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A way forward for Sri Lanka?

A way forward for Sri Lanka?

As I have discussed here before, Sri Lanka is in deep economic and political crisis, mostly due to massive corruption. The corrupt politicians are once again trying to win the public support or to suppress them to stay in power.  We look at a way out for Sri Lanka using some American examples. 

Sri Lankan president is trying to postpone the long overdue local elections supposed to be held in March 2022. Police in Sri Lanka on February 26th fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of protesters angry over this decision causing death of one person.  

Instead of being a bug or an anomalous perversion of an otherwise virtuous system, corruption seems to have become a feature of Sri Lankan politics. Any time politicians of any system of power are put into a position to personally wield that power, the temptation to use that power for personal gain becomes overwhelming, and corruption often flowers in that temptation’s wake. So, while some form of corruption seems to be a part of every government or corporate structure on earth, it’s systemically ingrained in Sri Lanka

When major parties and all their representative politicians are extremely corrupt, any other party that goes through the difficult motions of consolidating enough power to overthrow the major parties is likely to fall into that same honey trap of corruption, if and when they gain power. This gets further complicated due to the wall the corrupt rulers have created using hired media, police, armed forces, government executives, and the mafia. 

In states where political corruption has thrived for ages, most of the obstacles to both consolidating excess power and using that power to enrich the politician have been sanded down to smooth ineffectiveness or removed completely by previous corrupt leaders. Hence, focusing on changing leaders or the party in power is about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Sri Lanka may have reached that stage. The National Peoples’ Power (NPP), the new kid on the block, may face the same fate. The only way to break a country free even temporarily of endemic corruption is to drastically change the system itself in addition to purging the current practitioners of the corrupt regime. And that can only effectively happen from the ground up, starting with an informed, engaged electorate, willing and able to use the levers of freedom and powers of an activist population to force the government to change. NPP seems to be trying that approach by focusing on village-level electoral units well represented by women and those who broke away from the corrupt parties. In a recent poll, NPP was predicted to get about 1/3 of the votes. 

However, when the only people with the administrative power to alter a system of government are the very same corrupt politicians who benefit greatly from the systemic status quo, that status quo becomes frustratingly self-sustaining. Plus, an electorate numbed into complacency by ages of the corrupt rule, in this case since independence in 1948, is unlikely to rise and risk the possible reprisals inherent in overthrowing a corrupt system. Thus, all the odds are stacked in favor of corruption in Sri Lanka in perpetuity.

So, what can be done? Historically, it seems that changes of this kind come in just two flavors: revolution or evolution. Revolution is quicker, bloodier, less stable, and likely to start a cycle of counterrevolutions and endless bloody coups and countercoups. The driver of the NPP, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has tried the revolutionary path twice before and failed. Evolution is the gradual changing of the nature and specifics of a corrupt system that eventually gives the governed enough power and incentive to blow up the corrupt elements inherent in a self-sustaining corrupt government. It’s slow, difficult, and full of false starts and missteps, but it’s usually bloodless, and often the changes are small enough to bypass the corrupt leaders’ self-preservation instincts. 

Does Sri Lanka’s electorate and/or administrative state have the political will to be either a revolutionary or an evolutionary force for change? Are they educated and informed enough to find and walk that path, in the face of the significant and often violent resistance of a corrupt ruling class?  Or are they — like the populations of most countries — by necessity too focused on feeding and sheltering their own families to devote much time, personal risk, and effort to changing an entrenched system that defends itself by destroying all opposition? That is the dilemma facing so many countries like Sri Lanka in a game that is rigged against the populace and to the benefit of its overseers. 

In this regard, we may learn a way out by looking at the American Federalist system.  It is both enviable and effective and has the ability of individual states to try different evolutionary steps without needing the entire diverse and deeply polarized electorate or national leadership to agree to them. California, say, tries a universal basic income to mitigate income inequality, while another state might try loosening regulations and freeing up small businesses to generate more income for both employees and shareholders. The country watches those experiments and can see which has the greatest positive impact with the least possible unintended consequence. When one of these state experiments proves to be effective, the national government can apply what was learned to devise national policies that have a much greater chance for acceptance as well as effectiveness. 

A good recent example of Federalism’s state laboratories creating an environment for the national policy was healthcare: a few states like Massachusetts started offering a form of universal healthcare to its residents, which paved the way for the federal government to squeeze national healthcare reform through an electorate that was at least 50% opposed to any changes in the way health coverage worked. There are many valid arguments against the result and/or the way the Obama administration went about it, but it is ample evidence of the effectiveness of a Federalist system in making evolutionary changes to an entrenched national system of government. This may also be the way forward for Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has a national structure of states or regions, each with the power to try different policies without requiring the federal government’s tacit approval. Those separate regions or local and provincial governments can be given enough independent authority to try different anti-corruption policies without directly threatening the more corrupt national system of politicians. The Federalist structure may be the most effective way to bring about evolutionary changes to a system like Sri Lanka’s. And when the alternatives are a bloody, unstable revolution or an even more entrenched, more corrupt status quo, the concept of Federalist laboratories starts looking like a viable approach regardless of the difficulties involved.

If all the things that people of goodwill have tried to date have not created the changes needed, something radically different may be called for. Electing a string of new, different politicians from different parties seems to have done little more than creating new and different corrupt leaders, which only widens and deepens the corruption rather than eradicating it. It just might be time to stop looking for new individual leaders or parties to run against the current corrupt leaders, and instead, look for ways to introduce new systems or structures that can gradually evolve Sri Lanka into the kind of government that can stoutly resist the natural tendency of even moral politicians to become crooks. It remains to be seen if the NPP can do that. 

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