Bringing democracy back through people’s power

By Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda

Sri Lanka’s politics is at the crossroads. One path opened before the people is that of re-democratization. It comes after decades of de-democratization carried out by different factions of the country’s political elites. The other path takes forward the project of illiberal authoritarianism of the established political class. The driving force that wants to take Sri Lanka along the first path are the non-elite and subordinate social classes. The other path has been the choice of the country’s dominant political elites since the late 1970s. These two path choices also represent the two starkly contrasting political futures for Sri Lanka and its people.

Of these two alternatives, the path of illiberal authoritarianism is clear cut. It is entrenched in a rigid constitutional structure which even the higher judiciary has accepted as both legally valid and ethically unproblematic. The dominant political class has years of experience and expertise to ensure its acceptance by society and in turn to force almost all sections of society to submit to it. Now it has become something like a total system of politics and political power, with an aura of unreformability. However, of late its foundations have become weak and unstable.

The recent protest movement of the ordinary citizens has shattered the myth of this Jayewardene-Rajapaksa system’s stability and unassailability. One of the quick outcomes of this systemic rattling is the emergence of the choice of re-democratization as believable and attractive to many layers of society.

It is also a wakeup call for the academics who have been working on the themes of democratization, constitutional reform and social resistance to authoritarianism. Recent writings by Ahilan Kadirgamar, Dinesha Samararatne, and Ayesha Wijalalath have opened up lines of inquiry and discussion that need to be pursued further by the academic community. Meanwhile, many political activists have also begun to engage in discussions on how to take the aragalaya process forward in a manner that will produce tangible transformative outcomes. This article is partly inspired by these interventions.

A blurred path for re-democratization?

However, the path of re-democratization available at the present juncture remains somewhat blurred. It also looks fragile even though it has, just a few months ago, received massive popular enthusiasm and faith. Moreover, there is no clarity about the future shape of the re-democratization option even among the faithful. In other words, those who are generally described as democratic forces are deeply divided about their own democratic goals and agendas. They show no shared understanding of what kind of democracy they represent or fight for. Their choice is obviously not a nominal democracy subsumed under authoritarianism or some variant of minimalist parliamentary democracy. It is clearly not a thin version of liberal political democracy that ignores issues of social justice, structural inequalities or economic redistribution. It is not a statist welfare democracy either. Not even a nominal republic without effective presence of popular sovereignty and popular control of political power. However, what remain unclear is the shape and character of the democracy model that the citizens’ movement of aragalaya envisioned for the people. Thus, achieving conceptual clarity and programmatic cohesion of the democracy project has become an urgent task for the aragalaya activists in the current phase of their struggle for democratization.

Similarly, unlike the camp of illiberal authoritarians of the Jayewardene-Rajapaksa system, the camp of democrats has to overcome some other major insufficiencies in their preparations for political change. It has no designated champions, not even an agreed program of reforms around which people of the country can be mobilized for further and sustained political action. This is a rather paradoxical situation when, as we witnessed during the past four months, a massive number of citizens across all social, class, ethno-religious and generational backgrounds demonstrated a unique willingness to be mobilized spontaneously and voluntarily for taking part in something like a peaceful democratic revolution. There are also so many refreshingly new democratic ideas emerged during what has now come to be called the citizens’ aragalaya. Yet they still remain as preliminary ideas. As it appears now, the phase of spontaneity in popular mobilization is now over, at least tentatively. Similarly, the ideas for democratic transformation that had emerged spontaneously are now in need of unpacking and sometimes reformulation for greater clarity. Those ideas also await ideological and organizational directions for them to quickly evolve into guiding principles of the next phase of the struggle for democratic transformation.

Power asymmetry

Some clarity about the political platforms to be erected during the current stage of Sri Lanka’s democratic struggle is particularly salient in order to address another urgent question. It is about the power asymmetry that seems to be growing between democratic and authoritarian political forces in the country. The democratic citizen’s movement has challenged the power of the political class while presenting a vision for change but it has not been able to move beyond the point of forcing the Rajapaksa family out of power. The aragalaya is now under direct assault by the regrouped political class whose grip on power was earlier facing a crisis. This political class was initially shaken but it has now come back under a new leadership to successfully re-capture the commanding heights of political power. This happened within a space of two weeks since July 9.

Now the aragalaya itself is at the crossroads. It has begun to disintegrate into various groups giving the much needed breathing space for a renewed counter democratic backlash by the government. At the same time, in view of the economic and social crisis that is very likely to worsen in the coming months, the role of a reinvented citizens’ movement with a coordinated strategy and clarity of political goals is becoming increasingly relevant. In other words, the aragalaya needs to enter into a qualitatively new second phase as a more organized and goal-bound agent for political change.

Unpacking the slogans

Clarity of the political goals of aragalaya is the key idea here. Three major slogans that became popular during the first phase of aragalaya encapsulate the broad frame of the next stage of the citizens’ movement. They are system change, a new political culture and restoring people’s sovereignty. Unpacking of these slogans would be helpful for us to recognize their democratic normative essence as well as future directions inherent in them for concrete political reform agenda. The fact that the aragalaya activists did not define these slogans in any pre-determined terms and in turn allowed them to be used by citizens in the way they wanted needs acknowledgement. They have indeed been open democratic ideas not subjected to any interpretative rigidity as such. In other words, free from hermeneutical closure, they can be understood and interpreted in alignment within a broad democratic template allowing diverse schools of democratic political thought to creatively engage with them.

Let us try to unpack some of the key slogans put forward by aragalaya activists since the early days of the protest movement.

The idea of system change in its broad appeal as well as responses it got from the citizens seems to have had three core meanings, namely, (a) reforming the overall political system including the country’s constitutional structure and institutions of government (b) altering the economic, social and political system as a whole, and (b) reforming and rebuilding the degenerated system of representative-parliamentary democracy. The slogan for a new political culture signified a goal of ending the corrupt, degenerate and unaccountable habits and practices in the conduct of politics associated with the dominant political class. Invoking of the idea of people’s sovereignty signified a powerful democratic desire on the part of the citizens to free democracy from the custody of a corrupt, self-serving political class known for its oppressive behaviour over decades. It reflects a key republicanist instinct shared by many ordinary citizens.

Aragalaya has been a spontaneous popular project for taking democratic government to its genuine roots, the people, who, as many seem to believe now, are the source of political power in a democracy. It also sought to counter the misconception propagated by the political class that the people as mere voters at elections who periodically surrender their sovereignty to MPs, ministers and presidents for minor material gains or ideological wish fulfilment. All these are signs of what one may call molecular transformations of politics suddenly taking place under the feet of the ruling class.

Similarly, the current discussion on the theme of legality versus legitimacy encapsulates the power of the citizens’ movement to regain democracy. The point that has been raised by a number of opposition politicians as well as political commentators in this debate is whether a president or a parliament without people’s support and trust has legitimacy to rule despite the legality of their original appointment. It was the slogan Gota Go Home seeking to force an elected president to resign halfway through his term that actually enabled Sri Lankans to become aware of this cardinal ethical principle of democratic government that had remained forgotten for decades. It entails two claims specific to the normative theory of liberal as well as republican democracy: (a) political power is a temporary authority given by the people to their representatives on trust and subjected to strict conditions of accountability and (b) once the terms of that trust are breached, rulers lose the moral right to rule, making it imperative for the people to take that power back.

Since this a powerful political idea in circulation now, it warrants some extended discussion.

Revival of the social contract legend 

What is remarkable in this particular instance is the popular belief that the relationship between the elector and the elected, the ruler and the ruled, in a democracy is founded on a social contract. Many aragalaya participants began to talk about a pact or contract that is supposed to bind the elected representatives with the people. This is one of the interesting mini stories of the larger story of democratic awakening of the people during the past few months.

Indeed, the notion of a mythical social contact is a fairly old tradition in the premodern South Asian and European folk political beliefs. The idea of a Mahasammatha King in the Sinhalese folk ritual traditions is an early form of social contract imagination of the origin of political power in which the first ruler was elected by the people on the basis of a consensus and the ruler in turn had mutually agreed duties and obligations to the ruled. Since the mid seventeenth century, the European liberal tradition of political philosophy systematized the European folk concept of a consensus-based ruler created by the society to develop an argument, contra the divine rights theory, that the real source of political power is the people. A key political principle in liberal as well as republican democracy thus evolved is that the rulers hold political power on trust based on an agreement with the people. Thus, political power in a democracy is a fiduciary power, an authority based on trust, which is expressed through the consent of the people. When the rulers violate the terms of that trust, or the social contract, the people as the authors of the contract have the right to withdraw it and elect a new set of rulers. Thus, political power is limited, conditional, trust-bound and revocable by the people. Periodic elections based on the universal franchise eventually evolved itself into one of the two mechanisms for entering into, reviewing, reviving and even cancelling the social contract between the governors and the governed. The other mechanism is the written constitution of a country adopted by means of popular approval.

This idea of political power as contractual relationship between the rulers and the ruled has been in circulation in Sri Lanka for some time in recent decades among liberal intellectual circles but not as a major aspect of a home-grown democratic thought. A marginal version of it was employed by the United Front (UF) coalition of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party (CP) in 1970 when it sought a mandate from the people to enact a new republican constitution. Later the liberal principles of the social contract and political power as a trusteeship relationship between the rulers and the ruled were used and elaborated by the SLFP-LSSP-CP led People’s Alliance (PA) in its parliamentary election manifesto in 1994. The PA leadership and its intellectual crowd explicitly employed these liberal metaphors to mobilize the emerging democratic hopes and will of the people against the autocratic-authoritarian rule of the UNP since 1978. What we have witnessed during the past few months this year is the resurgence of that powerful democratic metaphor in a counter-hegemonic political discourse forged by the ordinary citizens not to gain political power but to articulate their shared democratic desires against unjust power.

Aragalaya’s legacy of ideas

A few observations need to be made on the ideas legacy of aragalaya, currently much maligned by the powers that be and even being forgotten by some of its early well-wishers.

  • Firstly, those ideas we noted above are in a conceptual sense a fusion of liberal and republican democratic ideals and normative commitments. That fusion is an important aspect of the creative genius of the ordinary citizens of our society although it still awaits recognition by political and constitutional theorists.
  • Secondly, the political elites have not made much contribution in terms of ideas to deepen or indigenize Sri Lanka’s legacy of liberal democracy. While at times resisting political authoritarianism and defending democratic rule, they have also been champions of autocratic authoritarianism producing and sustaining a Sri Lankan version of thin and illiberal democracy.
  • Thirdly, while the citizens in their role as voters have also repeatedly endorsed various de-democratization agendas of the political elites, citizens of the subordinate social classes have at last decided to break ranks with the elites and advance their democratic imaginations independently and outside the control of the elites. This is a key aspect of Sri Lanka’s democratic revolution from below, constituting what may arguably be called a paradigm shift in the country’s politics.

Then the task to day before all the democratic forces is to take this paradigm shift stable, secure and sustainable and also take the struggle for re-democratization to its next stage. It calls for a number of things in view of the specificity of the new political context that has evolved after the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president.

  • It is the immediate responsibility of all democratic groups and activists as well as those aragalaya’s constituent groups to defend the democratic visions, ideas and ideals advanced through the citizens’ political awakening during the past few months. It calls for launching something like a theoretical-ideological struggle for defending a stronger version of democracy, transcending the limits of liberal democracy.
  • The re-democratization project, aimed at halting the elite-led de-democratization process, entails the working out of a comprehensive reform agenda. It needs to cover the constitution, the presidential system, parliamentary politics, representative democracy,  the electoral process, people’s exercise of sovereignty, political party system, rulers’ and officials’ accountability to people, freeing politics and public life from corruption, reinforcing the rule of law, expanding the bill of rights, and equal citizenship across the boundaries of social class, ethnicity, religion and gender. This reform agenda can have two basic components: (a) elaborating the normative goals and conceptual foundations of reforms, and (b) formulating specific reform ideas without drafting a new constitution or laws as has been the usual elite practice. These two aspects would mark a clear departure from the traditional elitist approach to political reforms that has been devoid of normative clarity while being the privileged job of the experts.
  • Preparation of an agenda for re-democratization should be a collective effort by an informal coalition of democratic constituencies – parties, groups, associations, and individual citizens – through a democratic process of consultation, dialogue and deliberation. This process should aim at harnessing people’s ideas for reforms expressed through their critique of the existing system and their hopes and expectations for a richer democratic political life. Many of them have already become available in the public domain during the citizen’s movement of aragalaya. What is required now is synthesizing these people’s ideas into a compendium of democratic political and constitutional thought and re-formulating them as a program for deep democratic reforms.

The conceptual framework for the re-democratization  agenda can also bring together five strands of democratic political and social thought that have evolved in modern Sri Lanka, namely, liberalism, republicanism, socialism, communitarianism and feminism. While liberalism brings into the reform agenda the heritage of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy, republicanism can address the shortcomings of liberal democracy through a stronger concept of popular sovereignty and citizenship as well as people’s participation in government. Socialism, which is still a part of the official name of Sri Lanka, will compensate for a major gap in liberal democracy through the emphasis of social justice, economic justice and social equality. An engagement with the tradition of communitarian thought is necessary to ensure the group rights of ethnic, cultural, depressed caste communities of citizens, which the liberal notion of formal equality is unable to handle. Feminism will be crucial to promote equality for women and sexual minorities in the domains of social, political, cultural and citizenship rights that other four traditions of political thought have not adequately addressed. The aragalaya site of GotaGoGama was in fact the symbolic space where the emancipatory promise of all of these strands of political thought found a meeting place. Through critical and creative engagement with these five traditions, their emancipatory legacy needs to be taken forward as a symbol of the aragalaya’s contribution to enhancing the home grown quality of Sri Lanka’s contemporary democratic thought and theory. This will be a major activist-intellectual task for the aragalaya in its new phase.

Solidarity among the democrats

The activist-intellectual agenda also calls for a minimum level of unity and greater level of solidarity among the democratic constituencies in Sri Lanka. Taking the struggle for re-democratization  forward will sooner than later require a new wave of the politics of mass mobilization not only for protests, but also for competing with the dominant political elites for political power through parliamentary, representative politics. Citizens’ disillusionment with corrupt parliamentary and electoral politics should not be taken to mean that democratic movement should shun the democratic process altogether, however imperfect it has become. Freeing democracy from its degenerate forms requires making interventions to occupying the institutional spaces of democracy – parliament, provincial councils, local government institutions and even cooperative society boards – through democratic means rather than through direct action alone. Such a combination of direct mass action and electoral-parliamentary interventions will certainly help the citizen’s democratic movement to transform itself into an effective agency for socio-political change and reconstruction.

Unity among Sri Lankan democrats in the form of a broad alliance would also mean a dialogue for solidarity among the constituencies of democrats. In the past many of them had come together to support electoral alliances of some reformist sections of the political class. These experiments have more or less failed, causing harm to the civil society based democratic movement. How can democratic groups today prevent the repetition of that past? This is certainly a point of concern among aragalaya activist groups today. One solution to be seriously discussed is the viability and suitability of a democratic left alliance as the core of a broader coalition of the democratic forces. That will indeed call for strategic and programmatic flexibility on the part of the left as well as non-left democratic parties and groups. Thus, taking the citizen’s struggle for re-democratization of Sri Lanka to its logical end might require creative initiatives of non-partisan and non-sectarian kind by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Frontline Socialist Party (FSP).

Finally, the role of the left in the project of re-democratization in the current context of Sri Lankan politics is a topic that requires a separate discussion.

-This article was originally featured on


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