Home » Prof. Neil DeVotta on the Executive Presidency, Majoritarianism and the State of Democracy

Prof. Neil DeVotta on the Executive Presidency, Majoritarianism and the State of Democracy


Photo courtesy of The Asia Society

The next two years will be crucial for Sri Lanka; a presidential election will be held in the latter part of 2024 and parliamentary elections will be held in 2025. If the president is to be believed, the postponed provincial council and local government elections will be conducted in 2025. At the same time, the country is struggling to come out of an economic crisis that requires some hard decisions that are electorally unpopular. Could a change of government make a difference? In any case, a change of mindset is needed where voters cast their ballot for decent leaders based on their policies and values instead of electing the same old rotten apples.

Many unresolved issues hang in the air. Sri Lanka’s democracy is besieged from all sides. Repressive legislation is being prepared that seriously impinge on freedom of expression and human rights while dissent is ruthlessly crushed with water cannons and tear gas. An organization monitoring civic space recently downgraded Sri Lanka to “repressed”, just a step away from “closed”.

The systemic change demanded by the aragalaya has not come to fruition; discussion about  abolishing the executive presidency, one of the main reasons why rampant corruption and misgovernance continues, has all but come to a halt. Electoral reform is not progressing.

Although the government continues to pay lip service to reconciliation, few concrete steps have been taken. While a truth commission bill is to be presented in parliament next month, it has been drafted with little input from the minority political parties and victims of state atrocities.

Neil DeVotta is a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University in the US. His research interests include South Asian security and politics, ethnicity and nationalism, ethnic conflict resolution, and democratic transition and consolidation. He has written extensively on Sri Lankan politics and society. Prof. DeVotta spoke to Groundviews on the need for elections, the damage done by the executive presidency and majoritarianism, why the aragalaya could not deliver systemic change and the state of democracy.

After the aragalaya many people believe the government has no mandate. Should the country go for elections right now or wait to get out of the economic crisis?

The government should hold elections when elections are due. Postposing elections or cancelling them like the president did with local government elections would be a very big mistake because there is much pent up frustration. If you are among the upper middle classes in Colombo, you tend not to notice it that much but people are really having a terrible time. These pent up frustrations can erupt in a very violent fashion if elections get postponed, especially given that people in Sri Lanka take elections seriously. They vote in large numbers and even when they end up electing the same rotten apples, at least people feel like they have had a choice. And so, when you deprive them of that choice, which is their constitutional right, and it gets deprived by a president who lacks legitimacy, and when a big reason for doing so is to prolong his political career, that can be dangerous.

If you are postponing elections because you fear the JVP or their ilk will come to power, then you will likely radicalise the JVP once more, which would be unfortunate because the party has clearly changed its insurrectionary stripes. In this regard, Ranil Wickremesinghe will need to decide whether he apes his uncle, who tried to blame the JVP for the 1983 pogrom and drove the party underground, or learns from Chandrika Kumaratunga, who helped bring the JVP into mainstream politics. He should follow the example of Chandrika, who as president was more enlightened and superior to Jayewardene. Democracy, no matter how flawed, succeeds when those in the opposition feel that they have a fair chance of coming to power; if the opposition feels they cannot come to power in relatively free and fair elections, then what in the point of being in the opposition?

The president has overruled the decision of the Constitutional Council regarding the IGP. What message does that send about the lack of separation of powers, which is a fundamental pillar of a democracy?

This partly highlights how the president leans when it comes to governing. He turned in just one name to the Constitutional Council, whereas the expectation was that he would turn in a few names so the CC could make a recommendation. When they rejected the name he was up in arms. In the early 1960s, and I believe I have the period right, Felix Dias Bandaranaike said that a little bit of dictatorship is not a bad thing, and Ranil Wickremesinghe does not seem to be averse to that sort of thinking. He’s the kind of person who likes to make decisions unilaterally whenever he can, and that’s fine if it’s within the constitution but when he is seen to go against the letter or spirit of the constitution, that does not help. Wickremesinghe is a smart individual and it may be tempting to act single handedly when surrounded by political midgets more interested in lining their pockets. But there is a reason the 17th Amendment to the constitution was crafted and versions of it reinstated whenever the likes of Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa undermined checks on the executive. Wickremesinghe and the country are better off if he makes appointments in line with the 21st Amendment.

There is no doubt that 2024 is going to be a pivotal year for Sri Lanka. If you don’t have elections, that could unleash violence. If you have elections and a radical set comes to power, it is very likely that policies the new regime promote would undermine debt restructuring agreements and reforms the government has agreed with the IMF. At this point one must assume that the JVP will do best in parliamentary elections, although in the past the party’s superior ground game has failed to translate into votes and seats. If the party ends up controlling the next parliament’s agenda, my sense is that its economic policies will make matters worse for Sri Lanka. But that is not a reason to cancel elections.

Is the executive presidency a major stumbling block to democracy and good governance?

The executive presidency was a mistake for Sri Lanka, which is why everyone except President Ranasinghe Premadasa promised to do away with it. However, its powers are an aphrodisiac of politics (with apologies to Henry Kissinger) because once enjoyed no one seems to have the ability to let go. The people around the president also know that they can manipulate presidential powers to benefit from spoils with impunity so they have no incentive to change the system. Then you have the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists who see the executive presidency as necessary to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. This country needs a major political restructuring, not just a system change the people in the aragalaya were asking for. Restructuring the entire system would mean getting rid of the executive presidency and coming up with mechanisms that reduce impunity and corruption. Lord Acton’s dictate that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is amply evidenced through Sri Lanka’s executive presidency because this is one institution that has enabled and institutionalised corruption. It has got to the point where it is does not matter if the person who is president is incorruptible because he or she now has no choice but to put up with corrupt forces around them be it in the business sector, parliament, bureaucracy or clergy.

Overall, I remain a pessimist when it comes to governance in Sri Lanka given my understanding of how difficult it is to change systems and structures that are embedded. The fact of the matter is that Sri Lanka has been on an ethnocentric path for a long time and this has created vested interests that have no interest in changing things because change will come at the expense of their perks and kickbacks. This includes those who benefit from the country’s ethnocracy legally and illegally. This ethnocracy has allowed certain constituencies to be able to get away with almost anything by manipulating ethnoreligious sentiments. This includes religious leaders. And it also includes the military. Add the government sector to this and you have over 1.5 million people, of which over 95% are bound to be from the majority community, benefitting from this ethnocracy. All know that one requirement to tackle the country’s bankruptcy is to reduce public sector bloat. But if you try to reduce their numbers, it almost becomes an attack on the majority community so politically it is unfeasible to try and transform the system in ways that promote good governance and maintain power at the same time.

In this regard, one must blame Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s two governments that, besides unnecessarily marginalising and humiliating the Tamils, also gutted the relatively independent civil and public services. The rascals who thereafter came aboard ended up promoting corruption and ethnocracy. The executive presidency, in the main, continued with these Bandaranaike policies, because Jayewardene was less interested in democracy and more interested in arrogating power via majoritarianism.

Why did the aragalaya fail to deliver system change that people wanted?

You could think of the aragalaya as a success in that its most prominent slogans Gota Go Home and Mayna Go Home were achieved. This has sidelined the Rajapaksas and they will have a much harder time dominating Sri Lankan politics again. The movement was also a success in that it highlighted how passionately Sri Lankans take their right to protest and the willingness to put their bodies on the line to secure a better future. From ethno-religious and caste-class standpoints it also evidenced that people could mobilise under a common Sri Lankan banner to work towards a greater goal.

But overall the aragalaya failed, and it is not because Ranil Wickremesinghe in Machiavellian fashion changed its course. Yes, the movement was co-opted by political forces that tried to further their agendas and Wickremesinghe was among them. But I contend that even if Wickremesinghe ceased to be a player in this saga and even if the protestors had managed to get all 225 parliamentarians ejected, the transformative change protestors were calling for was not going to take place. For that to happen, Sri Lanka would need to move away from its ethnocracy – which, to invoke Abraham Lincoln, is government of the majority, by the majority, for the majority – and that was not going to happen. It seems that what most people want is better governance within majoritarianism. So, regime change. Or perhaps even change to the political structure, whereby you go from say the present semi-presidential to a Westminster or other structure. But whatever the structural change, the foundation is ethnocracy, which ultimately is the bane of Sri Lanka.

Another unresolved issue is the ethnic problem. The desire for a separate state is still strong, especially in the diaspora. What is the solution?

There are elements in the diaspora that have not given up on the idea of a separate state. There are many reasons for this, including the LTTE Eelam ideology. Another is local politics and posturing. Yet you also have those who are genuinely concerned about the militarisation and land grabbing taking place in the north and east. There are those within the Sri Lankan state who want to change the demographics in the northeast so that all nine provinces are majority Sinhalese. These actions reiterate the notion that Tamils can only protect themselves from predatory majoritarian forces only if they have their own state. On the other hand, the extremist positions some in the diaspora take are detrimental to the very people they want to uplift. The diaspora folks live relatively comfortable lives and I know many who believe it is their duty to speak out given that their friends and relatives cannot fully do so. Yet these are folks who will not return to live in Sri Lanka and it will be better if they focused their energies on engaging the government and other stakeholders in the country to enable better livelihoods for their fellow Tamils in the northeast.

This is especially crucial since you have young people in the north who don’t recall the horrors of war. If you consider the students who protested at Jaffna University recently, they were five or six years old when the war ended. Older people are aware of the horrors of war, and they don’t want to experience that again even if they continue to seethe at daily discriminations and humiliations. Young people have heard the stories of how bad it was and that upsets them; and they live under unjust conditions that make the LTTE’s ideals and exploits attractive, partly because they have not experienced the horrors Eelam unleashed. These occasional reports we hear about attempts to revive the LTTE and attempts to smuggle weapons should be taken seriously, not only on the part of the Sri Lankan state that wants to prevent another uprising but also on the part of Tamils who don’t want to see another conflict. The way you try to minimise that possibility is by accommodating the Tamils. Right now the rhetoric by Sinhalese nationalists and the government is paying no heed to Tamils’ legitimate demands. Sri Lankans need realise that their country will never reach its potential if they continued to oppress minority communities. Some will benefit immensely by doing so, but the country will suffer. In fact, that is what is happening now. Much of what we are seeing with corruption, misgovernance and bankruptcy – as far as I am concerned – can be tied to majoritarianism.

Can Sri Lanka still be called a democracy?

It is an illiberal democracy. It’s very hard to maintain a liberal democracy. You need to have courts operating in a very impartial fashion and you need the rule of law to operate at very high levels, which means no impunity. You need to have minorities provided their constitutional rights and civil liberties. Sri Lanka falls short on almost all the major aspects. Where it does well is that it’s good at holding elections, people vote in high numbers and you have a vibrant civil society that is important for democracy. You could make an argument that the country was a liberal democracy between 1948 and 1956, and this if you disregarded the way Indian Tamils were denied citizenship. But surely after 1956 it operated as an illiberal democracy. I think given the ethno-religious dynamics in the country this is the best one can expect. Corruption and impunity, which majoritarianism exacerbated, have degraded institutions to such a degree that it will be hard to transform the island into a liberal democracy. Doing so would mean transforming institutions in ways that hurt the interests of some powerful sections within the country. This doesn’t mean you give up because to give up is to lose hope and end up in an even worse place.

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