his side. To the extent of embassies (bar a brace or three) snubbing the coup’s prime minister. On the other, his image as a democrat is thanks to urbane UNP professionals and little old urban ladies standing in the rain giving their solid-citizen protests no end of kitschy spins – and no less tarnished for being a grass-roots movement by dint of his vehicular (!) parade to a key shrine down south.

Democracy is a tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing much more than some idealistic dream. However, it is the only story we can live in with the dignity and honour, which come from not having it all related our way. But being able to boo, jeer, cheer, heckle, replace the narrator – and that makes it the only decent meta-narrative in the overall scheme of things. Let’s keep supplying our democrats with the inputs they need and we demand, to be woven into the ongoing unfolding saga of coup politics still on centre stage today. The climax – an award ceremony of sorts – comes at the end of the week.

(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower)


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