You are currently viewing Sri Lanka’s Democratic Odyssey

Sri Lanka’s Democratic Odyssey

Sri Lanka’s democratic journey is a reminder that democracy is not a static concept but a dynamic force shaped by the aspirations and actions of its citizens. As the nation looks to the future, the promise of democracy shines brightly, illuminating the path forward towards a more just, equitable, and democratic society.

By Madhuri Ranasinghe.

Sri Lanka is Asia’s first democracy. It has been defined by twists, turns, and transformational moments. On the International Day of Democracy, September 15th, we dig into Sri Lanka’s democratic journey, analysing its rich history, figures, and contemporary democratic framework.

In 1948, Sri Lanka emerged from colonial rule, holding the promise of a vibrant democracy. Yet, this promise faced severe trials. The threat of authoritarianism loomed large in recent years, raising concerns about the fate of this fragile democratic heritage. It was in this climate that the One Text Initiative embarked on a mission to examine why a promising democracy faltered.

One Text Initiative on fostering Democratic framework and addressing the critical issues in Governance

In a world where diversity and pluralism often face challenges, the One Text Initiative (OTI) stands as a beacon of hope for upholding democracy. Dedicated to promoting inclusive discourse and knowledge on critical political and socio-economic development issues in Sri Lanka, the OTI operates based on shared values that embrace diversity and pluralism.

Founded in 2003, the OTI is not just another organization; it’s an independent, multi-party political platform committed to facilitating structured dialogues at national, provincial, and district levels. Its primary focus is on building consensus for a democratic political solution to ethnopolitical conflicts and post-war reconciliation, crucial for Sri Lanka’s political and socio-economic stability.

Here, all parties, regardless of their strength or position, are equal, following the Chatham House Principles.

For nearly two decades, the OTI has served as a crucial platform for cross-party political actors to find common ground. They work together to develop consensual policy options, often referred to as ‘one-text’ documents. These documents aim to create a national policy framework that celebrates unity in diversity through state-building, democratic governance, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and sustained economic growth.

Democratic Framework in Sri Lanka: Its Nature and Challenges

Sri Lanka’s democracy is rooted in the country’s constitution, which lays out the foundation for government. The separation of powers, basic rights, and the rule of law are among the core democratic values upheld by the Constitution. However, like with every democracy, Sri Lanka confronts obstacles. One of the most pressing is the increasing chasm between various parts of society. This schism threatens the stability of democracy itself. Bridging these divides and encouraging inclusive debate are not only goals; they are required for a healthier democracy.

It is critical to provide economic and social fairness for all residents. Addressing inequality and encouraging inclusive economic policies can help to strengthen democracy. Maintaining democratic integrity requires upholding the rule of law and ensuring that institutions are independent and free of political intervention.

It is critical to promote civic involvement and participation. Giving citizens the ability to actively participate in the democratic process supports democracy from within. The steadfast devotion to the rule of law lies at the heart of a strong democracy. It is about ensuring that institutions remain independent and unaffected by political pressure. This pledge protects the democratic process’s integrity.

The youth, in particular, hold the key to Sri Lanka’s democratic future. They are the torchbearers of progress, the voices of change. Engaging and involving the youth in shaping the nation’s destiny is not a choice; it’s a necessity. They represent the next generation of leaders and democratic custodians. The path forward may be winding, but the destination is clear: a thriving democracy that serves every citizen, regardless of their background or beliefs.

People Power: The Lifeblood of Democracy

Sri Lanka’s democracy, even as it retreated, had a penchant for surprises. The early months of 2022 bore witness to an unexpected twist. Ordinary citizens, those without wealth or power, awoke with a resounding demand for more democracy than the political elites were willing to concede. During the “Aragalaya” of 2022, ordinary citizens asserted their ownership of democracy and illuminated the deep crisis within the democratic fabric. This was an endeavour by the people, or “demos,” to rejuvenate and reinvent democracy. The citizens’ protest in 2022 marked a significant turning point in Sri Lanka’s complex democratization journey.

Sri Lanka’s democracy has strong local and popular origins, despite its colonial legacy. The people actively shaped and localized democracy. The desire for democracy predates its colonial introduction, rooted in the people’s yearning for freedom and justice. Ordinary citizens have emerged as the true custodians of democracy, demonstrating unwavering faith in its principles.

Liberal democracy, on the other hand, has caused divisions between political elites and non-elites, resulting in a weakened type of democracy that favours the interests of the powerful. According to the OTI, clientelism prevails in Sri Lankan governing bodies, local authorities, including government and commercial enterprises, benefitting only the corrupt elites, business tycoons, politicians, and corrupt individuals, resulting in an uneven and unfair society and economy. Sri Lanka’s democracy is marked by two opposing trends: a retreat organised by elites and a desire for more democracy by the oppressed. The resolution is dependent on major political and constitutional changes.

As these polarities intensify, the path forward remains uncertain. The resolution requires a return to open democracy, increased accountability in the branches of government, and economic and social justice for all citizens. This book’s implicit message resonates—Sri Lanka’s democratic odyssey is far from over, and the nation’s destiny is intertwined with its commitment to democratic values and principles.

From the time Sri Lanka was dominated by other nations to the current problems, Sri Lanka’s democracy has demonstrated that it is robust and adaptable, owing to the people who believe in it. We remain hopeful that we can make our democracy even better, more inclusive, and more vibrant. While there are problems, we believe in the power of democracy and that by working together, we can create a more just and equitable society. So, as we look ahead, keep in mind that Sri Lanka’s democratic path is one of strength and resolve, and it is one that we are eager to pursue.