How this South Asian country is transiting from a stable liberal democracy into a chaotic illiberal mobocracy
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | The news from Sri Lanka is intriguing and confounding both as politics and as economics. Let us begin with its politics. Sri Lanka has, since independence from Britain in 1948, been consistently a liberal-democracy. Only India has that record in South Asia. Elections have always been held and are fairly free and fair. Control of government (the president, prime minister and parliament) has consistently changed hands from incumbent to opposition and back again. True some powerful individuals and families have dominated the politics of Sri Lanka at certain times, but that is the stuff of politics in many democracies.
Immediately after independence, most of Britain’s colonial
possessions succumbed to coups, one party or armed insurgent governments.
Except for a few small island nations in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, only
Sri Lanka, India and Botswana have sustained liberal democratic institutions.
Singapore is another example but most analysts see it as a single party
authoritarian system dressed in multiparty garb. This experience has led me to
doubt the ability of liberal democracy to work as a turn-key project in any
country – which it has never been anyway.
Over the last few months, this successful liberal democracy
has been in political turmoil triggered by an economic crisis. Governments –
democratic or authoritarian, revolutionary or traditional/conservative – find
themselves in political trouble when confronted by economic crisis. The problem
with Sri Lanka is that after months demonstrating against scarcity of essential
goods and/or their soaring prices, protesters upped the ante. They invaded and
occupied the official residence of the president, and invaded and burned down
the private residence of the prime minister, forcing both to run to exile and
also resign. The army and police did little or nothing to defend the existing
I have always believed that democracies have an inbuilt
mechanism of avoiding unconstitutional changes of government. This is
especially where they are consolidated i.e. governments have changed hands
between incumbents and the opposition severally. In such cases, the public have
confidence to uphold constitutionalism. In case of poor performance, voters can
wait and punish the leader at the next election. This is not the case in an
authoritarian system where elections are rigged and government doesn’t change.
In the latter case, the public can only use unconstitutional means to change
government when faced by a serious economic crisis.
The president of Sri Lanka who has just been deposed by
protesters, Gotabaya Rajapaska, was elected in 2019 by a landslide as an
opposition candidate, beating the incumbent, Maithripala Sirisena. True his
brother, Mahinda Rajapaska, had been president between 2005 and 2015. Mahinda
was defeated in the 2015 election by Sirisena, conceded and went home. It was
the failure of Sirisena that brought the Rajapaskas back to power ahead of a
popular U-turn. Gotabaya appointed Mahinda as his prime minister.
Economically, Sri Lanka again confounds us. Its per capita
income is $4,300 – three times higher than that of Uganda. One could argue that
per capita income disguises income inequalities. However, the measure for
income distribution is the Gini-coefficient. It measures inequality between
zero and one. Assume a country/economy with a population of ten people that
produces income of ten dollars per year. If each one of its ten citizens earns
one dollar, that is perfect equality (zero inequality). But if all the ten
dollars are earned by one person, that is one (perfect inequality). Sri Lanka’s
Gini coefficient is 0.39 – among the best in the world.
Since 2005, Sri Lanka seemed to do well. Its economy doubled
between 2005 and 2011. Poverty fell from 15% to 7.6%. Capitalisation on its
stock market quadrupled. Unemployment fell from 7 to 4%. The World Economic
Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report
placed Sri Lanka as 52nd most competitive economy out of 142 countries
surveyed. On social indicators, 99% of all the homes of Sri Lanka have electricity.
Then 93% have access to clean drinking water and 53% have access to piped water
at home. In 2016, the World Giving Index placed Sri Lanka at number five,
registering high levels of citizen contentment. Uganda just does not compare.
With a road network of 100,000km of paved roads, it makes
Uganda’s 6,000km look a big joke. But Sri Lanka registered a lot of these gains
amidst a borrowing binge. Its budget deficit doubled during this period driven
by ambitious visions of modernisation. Its main foreign exchange earner has
been tourism. When COVID hit, tourism revenues dried out. And Uganda seems
headed in similar director if we do not tame our runaway public spending.
Why did Sri Lanka economy run bankrupt and its politics go
bonkers? Why did a fast-growing economy equally run out of money? And why
didn’t its democratic traditions make its citizens wait for the next election
to remove the government but instead resort to mob action? Why didn’t state
institutions like the police and the army find it necessary to protect the
existing constitutional order? Can anyone imagine what this precedent portends
for that country, now that mobs on the street have been given greenlight that
they don’t need elections to change government?
There is one outcome I am sure about: things in Sri Lanka
are going to get a lot worse, not better. If that country is to improve, it
will take long for it to turnaround, and it will do so at a very slow grinding
pace. Whoever in the police and military allowed this mob takeover of
government will realise – much sooner than later – that whatever their
short-term calculations, they have placed their country on slippery slope of
mob rule from which it will be very difficult to withdraw. Once a mob has tested
power, it becomes very difficult to make them retreat from such actions.
Politicians are power maximising entrepreneurs. Knowing that
power comes from the mob, the next leaders of the country will find it hard to
do what is fiscally right. They will do what pleases the mob. Once that pattern
sets in, we are likely to see a besieged state where every government, subject
to mob pressure, panders to mob feelings and implements disastrous
redistributive policies. The right solutions out of the current economic crisis
cannot be easy fixes as the mob wants and will demand. So, the tenure of
politicians will be short because they will not be able to fulfill the mob’s
demands. Hence, every politician will seek to grab as much as possible before
they get kicked out. Loot will rule.