Success or Failure of Democracy?


Now that the Aragalaya protests and more so, its successive victories are a part of Sri Lankan folklore of the future and has yet been confined to memories in two months’ time, the question remains whether it marked the success for the nation’s democratic process or not. Taken in consonance with the way the traditional polity stepped in to stem any rot before it took over in full swing and saved the day for the nation, the composite play-out has to be declared a huge success for the nation’s democratic processes and also the nation and the very institution of democracy, jointly and severally.

Consider this. Over the past decade and more, across many nations in Europe and Asia, there have been mass protests of the Aragalaya kind, supposedly guided and funded by Western democracies. No one has levelled such charges against Aragalaya protesters though in the early days, there was a ‘free run’ in the social media, not otherwise.

It was a genuine protest, not even over the fledgling demand for the wholesale exit of the ruling Rajapaksas of the time, all of them elected by the very same people who this time around wanted them out – here and now. The voter would not wait for the next elections, which were anyway not due in months and years. Someone thought of the mass movement. That is the easiest part. The rest of the nation went with the early decision of those faceless.

The faces that got into the global media were that of the later-day organisers and spokespersons, who were willing to put their head on the line if the Government of the day had decided to act/react. Neither the organisers, nor the participants gave up, until their one-point, ‘Rajapaksa Out’ demand was met and in full.

Smooth transition

That is the point where Sri Lanka stood out from the other nations, where too, such mass protests for Government-change had succeeded earlier. In many of them, it was not just leadership-change. They involved structural changes, from autocracies to democracies. If there was a democracy among them, it was democracy only in name. Not in real terms.

In Egypt, for instance, the powerful and equally popular Muslim Brotherhood took the lead for the mass-movement to get autocratic President Hosni Mubarak ousted by ‘popular force’. Once the job was done, there were others who seemed to have been waiting with hidden swords and guns to slay the Brotherhood leadership, for all the good and the bad that the latter represented.

Imagine Sri Lanka, the night that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled. Because there was a Constitution that had provided for contingencies pertaining to presidential vacancies – even if definitely not pertaining to the methodology of that vacancy – the nation did not slip into anarchy. It provided for a smooth transition that is based on the US model, where too, the Legislature alone had to attest the ascension of the Vice-President once the presidency, fell vacant.

Incidentally, in the US, where President Richard Nixon had to quit unceremoniously over the ‘Watergate scandal’, people did not contest Vice-President Gerald Ford stepping in to fill the remaining period of the Nixon presidency. Of course, in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, at that point, was not the running-mate of ousted President Gotabaya, but then, most people accepted the constitutional provision that could not have provided for the unpredictable exigency.

Inevitable reality

Had it not been for the smooth transition, there were clear signs, fears and anxieties of such a scenario, including an ‘urban insurgency’, at the calibrated successes of the Aragalaya protests, with no future agenda to serve. Because the core of the protest movement, beginning with the original urban brain-trust, would not have any of it, Aragalaya disintegration became the inevitable reality. Those that had designs were left with little or no choice.

That way, even without threats of imminent police action by the new Government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was not President yet, the Aragalaya struggle would have ended then and there. Or there would have been a free-for-all among the protesters, between those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to quit.

Timely intervention by the Courts and the Security Forces, especially at the GoGotaGama venue on capital Colombo’s Galle Face Green, only helped smoothen the process for those wanting to leave the protest site voluntarily – even if haste was sort of, forced on them. Handling the rest staying put in the venue would have been easier – and the results, harsh. They saw the writing on the wall.

Hidden message

The question arises if there can be a repeat of the Aragalaya kind of mass movement that could also succeed in its mission as Aragalaya did. The answer is a definite ‘no’, if one is talking about what mostly was a peaceful protest that ran into days, weeks and months. The spirit of the movement could be felt and touched, not just at the main Colombo venue, but in every drawing room and kitchen, all across the country.

There is thus a hidden message. If push came to shove and the nation slips back into a condition, where mass protests became the sole expression of the people’s angst and anxiety, it could well turn to unplanned and unplotted mobocracy, all across. The real possibilities of a return to conspiracy-driven insurgency or terrorism too, could not be ruled out.

It would be relatively easier for the security forces to tackle the latter than the former. Both against the JVP insurgencies and the LTTE’s terrorist wars, the security forces and the larger Government apparatuses had honed their skills. But in handling mass movements, peaceful or otherwise, they do not have any experience or expertise.

That requires different skill sets, including the mental make-up of institutions and individuals down the line. Through the Aragalaya protests, especially through the unruly take-over of the static symbols of the Sri Lankan State and Sovereignty, and also through unprecedented arson incidents, the security forces proved that they just do not have it in them, after all!

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy