By Madhuri Ranasinghe.
Clientelism, a pervasive phenomenon found in Sri Lanka and various other countries, has rapidly infiltrated the masses through favouritism for political advantage, financial benefits, and mutually beneficial arrangements. In Sri Lanka, political Patron – Client relationships form a patrimonial state aiding a small fraction of the society leaving behind the majority to survive on a bare minimum.
Initially, the Sri Lankan elites embraced the socialist movement influenced by the principles of equality and social justice, which resonated well with the welfare-oriented communities that emerged. However, clientelism began to proliferate in the political sphere, starting from the distribution of alcohol or food for political party campaigns such as in the Dudley Senanayake’s era, and eventually reaching new heights in the 21st century.
Over the years, Sri Lanka has faced numerous crises, such as the Easter Bomb Attack and the Covid-19 pandemic, leading the nation to be declared bankrupt. Once a paradise and a popular tourist destination, the country now struggles to provide opportunities for its younger generations, who are compelled to seek better prospects by emigrating to Western countries. Despite the prevailing challenges, Colombo, as the commercial hub of Sri Lanka, continues to boast high-rise apartment complexes, shopping malls, and luxury vehicles, reflecting prosperity among a fortunate few who consumes significantly the country’s GDP.
Clientelism Study Group by One Text Initiative (OTI)
In light of these circumstances, Dr Pradeep Peris, the Head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Colombo, recently conducted a study group addressing Sri Lanka’s political party system and the associated client relationships. His discourse shed light on eye-opening facts and information, revealing how patron-client relationships have reshaped the socio-economic fabric of Sri Lanka, ultimately contributing to the current crisis we find ourselves in. While we often witness politicians distributing necessities to underprivileged communities in both rural and urban areas, what we often fail to grasp is the underlying system of gifting, commissioning, and distributing national wealth under the guise of welfare or business ventures.
Though many are arguing about the corruption related to political patron-client relationships during the times of the former president, current MP Hon. Mahinda Rajapakse, professor shed some light on how it has been developing ever since reaching its peak today. Though it runs deep down into the societal layers of the Sri Lankan community, one should never dismiss the value of gratitude many Sri Lankans are accustomed to. Hence, the political patron-client relationship thrives exponentially reaching votes that are assigned to a certain party maybe even for generations to come.
Another significant factor to consider in the following context is how the allegiance to the person works more than the party. The majority of the voters in Sri Lanka do not take the ideologies, policies and ideas of the political party into consideration but how connected, close or helpful the person who is seeking votes has been or will be for them in person. Consequently, the political patron-client relationship thrives and garners votes for specific parties, sometimes spanning multiple generations.
While discussing the drawbacks of the political patron-client relationships in detail, attention was drawn towards some benefits of the system. Due to this, certain castes have had the opportunity to rise from the underprivileged background demolishing the caste systems. To gain political advantages, political leaders gave jobs, and other opportunities for these communities who were neglected in the communities.
How can we resolve this issue?
During the discussion, Dr Pradeep also provided insights on potential solutions to address these issues within the framework of democracy. He emphasized the importance of enhancing internal democracy within political parties, which encompasses aspects such as election campaign financing, accountability, and inclusiveness. Intra-party democracy essentially influences how party candidates are selected, party leaders are chosen, and the party defines its program and policy
The Council of Europe Code of Good Practice for Political Parties, as outlined by the Venice Commission in 2009(1), presents several “good practices” that member countries should implement concerning international party organizations. These practices are as follows which could be a benchmark for Sri Lanka.
Communicating membership criteria through party statutes, ensuring transparency and non-discrimination.
Allowing refusal of party membership to individuals who reject the values upheld by the party. Specifying party structure and procedures in the party statute, providing clarity. Establishing structures and procedures that reflect the opinions of party members, ensuring transparency, accountability, and encouraging intra-party communication. Transparently defining procedures for the appointment of leaders and candidates, incorporating the perspectives of party members.
Establishing channels of communication between grassroots members and party leaders. Implementing disciplinary procedures and defining the national, regional, or local organization of the party in the party statute. Clearly defining procedures for statutory changes. Creating the party’s program democratically and making it public. Organizing party funding in an accountable and transparent manner, including auditory and supervisory mechanisms.
Additionally, Dr Pradeep also emphasised the importance of Public services and the administration body being independent. If we look at the history of Public Administration, the much-anticipated vision of a nationally oriented public service did not materialize until 1972 when the first Republican Constitution was introduced. This constitutional change marked a definitive shift of power over the public service to the political authority. Subsequently, the second Republican Constitution in 1978 further entrenched a highly politicized bureaucracy at all levels. The evolution of Sri Lanka’s public service, as depicted by Dr Pradeep has closely followed the historical trajectory and path dependency of politico-administrative changes. A notable trend in the country’s public personnel management is the persistent experimentation with various reforms that leave limited room for professionalism within a politically impartial public service. Another democratic change that could bring the change anticipated is separating the executive from Parliament. The separation of powers thus refers to the division of tasks into various departments of government by prohibiting any one branch from performing the basic functions of another. The purpose of the separation of powers is to prevent the concentration of power by creating checks and balances.
It is crucial to recognize and critically examine these dynamics of clientelism to better understand the root causes of Sri Lanka’s economic and social challenges. Only by confronting these issues head-on and fostering a more transparent, accountable, and equitable system can Sri Lanka pave the way towards a brighter future for all its citizens.