1.Where are we now?
Sri Lanka is currently categorized a Flawed Electoral Democracy in most leading democracy indexes and scales of the world. An electoral democracy is a nation state that meets the minimum requirements of democracy: the existence of free and fair elections. Although there are regular elections held in Sri Lanka, those elections do not fully meet the conditions of “Free and Fair” elections; (conditions such as the autonomy and freedom of media and expression in conducting election campaigns, neutrality of the state media and not using state funds and institutions in campaigning for the incumbent administration.) The Democracy Index is an index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, that measures the state of democracy in 167 countries, Sri Lanka is ranked 87th. In 2014 Sri Lanka was demoted to the category “Hybrid regime.” However since the post- election transition of Januray 2015 we are expected to bounce back to the category of Flawed Electoral Democracy.
2.Where do we want to be?
The ideal next step for a Flawed Electoral Democracy would be to aspire to becoming a fully Liberal Democracy. Larry Diamond, the founder of US National Endowment for Democracy, and Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law identifies ten key factors to be addressed for a country to be considered a fully liberal democracy.
For Sri Lanka these ten factors could act as a shopping list to draw a roadmap towards becoming fully liberal democracy.
A Democracy Shopping List for Sri Lanka
- “Substantial individual freedom of belief, opinion, discussion, speech, publication, broadcast, assembly, demonstration, petition and (why not) the Internet.
- Freedom of ethnic, religious, racial, and other minority groups (as well as historically excluded majorities) to practice their religion and culture and to participate equally in political and social life.
- The right of all adult citizens to vote and run for office (if they meet certain minimum age and competency requirements).
- Genuine openness and competition in the electoral arena.
- Legal equality of all citizens under a rule of law, in which the laws are ‘clear, publicly known, universal, stable, and nonretroactive.’
- An independent judiciary to neutrally and consistently apply the laws and protect individual and group rights.
- Thus, due process of law and freedom of individuals from torture, terror, and unjustified detention, exile, or interference in their personal lives – by the state or non-state actors.
- Institutional checks on the power of elected officials by an independent legislature, court system, and other autonomous agencies.
- Real pluralism in sources of information and forms of organization independent of the state; and thus, a vibrant ‘civil society.’
- Control over the military and state security apparatus by civilians who are ultimately accountable to the people through elections.”
3.How can we get there?
The 10 ten steps to take in the path to meeting the above 10 requirements:
1. Establishing the Right to Information, Media freedom and freedom of assembly.
- Right to information
A Right to Information Bill that enables the public to have access to information from public institutions must be established.
The new administration has taken an efforts to put together an RTI bill. Here is a draft of the bill currently available for public feedback. The draft although a great initiative, could use some revising in terms of clarification and loopholes. (Article19.org had some interesting revision suggestions worth reading)
The bill is expected to be presented to parliament for approval in April.
- Media freedom:
In the past decade media freedom has been extremely limited, with the level violence against the media having shown an all time high. In 2006, unofficial prepublication censorship on issues of “national security and defense” was imposed by a new Media Center for National Security (MCNS), which assumed the authority to disseminate all information related to certain fiscal, defense, and security information to the media and the public. The past administration’s massive censorship movement and attacks on journalists and media outlets, such as the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga, then editor of the Sunday Leader, and the January 2010 disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda had set a tone of fear of resistance in the Sri Lankan media realm.
New government of 2015 has made efforts to revoke these restrictions to a large extent.
- Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of Assembly is a right of every Sri Lankan citizen. (Chapter 3, Article 14 of the Sri Lankan Constitution) However more often than not in the past, protesters, (mostly student protesters) have been the victims of crowd control mechanisms such as tear gas and water cannoning. There have also been incidents in the duration of the former administration, of physical violence against protesters by police and military personnel. In 2013 for instance, the military opened fire at a crowd of peaceful protesters in Waliveirya who were expressing their displeasure over the contamination of the town’s water system. The shooting killed 3 young protesters. The Sri Lankan Constitution allows all citizens to peaceably assemble, petition the Government for a redress of grievances. However it is crucial the terms of these articles be further discussed so the lines could be drawn on when crowd control mechanism will be used; the clarity of the terms and conditions could help make both the protesters and state accountable for their behavior and actions.
2. Social equality supported by laws against discrimination and Affirmative Action
Laws must be introduced against hate speech, events and activities related to promotion of racism, sexism, and other genres of discrimination. Policies of Affirmative Action must be introduced to improve opportunities for historically excluded groups (racial, religious and gender groups)
3. Sri Lanka’s constitution’s rights, competencies and requirements for voting and running for office are similar to those of most developed democracies however for these rights to be exercised free and fair elections have to be conducted. (which brings us to Step 4)
The Sri Lankan Constitution’s competency requirements become an elector can be found on Chapter XIV – Franchise and Elections .
4. Genuinely “Free and Fair” elections.
For an election to be considered “free and fair” the following 3 requisites have to be met.
- An enabling legislative framework that makes cases of election ethic violations of all levels legally accountable.
- The impartial and neutral practices of election administrators, the media and the forces that maintain law and order and
- Acceptance of the competitive electoral process by all the political forces in the country.
5. Transparency of authority has to be improved in order to end the prevailing culture of elite capture and provide equal legal accountability to all citizen equally.
Elite capture is a prominent feature of Sri Lanka’s social spectrum. More often than not laws and authorities can be influenced by thoe who have access to power. This culture could be alleviated through an improved system of transparency between authorities, the state and the public.
6. Creating an independent, neutral and consistent judiciary.
The unconstitutional impeachment and swearing in of Chiefs of Justice in the past administration and the Supreme Court’s approval on President Rajapaksa’s running for an unprecedented third term are great examples of consequences of a politically influenced judiciary. It is crucial that the Supreme Court remains autonomous from political invention as explained in the constitution’s Chapter XV
7. A code of rights for persons of interest and individuals under investigation must be introduced and maintained.
Many allegations of torture, terror, and unjustified detention, exile, or interference of personal lives have been reported against authorities in the past. A code of ethics and conduct, supporting the constitution’s Chapter III – Fundamental Rights must be introduced to the Sri Lanka Police, Criminal Investigation Department and other authorities involved in criminal investigation and efforts of national security.
8. Institutional checks on elected officials.
The establishment of the Right to Information Commission as proposed by the RIT bill mentioned in step 1 would be a great place to kick start a culture of transparency promoting autonomous institutional checks through independent agencies.
9.Increasing the capacity and access to information sources available.
Although the narratives of the mainstream media of Sri Lanka often do not seem to contrast at a substantial level, the internet has created a rise in multifaceted news sources that cater to large range of social classes. Increasing the access to the internet is a great way to increase the country’s pluralism of information sources. The new administration’s provision of free WiFi at public places could be considered a step towards this direction.
It is also important to promote the establishment of a large range of civil society groups that could help represent and voice the problems of all social, racial and religious groups.
10. State’s control over the military
It is important the state administration led by elected individuals have the military and the state security network under their control to improve civil society’s say in the military actions taken within the state. Although State’s control over the military doesn’t assure the majority of the populations approval of all decisions made regarding national security, the state is represented by elected leaders who represent the people, i.e. voters. Voters to large extent have a chance to hold their rulers accountable. In Sri Lanka the Secretary of Defense is a a civil administration servant and the President has executive power over the defense which helps the State have an eye on the military. Military coups in West Africa and East Asian countries such as Myanmar were to a large extent, results of the State losing control of the military.