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Rebuilding Institutions in the Transition from

Soft Authoritarianism

by Jayadeva Uyangoda
February 9, 2015, 7:10 pm
A political goal that warrants sustained attention of the new Sri Lankan
government as well as the democratic reform constituencies is the
rebuilding of public institutions of democratic governance, accountability,
autonomy, and checks and balances.
Democratic governance requires the presence of institutions of governance
that are strong enough to withstand the pressures of authoritarian regimes
and at the same time flexible enough to re-invent themselves to meet the
new challenges of democratic demands, coming from various social
constituencies. Such institutions are crucial for the sustenance, continuity,
and survival of a democratic political order.
Similarly, the presence of strong institutions is a key feature of democratic
governance, because in democracies, rulers come and go, but institutions
stay to ensure the continuity of the state and its structures of governance.
Besides, democracy is a rule by law, and not rule by men alone.
Democratic institutions mediate the relations and resolves disputes
between the citizens and the state on the basis of the principle of popular
sovereignty. They mitigate, control and act as a check on the oppressive,
potentially tyrannical, and violent behaviour of the state.
Thus, democratic governance has an impersonal element as well, the
concrete manifestation of which is the presence of strong institutions of
governance, accountability, procedural openness as well as checks and

Weakening of Institutions
One key feature of the political transformation which occurred under the
regime led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the deliberate
undermining and weakening of democratic institutions of governance. This
process began slowly during his first term, but gathered momentum and
reached alarming heights after 2009, during the second term,
paradoxically when the war with the LTTE came to an end. As Prof. Neil
DeVotta, a Sri Lankan political scientist working in the US, has shown,
Rajapaksa regime was surely authoritarian, but in its soft version.
The defining feature of soft authoritarianism as a regime model is the shift
to authoritarianism while democratic elections and institutions such as
parliament are still functioning and the rulers still seek political legitimacy
through the electoral process. Manipulation of the electoral process,
undermining of democratic institutions, frontal attacks on the rival
opposition parties as well as democratic civil society, and the promotion of
the personality cult of the leader are usual practices under soft
The J. R. Jayewardene regime of 1978-1989 was Sri Lanka’s first
encounter with soft authoritarianism. Mahinda Rajapaksa regime of 20091014 marked a step forward from the Jayewardene model of soft
As the Sri Lankan case shows, Rajapaksa’s soft authoritarianism had a
well-defined populist ideological platform, which combined economic
developmentalism, xenophobic as well as majoritarian nationalism, cult of
the national security state, patriotic militarism, and a machismo-type
personality cult.
In contrast to soft authoritarianism, hard authoritarianism overthrows
democracy, its institutions and practices, and replaces them with militarybureaucratic structures. If Rajapaksa obtained a third term at the last
Presidential election, there could have been a shift from soft to hard
authoritarianism, due to political, ideological and political-economy
reasons. Discussion of this theme requires a separate essay.
In contrast to hard authoritarian regimes, soft authoritarian regimes––as
Sri Lanka’s exceptional case demonstrates––may run the risk of being
overthrown by democratic means and through mass upsurge, not even
being able to mount an organised resistance to the popular electoral
verdict. Dislodging a soft authoritarian regime without bloodshed by means

of the assertion of popular sovereignty through the ballot paper, is perhaps
a good reason for Sri Lanka to qualify to be the ‘Wonder of Asia’.
Key Features
The point that soft authoritarian regimes unlike their hard counterparts do
not destroy institutions of democratic governance can be elaborated in
relation to Sri Lanka’s own experience. The following are the key points:

Establishment of the soft authoritarian regime took place against the
backdrop of a protracted and violent internal war. At the end of the war,
the Rajapaksa regime began a process of re-militarizing the state,
paradoxically under conditions of no-war, by elevating the defense
establishment to the status of a power center that could rival and even
surpass the parliament and the cabinet. This led to a situation of reconfiguration of the institutional equilibrium of state power in Sri Lanka in
favour of the armed forces and the defense establishment, by diminishing,
and not eradicating, the power and role of the democratic institutions of
state power such as the legislature, the cabinet, and the judiciary.

Diminishing the capacity and the character to be independent of the
regime, of those public institutions that could and should hold the
executive, legislative and security branches of the state accountable and
answerable, and making them appendages of the executive, while being
subservient to the supreme power holders of the regime. The Supreme
Court and the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission, and the Bribery
and Corruption Commission underwent this radical transformation. The
office of the Election Commissioner managed to escape this fate for some
inexplicable reason.

In fact, the way in which the 43rd Chief Justice was removed from office
very clearly demonstrated that the Rajapaksa regime wanted to transform
the Supreme Court into the ‘Justice Department’ of the office of the
President, the Ministry of Defence, and the Ministry of Economic
Development, all held by three brothers!

Undermining the institutional autonomy of key public institutions such
as the armed forces, the police, the University Grants Commission, the
Central Bank, the Treasury, the Department of Census and Statistics, the
universities, and the public service.

With regard to the armed forces, what the Rajapakse regime did was to re-

define, in a thoroughly distorted manner, the concept of the ‘civilian control
of the military and the police’ by subjecting them to politicization and
making them institutionally subservient to the President, his Secretary of
Defence and the regime. The police department became almost like a
personal security agency of the leaders and members of the regime. The
UGC and University Vice-Chancellors began to be proud of their
achievement of turning the institutions of learning and autonomy they
headed into party branches of the ruling SLFP.
The economic statistics churned out by the Central Bank, the Treasury, and
the Department of Statistics lost credibility primarily due to the voluntary
political subservience to the regime, proudly displayed by heads of these
unique public institutions which have a history of prestige, relative
autonomy, and public trust. With political patronage earned through
political subservience, the gentlemen who headed the Treasury and the
Central Bank became in their public conduct, the most arrogant public
servants one can encounter only once in one’s lifetime.
Tasks Ahead
Now, against this backdrop, if the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe administration
is really keen about restoring democratic governance, it has an urgent,
although somewhat difficult, task at hand; rebuilding the public institutions
of democratic governance.
Difficulties should not deter them from undertaking the responsibility,
because without re-building independent and democratic public
institutions, there is no way for them to serve their own agenda of good
governance. This, in a way, is a mini revolution. It may be the case that
Messers Sirisena and Wickramasinghe were not adequately alert to the
very serious political and policy implications of their election slogan of
‘good governance’, when they used it, quite effectively, to persuade the
majority of the Sri Lankan voters, just a month ago.
Sri Lanka’s political challenge today is centered on the task of effective
transition from soft authoritarianism to democratic governance in a
manner that would make the return to authoritarianism -- whether by
Sirisena, Wickramasinghe or Rajapakse -- difficult, if not impossible. That
calls for a well-thought out and comprehensive agenda for rebuilding and
re-vitalizing the institutions of democratic governance, accountability,
autonomy, and checks and balances.

The commitment of the present ruling political coalition to this agenda
does not seem to be either strong or heart-warming. Therefore, this is a
theme that requires the intense attention of the JVP, under the leadership
of Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the seemingly reformed JHU, and the
civil society movements such as the FUTA, trade unions, human rights and
women’s organizations and various coalitions for good governance and
February 08, 2015
Posted by Thavam