Sri Lanka still struggling for democracy

When Sri Lanka’s military forces finally defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 ending thirty years of civil war, the outcome was greeted in many parts of the country with joy by a people who had endured years of terrorism and violence, writes Saliya Pieris. However, with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the country now faces another struggle of developing a truly democratic society underpinned by the rule of law, judicial independence and a vibrant civil society

Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s oldest democracies with domestic political autonomy granted to the people of Ceylon in 1931 by the British. As such, Sri Lanka’s political model was styled upon the British parliamentary system, with an executive prime minister and cabinet responsible to parliament. And from that moment onwards, including through independence in 1948 and the country becoming a republic in 1972, civil society institutionshave remained strong, vibrant and independent. All this notwithstanding periodic civil turmoil including ethnic riots in 1958, the assassination of Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike in 1959, an attempted military coup in 1962 and a student insurrection in 1971. It was not until the 1970s that rollbacks to Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions began to occur.

Sri Lanka’s current president, Mahindra Rajapakse is a charismatic and populist politician who has continued to chip away at democratic institutions, much in the manner of his predecessors, though at a much faster rate. Rajapakse has moved to remove all limits hitherto in place on his powers. Retired Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka who defeated the Tamil Tigers, challenged Rajapakse in the 2010 presidential election but soon after his defeat was arrested and jailed until May 2012. The Constitutional Council and independent commissions were overturned or had their powers truncated, and the limit on two presidential terms was abolished.

Since 2005 there have been several disturbing attacks against independent journalists critical of the government including the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the anti-government newspaper the Sunday Leader. Last July, police carried out raids against several anti-government web sites and arrested employees for allegedly bringing the president’s dignity into contempt. There continue to be state-sanctioned abductions of political activists and several people have died while in police custody. Rajapakse appointed an independent commission, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 to investigate these activities.

After lengthy deliberations, earlier this year the LLRC released a report calling for an independent judiciary, a transparent legal process and strict adherence to the rule of law. In addition, it called for investigations into abductions and for measures to prevent harassment and attacks against media personnel and civil society institutions.

However, significant problems still remain in Sri Lanka, especially regarding judicial independence. Indeed, the judiciary has suffered a spate of attacks in the past three months. In July, supporters of a government minister attacked a court house in the north of the country. More recently, assailants attacked the Secretary to the Judicial Service Commission after the commission issued a statement alleging unprecedented governmental interference in its operations.

In Sri Lanka itself, not everyone has taken cognizance of the systematic erosion of democratic institutions. The middle and upper classes, including the business community, have mostly shown apathy in confronting these issues, as has the popular media. While many in private will agree that they are concerned about the threats to rule of law and democracy, they dare not voice these opinions in public.

Civil society in Sri Lanka needs to take a more proactive role in challenging the barriers confronting democracy and to bring pressure to bear for change. Encouraging and empowering the people of Sri Lanka and proactively engaging the Sri Lankan government by the international community are important components if this democratic deficit is to be overcome.

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Toward a democratic Ethiopia? Don’t hold your breath

There is little likelihood that Ethiopia will either reform or implode as its ruling party manages the transition from recently deceased Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to his designated successor Hailemariam Desalegn, a Washington conference heard yesterday.

The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has consolidated its monopoly on power, but future eruptions cannot be ruled out, given the country’s latent ethnic tensions and the suppression of political space for the peaceful expression of dissent, analysts told a forum at the National Endowment for Democracy.

 “Ethiopia would benefit from a more open political process in which the ruling EPRDF and opposition parties engage in open and inclusive dialogue,” Karen J. Hanrahan, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

In the run-up to local elections in 2013 and parliamentary elections in 2015, the authorities should explore opportunities for expanding political participation and inclusiveness, she told the Toward a Democratic Ethiopia conference.

“By opening greater space for political dialogue, the government would be developing conditions that facilitate long-term stability,” she said. “More open dialogue would provide opportunities for persons to channel their needs through peaceful political process, thus reducing the possibility of violence.”

But the regime’s approach to dissent indicates little stomach for dialogue, said Mahdere Paulos, former executive director of the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association.

The country’s NGO law amounts to “a de facto ban on civil society,” she said, condemning the government’s “draconian” approach to NGOs, which violates both the constitution’s guarantees of freedom of association and expression, and its obligations under international law.

Ethiopia receives more U.S. foreign assistance than any other sub-Saharan African country, but it is a mistake to assume that gives Washington’s any political leverage, said a former ambassador to Addis Ababa.

Some 85% of U.S. aid is humanitarian assistance, primarily food and health-related, which is considered politically untouchable in Washington, said Amb. David Shinn of George Washington University.  In any case, he argued, private diplomacy tends to be more productive than public pronouncements or the occasional “bombast” from the State Department.

The influence of the U.S. and other Western democracies is further diluted by the emergence of “a lot of new players” in Ethiopian politics, including Turkey, Brazil, India and China, arguably the most influential economic actor, with $3 billion in concessionary loans and more Ethiopian-based businesses than others.

The smoothness of the post-Meles transition suggests that it’s “business as usual” rather than an opening for reform, said Shinn, who recently returned from Addis Ababa. While here is unlikely to be any substantial change in the raft of repressive laws restricting NGOs, freedom of expression and political dissent, there could be a “few positive straws in the wind” in the form of more liberal interpretation or implementation.

The fact that Amb. Shinn’s own website is blocked in Ethiopia is a telling indicator of the regime’s commitment to suppressing freedom of expression, said Dawit Kebede, Editor-in-Chief of the Awramba Times. With parliament no more than a “rubber stamp” and the judiciary picked and packed by the ruling party, the EPRDF has suffocated the space for critical voices, he said.

Ethiopia is a poster-child for the security-v-democracy dilemma that plagues policy-makers.

The country does face genuine security threats in a volatile region, but the regime’s “crushing of legitimate dissent” purchases temporary stability that may only postpone a more violent reckoning in the long term, said Sarah Margon, a senior analyst with Human Rights Watch.

Ethiopia is “a disaster waiting to happen,” she said, citing latent ethnic tensions and secessionist forces, unless the authorities begin to engage genuine reformers.

Such reforms might include the formation of an impartial election board, an agreed code of conduct and international election observers, said Old Dominion University’s Berhanu Mengistu. The EPRDF can choose one of two paths, “reform or concession,” he said, but it seems to have discounted the former and discarded the latter.

If the EPRDF is not as monolithic as it appears, the fissures may be evident at the forthcoming party congress, said Terrence Lyons, a political science professor at George Mason University. Recent protests by historically marginalized Ethiopian Muslims was “different from anything ever seen” in the country’s recent history and may provide a model for non-violent mobilization around a clear agenda of specific reforms, he said.

U.S. policy has in theory been based on a “three-legged stool” of security/counter-terrorism, development/economic growth and democracy, governance and human rights, but in practice the third category has been “trumped” by the others. But Washington can still make a difference by speaking out, “publicly as well as privately,” on such issues as human rights violations and the NGO law, and by taking advantage “as far and as creatively as it can …..of small, symbolic opportunities” to expand political space, said Lyons.

The fact that the U.S. and Ethiopia share critical security concerns should not deter Washington from raising human rights concerns, Gregory Simpkins, a staff specialist with the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, told the NED forum.

“If you can’t offer advice to an ally, how constructive is that alliance?” he asked, noting that Ethiopia’s paid lobbyists had succeeded in vetoing the Ethiopia Consolidation Act that addressed a range of human rights violations, from the post-election massacre of unarmed civilians and opposition supporters in 2005 to the villagization programs in which residents were forcibly evicted in order to transfer land to foreign ownership.

The succession of Hailemariam Desalegn following the departure of Meles is a signal of continuity and the EPRDF transitional process of replacing the Old Guard with a “new generation leadership,” according to Solomon Ayele Dersso, a senior researcher at the Addis Ababa Office of the Institute for Security Studies.

Hailemariam’s recent interview with Voice of America (above), in which he defended the ruling party’s close relations with China, was “worrisome,” former ambassador Shinn told the NED meeting.

“Our party has very close ties ….. because we have areas where we can learn from the work the Chinese Communist Party is doing,” said Hailemariam, “simply because we are people centered, where Chinese Community Party has experience with working with people at the grass root, so we learn with China, this kind of approach, it doesn’t mean our ideology is similar to China.”

The premier also defended the detention of several journalists and opposition figures under the anti-terrorism law. Human rights groups say the regime has abused the legislation to target dissidents, but Hailemariam was unapologetic, insisting that activists and journalists sentenced to long prison terms, such as award-winning blogger Eskinder Nega, were guilty of “wearing two hats.” “Our national security interest cannot be compromised by somebody having two hats. We have to tell them they can have only one hat which is legal and the legal way of doing things, be it in journalism or opposition discourse, but if they opt to have two mixed functions, we are clear to differentiate the two,” he said.

While the U.S. administration suggests that post-Meles Ethiopia provides an opportunity to be seized, the ruling party appears to think otherwise.

“It is a time of transition, as well as a time of uncertainty,” the State Department’s Hanrahan told the NED forum, expressing the hope that Ethiopia’s future “is one in which civil society is active, the media are free, and individuals are able to express differing viewpoints without fear.”

The sad, but realistic consensus of yesterday’s meeting suggests that such a future remains a distant prospect.

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Goliath beat David, but ‘silver lining’ for Venezuela’s opposition

It should be no surprise that Goliath crushed David when Hugo Chávez defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles (right) in Sunday’s election, says a prominent analyst.

“Incumbents always have advantages over their challengers, and Mr Chávez is an incumbent on steroids,” writes Moisés Naím, formerly Venezuela’s minister of industry and trade:

He controls all the levers of power and can tap Venezuela’s oil revenues at will. Mr Capriles said: “I am not running against another candidate, I am running against the Venezuelan state.” In just one example, according to data compiled by his campaign, in the week before the vote Mr Chávez was on air for nine hours while, after protesting, Mr Capriles was allowed to address the nation for two minutes.

The election could still mark a turning point in Venezuelan politics because the opposition” is better organised and, in Mr Capriles, it has found the best leader it has had since Mr Chávez rose to power,” says Naím, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy

In contrast to the ideological, divisive tactics of the latter, Mr Capriles campaigned on messages of national harmony, tolerance against political opponents and pragmatism – and he succeeded in boosting the anti-Chávez vote by 60 per cent…. Millions of erstwhile Chávez supporters have abandoned him. It is impossible to win the 6.5m votes that Mr Capriles received last Sunday without the support of millions of poor people who in past elections were stalwart Chávez voters.

Chávez won despite his record, not because of it, says Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly.

“The victory was more about Chávez as a personal figure than his self-named Bolivarian Revolution,” he writes, noting that his supporters have a “personalistic connection” rather than an ideological commitment to his 21st Century Socialism.

“Despite President Chávez’s fiery anti-American and anti-capitalist rhetoric, the majority of Venezuelan citizens are pro-market and U.S. friendly (72 percent support a free market economy and 56 percent have favorable impressions of the U.S. according to the 2007 Pew surveys.”

Turnout was a key factor in Chávez’s victory, writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Suzanne O’Neill, who notes that 80 percent of the eligible population voted.

“Though a few scattered voices allege fraud, the election overall seems to have been free. Whether or not it was fair is more widely contested,” she says:

Another reason was social spending. Businessweek notes that government outlays rose 30 percent this year. High oil prices gave Chávez the fiscal flexibility to undertake ambitious social projects, such as giving away nearly 250,000 houses (although, as Javier Corrales notes, the quality of their construction may be dubious) and subsidizing appliances through the Mi Casa Bien Equipada (or in English, My Well Equipped Home) program, part of an “oil for appliances” deal with China. …. Overall, high oil prices have often been directly correlated with Chávez’s approval ratings (see this Wall Street Journal graph), and international markets obliged this October.

Despite its defeat, Venezuela’s democratic opposition can take heart from the result, analysts suggest.

“It’s not a formidable defeat for the opposition, nor is it a big triumph for Chávismo,” said Mariana Bacalao, a political science professor at Central University of Venezuela. “Never has the opposition been so strong.”

The opposition has good reason to stick with Capriles, says Sabatini, a former NED Latin America program director.

“First among them are the results he delivered on Sunday: 6.4 million voters, 1.5 more than opposition candidates for president in the past,” he contends. “Second is the upcoming December state and local elections. The failings of the Bolivarian Revolution are most felt at the local level, and it is there that the popularity of Chávez’s project – without the former lieutenant colonel on the ballot – will be tested.”

Experts differ on their assessments of post-election scenarios.

Analyst Michael Shifter suggests in the New York Times that a more confident and unified opposition will impede Chávez’s attempts to consolidate autocratic rule, while others believe he will interpret the election result as a mandate to “press ahead with his Socialist revolution, deepening government intervention in the economy, including price controls and nationalizations.”

As COA’s Sabatini notes, if Chávez’s “campaign platform – which calls for a greater role for the military and the formation of popular communes and assemblies stretching from the executive down to communities – is any indication, he has a pretty ambitious plan for consolidating his revolution this term.”

While some observers fear that a further term for Chávez will further undermine the institutional integrity of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, Sabatini believes a more strategically-minded opposition could act as a countervailing power.

“The opposition this time appears to be playing the long-game,” he observes. “Certainly, Capriles’s post- election call for patience and for his supporters to stay the course speaks to a new level of maturity of a fractious opposition movement.”

But it is imperative that the opposition does not return to the fractious, highly-personalized politics of the past and develops a strategic, alternative vision for Venezuela’s future, say analysts.

“Recrimination over their electoral defeat could produce fissures,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College.

“One of the main factors impeding unity is the lack of real consensus on an alternative proposal for the nation that can challenge the Chávez government,” Tinker Salas said.

Divergences over political ideology could also fracture the opposition coalition, with some conservative parties that had lined up behind Capriles already complaining about his center-left stances.

Despite the skepticism, Capriles dismissed suggestions that infighting could compromise the opposition’s unity. The opposition held its first ever presidential primary in February and promptly closed ranks behind Capriles, the winner.

“Without a doubt, we have very big political capital that cannot be lost,” Capriles said. “Our unity remains and our unity should be strengthened.”

What will surely continue is the government machine built by Chávez that many say has won the president 14 years of loyalty. That includes at least 2.4 million national government employees, making up 8 percent of the country’s population. By comparison, the United States, with tenfold the population, has almost the same number of federal employees, at 2.7 million.

“Yet the bigger test may be that faced by Mr Chávez,” says Naím:

No doubt, the president will continue to wield huge discretionary power: that feature of Venezuela’s political landscape is unchanged. But in the coming years, he will have to use his power to deal with something an election victory cannot change: the country is a mess. It suffers from inflation and homicide rates among the world’s highest, decrepit infrastructure, declining oil production, a deeply distorted economy, dismal productivity and rampant corruption.

Venezuela’s domestic  failures have also detracted from the international appeal of Chávez’s Bolivarian prohect:

He will have less money and his credibility has been hurt by the many unfulfilled promises he has made to his allies. Most important, the allure of his Bolivarian revolution has faded as Venezuela’s difficulties have become better known abroad. While he may still take the international stage with gestures such as his unconditional support for the Syrian and Iranian regimes, or his alliance with Belarus, his regional influence is faltering.


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‘Reality’ dictates emerging new foreign policy doctrine

Current developments in Syria and the absence of meaningful Western intervention are indicative of an emerging new foreign policy doctrine, says a leading analyst – “a doctrine in which the United States does not take primary responsibility for events, but which allows regional crises to play out until a new regional balance is reached.”

The roots of the new orthodoxy are in two recent interventions, writes STRATFOR’s George Friedman:

Libya and Iraq taught us two lessons. The first was that campaigns designed to topple brutal dictators do not necessarily yield better regimes. Instead of the brutality of tyrants, the brutality of chaos and smaller tyrants emerged. The second lesson, well learned in Iraq, is that the world does not necessarily admire interventions for the sake of human rights. The United States also learned that the world’s position can shift with startling rapidity from demanding U.S. action to condemning U.S. action. Moreover, Washington discovered that intervention can unleash virulently anti-American forces that will kill U.S. diplomats.

These lessons have guided U.S. policy toward the conflict in Syria, which affects only some key interests and the administration’s response has been “instructive of the emerging doctrine,” he contends:

First, the United States accepted that al Assad, like Saddam Hussein and Gadhafi, was a tyrant. But it did not accept the idea that al Assad’s fall would create a morally superior regime. In any event, it expected the internal forces in Syria to deal with al Assad and was prepared to allow this to play out. Second, the United States expected regional powers to address the Syrian question if they wished. This meant primarily Turkey and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia. From the American point of view, the Turks and Saudis had an even greater interest in circumscribing an Iranian sphere of influence, and they had far greater levers to determine the outcome in Syria.

The new doctrine demonstrates that “reality, not presidents or policy papers, makes foreign policy,” but it is not a recipe for isolationism:

The United States has entered a period in which it must move from military domination to more subtle manipulation, and more important, allow events to take their course. This is a maturation of U.S. foreign policy, not a degradation. ….This does not mean that the United States will disengage from world affairs. It controls the world’s oceans and generates almost a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. While disengagement is impossible, controlled engagement, based on a realistic understanding of the national interest, is possible.

The important point is that no one decided this new doctrine. It is emerging from the reality the United States faces. That is how powerful doctrines emerge. They manifest themselves first and are announced when everyone realizes that that is how things work.


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‘Too early to predict demise of Libya’s democratic experiment’?

Libyan security forces today blockaded an Islamist militia suspected of killing US ambassador Chris Stevens.

But the government’s action is unlikely to ease fears that the current cabinet crisis is creating a power vacuum which has left observers speculating about the country’s political direction.

In short, is Libya “teetering into a maelstrom of factionalism and extremism” or is it ‘far too early to predict the demise of the Libyan democratic experiment”?

The US Embassy attacks and the current political stasis have heightened concern “that, without a strong authority in the capital to glue the fractured nation together, Libya could face explosive violence from extremists and even the remnants of factions loyal to the slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi,” writes TIME’s Vivienne Walt.

“I predict that what’s left of the government will implode,” says Rami el-Obeidi, a former intelligence chief for the Libyan rebels. “If there is no central power in Tripoli there will be no safe area in the country.” July’s elections to the General National Congress produced a surprise victory for the relatively liberal National Forces Alliance and a correspondingly heavy defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party. But the defeat of Mahmoud Jibril, the NFA’s candidate for prime minister, on 12 September, led to his replacement by deputy prime minister Mustafa Abushagur.

The resulting political bargaining may be “democracy in action,” say analyst Jason Pack and Haley Cook, but it also raises disturbing questions.

“Is this a case study in Libyan dysfunction or a testament to the depth of Libya’s conversion to democratic practices? Only time will tell, but there are significant arguments to be made on both sides,” they contend:

Political parties or regions demanding a certain number of ministers and then refusing to participate entirely in a government if their demands are not met is not conducive to running a country in crisis. It would lead to the warlordisation of Libya with the central authority controlling no more than a portion of the capital.

The state’s inability to rein in Islamist and other militias threatens to undermine Libya’s democratic prospects, as anticipated in a report from the National Endowment for Democracy which anticipated the country’s transitional challenges.

A lifelong anti-Qaddafi dissident, Abushagur appeared to be a strong candidate to head the country’s first democratic government, but he failed to build a political base that could either draw on or counter strong regional and tribal loyalties.

His removal points to a degree of immaturity among the new political class, says Henry Smith, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Control Risks. The parties responsible for the current impasse are “essentially holding the national political process to ransom with parochial demands for representation.”

The country’s politicians are essentially divided between those who support the Muslim Brotherhood — whom Abushagur included in his Cabinet — and those who do not, like Jibril, says Ethan Chorin, a former U.S. diplomat in Tripoli and author of Exit the Colonel, a new book on last year’s revolution:

There are also divisions between the returned exiles, like Abushagur, and those who spent years living under Gaddafi, as both Baja and Jibril did. Abushagur’s status as a U.S. citizen had also become a source of suspicion among many Libyans.

“All have become points of contention,” says Chorin. “The Benghazi attack has heightened the pitch of these quarrels.” With the NFA fracturing and reportedly in back-channel negotiations with the Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party, the parties may yet “produce a solid unity government able to take the necessary bold decisions to crack down on the militias and renew major public infrastructure projects,” Pack and Cook suggest:

It must also be remembered that despite the cabinet crisis there is not a complete power vacuum in Libya. The democratically elected Congress is still in place and despite the terrorist attack on the American mission, Libyans have spontaneously united to denounce violence and rebuild their nation.

“It is far too early to predict the demise of the Libyan democratic experiment,” they conclude.

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