Leena Rikkilä Tamang
“It seems there is no appetite for an all-party government if the President remains in power. I am not sure whether the situation has yet reached its tipping point, but new elections may be the only way out of immediate crisis,” Leena Rikkilä Tamang, the Director for the Asia and the Pacific program of the International IDEA, a well-known inter-governmental organisation, with 34 member states from global north and global south, with a sole mandate to support democracy worldwide, said in an interview.
Leena has published about democracy at the global level, on women’s political participation, and on inclusive democratic processes, and is reviewing and contributing to International IDEA knowledge products. “I hope the crisis will serve as an opportunity to reimagine Sri Lanka – a country that once was the top performer in South Asia, both economically as well as on aspects of democracy,” she added.
She started her career as project coordinator of Nelson Mandela Reception Committee in 1990 in Finland. Following are excerpts:
Q: First of all, let us discuss your involvement with IDEA. I heard you have joined the IDEA in 2002 after working with various institutes including Nelson Mandela Reception Committee and Asia-Europe (ASEF) Foundation. May I have a brief overview of IDEA and its global role?
International IDEA is an inter-governmental organisation, with 34 member states from global north and global south, with a sole mandate to support democracy worldwide. From Asia and Oceania our members include Australia, India, Indonesia, Mongolia and the Philippines. Our areas of work include elections, constitution building processes, political participation, and democracy analysis. IDEA is both a ‘think tank’ and ‘do tank’ – we produce knowledge products and databases, but also convene dialogues and provide technical assistance, as per request by national actors. We work with election management bodies, parliaments, academia, civil society and public interest groups
Q: How do you feel about working in IDEA for almost 10 years and being in charge of projects in Asia?
When I joined, my first area of work was to support the Myanmar ethnic groups and democratic opposition in exile. The aim was always to pave the way for the peaceful return to Myanmar and to start building a more democratic country. Unfortunately, the 1 February coup by Myanmar’s military forced us to leave the country, but our work continued from outside, in persistent support of democratic forces and their heroic efforts. The old generation – that was in exile already in 2002 – is now joined by the new generation of young people, who lived under more freedoms for a decade and do not want to return to authoritarian rule. Some ways it feels like returning to square one, but on the other hand there is so much progress made with mindsets, and the new generation is just awesome.
To me, International IDEA is an excellent place to work as one can combine desire for research, and work on the ground with real life processes. And so, to advance democratisation in a sense of fundamental rights and social justice to realise. International IDEA is supporting home grown democracy – we do not believe in exporting institutional models or templates. It has been a privilege to be able to support democracy activists, Indigenous peoples, women’s groups to advance their rights, but also working with institutions like the election management bodies and parliaments to strengthen their capacities. We were closely engaged with the constitution building processes in Nepal and in Indonesia, and even now working with the Afghan constitutional scholars, imagining a better future for that country. We have also documented, and shared lessons learnt from Asia on transition to democracy, on constitution building, election management with the rest of the world.
I have learnt that timing is everything – when you are able to provide timely support at the right moment, much can be achieved – it is equally true that sometimes processes take a long while to mature, and you just must be patient, and that ten years is only a short period in a country’s history.
Q: You worked extensively in Nepal during the transition period. However, Nepal, like many countries in Asia, is still struggling to overcome serious challenges. How do you see the institutional collapse in Nepal and what is the way out?
Over the last 15 years, Nepal has gone through a significant transition from a unitary Hindu Kingdom with exclusionary policies toward a federal, secular, multiparty democracy with several policies aiming for better inclusion, and ending discrimination based on caste, gender, ethnicity, or religion. The new constitution was promulgated in 2015 and its implementation, albeit being a slow process, is also progressing. The local government elections are taking place in May 2022, and the federal and province level (second ever) elections later in 2022 (date to be decided). In fact, as per the GSoD data, Nepal has made progress on most aspects of its democracy since …
The challenges remain yes – the caste based discrimination, while banned by law and electoral and educational quotas established for Dalits, is still prevalent. Women have 30% representation at all levels of elected institutions, yet very few chairs of the local governments, or political parties are women. Gender based violence remains prevalent. Federalisation, recognised by the constitution and legal frameworks, is a slow process, not least due to lack of resources and a very centralised mind set.
There is still structural corruption, and development challenges. Nepal is yet to graduate from the group of least developed countries in spite of development aid, and most importantly the remittances provided by the migrant workers over the decades, and economic governance requires improving.
Nepal’s institutions are not collapsing – they are not always effective, and remain resource poor, but they have proven to be resilient.
Q: Many people think that democracy is an opportunity to conduct free and fair elections, but they do not focus on electing a genuine person who is capable of protecting the principles of democracy and strengthening the administrative institutions leading to the elimination of corruption and other irregularities. As a person born and raised in Finland, the country faced a series of conflicts such as the Soviet Intervention known as the Winter War, how do you see democracy in Asia and its transformation?
Democracy is not only about elections – yet it is hard to have a democratic system without elections either. People in Asia and the Pacific are used to strong and loud executive action – and the pandemic years only emphasised this tendency of centralised decision making. There is for sure a need to strengthen the checks and balances. The governments would need to be held accountable by the parliaments- and all institutions under check. That citizens are equal in front of law, and constitutional bodies and judiciary are independent. Furthermore, political participation should go beyond voting. International IDEA includes socio economic rights to be part of the definition of democracy.
As you know, Asia is a home of emerging and consolidated democracies, as well as rather entrenched authoritarian regimes and quite a few which are what we call ‘hybrid regimes’, oscillating between democratic and authoritarian tendencies. From a historical perspective of 45 years – (check the GSoD data) Asian democratisation has improved tremendously. Yet, the last five to seven years is showing worrying signs, including declines in consolidated democracies of the region, like in Sri Lanka. Also, new emerging democracies have collapsed, like Myanmar. Afghanistan was never quite a democracy but there too some progress was made on women’s rights and in media freedoms before the Taliban takeover. I think Asian democracies need to invest in civic education; they need to work harder for social justice and become better in delivering basic services for ordinary people. Asia has all the potential in the world.
I believe people in Asia do wish to have their freedoms and expect their elected governments to deliver conditions for a good life – for most people that means opportunity to study, and work and to be able to raise your family without constant economic related worries. In the Pacific, people are dealing with the imminent existential threat due to rising sea levels, - Southeast Asia is suffering from an increasing number of cyclones and flooding and South Asia is confronted by extreme weather conditions. Democracy has more and more challenges that it needs to mitigate in democratic manner.
It took a long while for Finland too to become fully democratic, and the process still continues, we are far from perfect – but we were fortunate enough to believe in importance of quality education for all – by today’s standards it would have been terribly expensive exercise, but it was considered an investment at the time (we have no private schools but believe in investing in government schools). There was also national pride and determination after the wars with the Soviet Union. The war also brought a very divided nation together and healed the wounds of the tragic civil war of 1917-1918.
I have learnt that timing is everything – when you are able to provide timely support at the right moment, much can be achieved – it is equally true that sometimes processes to take a long while to mature, and you just must be patient, and that ten years is only a short period in any country’s history.
Q: I heard that there is an international fund to hold elections in countries where there is not enough funds. If that is true, how can a country appeal for such a fund?
I am not aware of such a fund. In the past, the UN has at times organised and/or funded elections in countries unable to manage by themselves- this has taken place, now long ago, in Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Afghanistan. These days, several organisations, including the UN and also International IDEA, may provide technical assistance to the Election Commissions, or support civil society organisations, or undertake observation missions. Sometimes donor countries provide funding for some aspects of elections – like in Myanmar in 2015, and also 2020 elections. Donors paid for ink, ballot boxes, voter education materials, etc.
Q: Let’s talk about Sri Lanka. I am sure you are aware of the political crisis that accompanied the economic downturn. How do you read this situation?
It seems, from the outside that is, that Sri Lanka has lived beyond its means for a long while. The current crisis boiling down to bad economic governance of several years, and is also coinciding with decline of many aspects of Sri Lankan democracy. International IDEA’s 2021 GSoD report identified Sri Lanka as being at high risk of “democratic backsliding.” GSoD data show that Sri Lanka has suffered decreases in all the sub-attributes of Check on Government as well as decreases in Absence of Corruption over the past several years (see the graph).
It is interesting to see how protestors of all ethnic backgrounds, including those who voted for the Rajapaksas, are coming together demanding for reforms and for his resignation. It also seems there is no appetite for an all-party government if the President remains in power. I am not sure whether the situation has yet reached its tipping point, but new elections may be the only way out of the immediate crisis.
In the longer run more profound reforms are needed. Those include suggestions of abolishing the executive presidency and moving toward parliamentary system, reinforcing and protecting an independent judiciary. And increasing accountability among the political classes i.e., declaring their assets and auditing expenditures, enforcing transparent and professional tender and contract processes; and filling key economic decision-making roles with competent and experienced professionals to reinstall confidence among the Sri Lankan public and international creditors.
The survey on constitutional preferences International IDEA did together with the CPA (Centre for Policy Alternatives) in 2021, indicated that leaders of all ethnic groups demanded for constitutional changes that would ensure economic prosperity.
I hope the crisis will serve as an opportunity to reimagine Sri Lanka – a country that once was the top performer in South Asia, both economically as well as on aspects of democracy.
Q: In many Asian countries, democracy continues to be dominated by men. But countries like Finland have made tremendous strides in ensuring equality for women in politics. In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but almost half (47%) of the country’s parliamentarians are women. What are the secrets behind this attractive social development and what are the challenges you face as an advocate for women’s political participation?
Well, Scandinavian countries have come a long way on gender equality, but it has also taken about 100 years! Gender equality has progressed hand in hand with building the welfare state: enabling women to join the workforce, establishing non expensive childcare, ensuring equal opportunity of higher education for boys and girls, etc. but also allowing for changed roles for men – taking more responsibilities at home and taking care of children. None of this has dropped from heaven but is a result of tireless work of women’s movements, progressive political parties, some luck with our elected leaders, pressure from ordinary citizens etc. and there is still much work to be done. For example, domestic violence against women remains a major issue in Finland.
I hope my daughter, who has a Nepali father and Finnish mother, and is currently living in Australia, is able to stand on the shoulders of gender advocates of both Nepal and of Finland. But one needs to work for the gender equality every day, and the risks for lapse are real in today’s world.
If you look at the IPU Women in Parliament Database, the top two countries are from the global south: Ruanda and Cuba, and most of the top 10 countries have gender quotas in place. Finland is only at the 14th place globally.
We should start thinking of gender equality more like a universal suffrage – there should be constitutional commitment to parity – not one gender should dominate political representation. Some of the Latin American countries are on this path.