Public disillusionment and democracy backsliding

Prague last week may as well be Colombo Sri Lanka sooner rather than later. In the Czech capital citizenry took to the streets to demand the resignation of their prime minister on allegations of corruption.

Hong Kong in recent weeks, the people took to the streets to protest a controversial proposal by the somewhat authoritarian Chinese administration.From Egypt to Sudan, the United States, Britain, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Venezuela and Algeria too the people are displaying a hitherto unknown openness in expressing dissatisfaction on how they are being governed and on how their governments are spending the peoples’ monies. Donald Trump came in largely on the premise that he would ensure that US interests are number one. That appealed to the bulk of the younger vote.In the United Kingdom backbenchers from the ruling Conservative party forced their leader and Prime Minister Theresa May to announce her retirement from high office – even if their party rules meant she would not need to face an internal leadership battle for at least a year longer. The backbenchers resorted to a very Sri Lankan notion: they assured the beleaguered Theresa May that they would change the rules so she would face an internal leadership battle. Not wanting to stay any longer than she was welcome, she announced the date she would leave and the succession battle started in earnest. The bone of contention of course was that Britain had voted heavily in favour of Brexit and the people wanted their wishes implemented – deal or no deal. The law is the law. Democracy is democracy.

The motives for every protest by the people are as diverse as the countries in which we see these protests. The fact however is that there is a global trend amongst people who are demanding far more accountability from their leadership. Some of these protests are seen from people who would not usually speak openly about such unhappiness on governance but there is a definitive trend that the public almost everywhere are becoming open in their mobilization to ensure change. Democracy has ceased to be a mere notion. The public are increasingly vociferous in their criticism and are demanding action immediately rather than later.

Not only in Sri Lanka but globally political moves and assurances from politicians at elections or statements by leaders in autocracies, have given people an impetus to expect ‘better’ than whatever is their present lot in life. In Sri Lanka whilst the public were led to believe that authoritarianism would decline post 2015 the opposite has become true although the wrapping is seemingly nicer. The classic example is that corruption far from abating post 2015 is actually on the increase as is corruption, nepotism and political patronage.

The people though are not remaining quiet and subservient. Not any more it appears. Just last week we saw video clips of a monk being berated by a member of the public who asked the monk if he wished for the public to expose the monk’s departure from celibacy and other transgressions of his ecclesiastical leanings. It was something quite unheard of a few years ago that a monk of all people would be subject to such open discourse by the public and that too, publicly and in full view of the television cameras. Times are clearly changing.The wrapping on so-called progression in terms of accountability has changed certainly. However search for accountability and transparency has merely intensified. Thanks to the rising heights of the social media framework, more and more quite ordinary folk have access to trending news on authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism as never before.

The back peddling of this country’s quest to maintain its traditional non-aligned policy has been seriously compromised astonishingly not by an overtly authoritarian leader in the mold of Mahinda Rajapaksa but by what turns out to be a closet, covert dictator. Ranil Wickremesinghe although in effect a minority premier in 2015 simply dumped in the nearest dustbin the broad alliance that he had reached with Maithripala Sirisena and others in the hope of bringing in a so-called yahapalanaya. Instead he all but donned a hat of supreme benevolent leader and threw transparency and accountability to the winds.

The twin dangers – a return to authoritarianism (however covert) and growing expectations of real democracy are obviously clashing in a world that is far more open than we have ever been. The public distrust of politicians has in Sri Lanka at any rate, grown to distrust of elections too – where the differing political parties dish out a menu of the ages old band of wannabe legislators. New faces has not always been available in any great number instead it’s the same old bunch on offer for the public to choose from. Just as the public distrust of elections too has risen, so has their quest for real change. Taking to the streets appears to be the global public’s answer to better governance.Social media is playing a key role by the very nature of its DNA. The public find it easy to share their views, find like minded citizens and gather as one in a show of force usually on busy streets for maximum exposition.Expectations that are not delivered upon all too easily turn into large demonstrations and before long the politicians scramble to up their ante using the same social media platforms.

The sad state in Sri Lanka is that politicians use democracy as their vehicle to actually perpetrate and sustain covert authoritarianism and hide their departures from due process to hide their own corrupt activities. In essence they are ‘styling it out’.

It seems that to survive everyone must shout the magic word DEMOCRACY louder than their opponents in the hope that they will drown out the public’s desire for accountability and for delivery of their expectations.

It’s back to that old adage: you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

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