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On November 14, a fight broke out in the Sri Lankan Parliament. When the Speaker tried to call a vote, a group of MPs heckled him and rushed the podium. A rival faction tried to push the hecklers back. Men traded punches. One brandished a knife. A lawmaker cut himself trying to steal the Speaker’s microphone and ended up in the hospital.
The chaos was the result of a constitutional crisis that erupted in October, when the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, tried to oust the prime minister and replace him with a former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Lawmakers and citizens protested; Sirisena dissolved Parliament, until the Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional; and Rajapaksa, rejected by Parliament, refused to step aside. The stalemate broke only in December, when Sirisena reinstated the deposed prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the face of concerted opposition from the judiciary and a majority of Parliament.
Until recently, Sri Lanka, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, seemed safe from this kind of instability. The country’s bloody civil war ended in 2009, and its 2015 election seemed to signal a new phase of liberalization. But democracy’s gains were less secure than they appeared.
Sri Lanka is far from unique in South Asia in this respect. By some measures, the region is more stable and democratic than it has been in decades. Violence and unrest have subsided. Militaries have left the streets and returned to their barracks. Major insurgencies have been contained. As a region, South Asia is experiencing economic growth at an average rate of nearly seven percent each year. Today Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan—countries governed by hard-line military dictatorships in the recent past—are all, at least formally, democracies.
But this apparent calm masks major sources of disquiet. Ethnic and religious tensions are spiking. Politicians are trying to win votes by attacking independent institutions. And militaries still lurk in the background. South Asia’s experience shows that democracy does not seamlessly advance or uniformly retreat. Empowerment in some areas can be accompanied by repression in others. Reforms can trigger new conflicts. Open political competition gives the people a voice, but that voice may be deeply illiberal. Orderly elections do not preclude political crises. South Asia’s trajectory shows just how important it is to seize opportunities to fortify liberal democracy when they present themselves and to confront potential dangers before they metastasize.
Sri Lanka’s crisis has its roots in Rajapaksa’s presidency, which turned particularly authoritarian in its second term. In 2009, Rajapaksa ended Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war by inflicting a bloody defeat on the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the Tamil Tigers). He was reelected by a landslide in 2010, and together with his family and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he proceeded to centralize power, expand the reach of the presidency, and draw close to China. Media reports credibly linked Rajapaksa and his allies to corruption and human rights violations.
Sirisena had been a member of the SLFP, but in the 2015 presidential election, he unexpectedly defected from it in order to challenge Rajapaksa. With the support of the United National Party (UNP) and other opposition parties, Sirisena won a shock victory. After parliamentary elections later that year, UNP leader Wickremesinghe emerged as prime minister. This set up Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to pursue what they claimed would be an ambitious reform agenda aimed at curbing executive power and addressing the legacies of the civil war.
The government fulfilled some of this agenda, most notably limiting the powers of the presidency that Rajapaksa had expanded. But Sirisena and Wickremesinghe did not prove a cohesive team, reform stalled, and when local elections were held earlier this year, Rajapaksa’s party, relaunched as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, dominated the results. With Rajapaksa resurgent, the relationship between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe deteriorated. On October 26, Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa as the new prime minister.
Within three weeks, the Supreme Court suspended Sirisena’s dissolution of Parliament. Undeterred, Sirisena and Rajapaksa sought to cobble together a parliamentary majority to endorse Rajapaksa as prime minister. But despite concerted efforts to bribe and entice members of Parliament to defect, a majority stuck by Wickremesinghe, who refused to leave the prime minister’s residence. Citizens massed in the streets to support Wickremesinghe against the power grab.
The standoff lasted for more than six weeks. Rajapaksa was unable to form a majority in Parliament, so Sirisena called for elections for 2019 to try to forge a new electoral majority. Finally, on December 13, the Supreme Court ruled decisively against Sirisena, who then grudgingly recognized Wickremesinghe as prime minister. Although the immediate crisis has ended, it has revealed deep vulnerabilities in Sri Lanka’s democracy that are unlikely to go away.
Submerged within Sri Lanka’s political crisis is the ethnic unrest that has plagued the country since the 1950s. Rajapaksa represents a powerful strand of Sinhalese Buddhist ethno-nationalism that has played a central role in promoting ethnic violence. He and his supporters played this card when attacking critics in the most recent crisis. They argued that Wickremesinghe represented foreign (mainly Western) influences and alien cultural values. This type of problem extends well beyond Sri Lanka: ethnic and religious tensions threaten other South Asian democracies, too.
Although elections are now routine across the subcontinent, and are often broadly free and fair, ethnic and religious majoritarianism persists. Majoritarian politics are often driven by a majority-minority complex: despite representing large majorities in their countries, politicians and activists argue that sinister transnational influences, long-term demographic changes, and the corruption and impurity of cosmopolitan elites undermine their groups’ power. Like populists in the West, they claim that they alone can protect majority groups from these threats—even when those groups are objectively already dominant.
That strategy has proven an electoral winner. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has constructed a political machine that followed its decisive 2014 victory by dramatically expanding the number of states under its control. Although it fared poorly in the most recent state elections, in December, the BJP remains the favorite in the 2019 national elections. Hindu majoritarianism has become a remarkably powerful political project in India. Although there are still many Indians who do not subscribe to it, the quest to give Hindus favored status has advanced dramatically in recent years. As the political scientist Kanchan Chandra has noted, “The idea of India is being redefined to mean a Hindu polity.”
Even before the recent crisis, Sri Lanka’s long war with the Tamil Tigers had its roots in the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, a strain of politics that remains deeply influential in the island nation. The country’s two dominant Sinhalese parties have tried to outbid each other in appealing to Buddhist nationalism, limiting the Sri Lankan political system’s ability to accommodate the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities. Sri Lanka’s 2015 election offered a chance to address such ethnic tensions, but Sinhalese nationalists doggedly opposed these efforts, contributing to the gradual collapse of the reformist agenda.
Perhaps the most dramatic South Asian case in which ethno-nationalism has set back genuine liberalization is in Myanmar. De facto President Aung San Suu Kyi has proven a bitter disappointment to many international observers because of her failure to condemn the military’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya people. But Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance reflects public sentiment. Many in Myanmar, even those who previously opposed the military, support hard-line anti-Rohingya policies. Myanmar’s 2020 general election will probably see both Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and its main opposition, the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party, appealing to heartland Bamar ethno-nationalism. The rise of electoral democracy in Myanmar has allowed supporters of majoritarianism, from politicians to monks to social media users, to frame the Rohingya as subversive outsiders who need to be eliminated.
Even when ethnic and religious majoritarian movements lose elections, they continue to exert street power. Pakistan’s religious parties have largely proven electoral failures. But religious organizations can still tap into suspicion and bigotry against minority groups to mobilize their supporters. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has found this out the hard way. He took a firm stand in defense of the Pakistani Supreme Court’s acquittal of a Christian woman on blasphemy charges, then quickly backed down, at least symbolically, after days of protests by a religious movement called the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Khan’s government has pushed back on the TLP in recent weeks, but the dangers and temptations of mobilizing exclusionary Sunni religious majoritarianism aimed at Shiites, Christians, Hindus, and, especially, Ahmadis (a Muslim group viewed by many in Pakistan as heretics and thus discriminated against) remains.
Electoral democracy in South Asia coexists uneasily with independent political institutions, especially justice systems. Intense political competition can force politicians to pay attention to their constituents, ideally making them more responsive. But this competition also pushes them to politicize courts, bureaucracies, and law enforcement. Leading Sri Lankan politicians showed a remarkably flagrant disregard for the constitution during the crisis, offering a shifting array of dubious justifications for their actions. Sri Lanka’s judiciary has proven surprisingly robust, but it endured a stress test that never should have occurred in the first place.
In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League dispensed with procedural niceties in its quest to break its rivals ahead of the recent general election. The Awami League won overwhelmingly, but the campaign and election day itself were marred by lethal violence and allegations of serious electoral irregularities. The government has passed laws restricting free speech, arrested journalists and dissidents, and used police to target political rivals. Ironically, the Awami League points to the threat of religious majoritarianism and intolerance as the reason for its destruction of the political institutions meant to protect rights and provide order: its actions are necessary, the party claims, in order to hold at bay majoritarian Islamist opposition parties such as the Bangladesh National Party and Jamaat-e-Islami.
In India, too, the government has locked horns with, and allegedly interfered in, important national institutions, seeking to shape them to the benefit of Modi’s party. The Central Bureau of Investigation and Reserve Bank of India have experienced dramatic, highly public disputes and internal feuds. Such manipulation predates the BJP and has a long history in India. But even elite state institutions now confront what the political analyst Milan Vaishnav has called a “crisis of credibility” as the BJP seeks to hold the commanding heights of state power.
Several South Asian countries, however, suffer from the opposite problem: rather than elected politicians interfering with independent institutions, autonomous militaries can interfere in civilian politics. The military has a stake in political affairs above all in Pakistan and Myanmar, which have experienced long spells of military rule. Both militaries have formally withdrawn from direct control of national politics but continue to wield power.
Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, controls key security ministries and is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament. Its brutal campaign against the Rohingya people has garnered it new support from many in the Bamar ethnic majority, who see it waging a war to protect the country from Bengali intruders and meddling foreigners. The military has restricted press freedoms and continues to wage grim counterinsurgency campaigns on Myanmar’s periphery, especially in the northeast. After fueling Bamar nationalism, the army has proceeded to take advantage of it by reframing itself as the protector of the nation, rather than a tyrannical former dictatorship.
In Pakistan, the military does not even need formal constitutional prerogatives to exert its influence. During the 2018 election, the military was widely believed to have thrown its weight behind Imran Khan. After his victory, the military mediated Khan’s negotiations with the TLP in the wake of the blasphemy verdict. The army continues to control a wide array of businesses that give it external influence and serve as a source of internal cohesion by providing retired military elites with comfortable positions. Most important, it is believed to hold a veto on significant foreign policy decisions, especially those concerning Afghanistan and India, that should be the prerogative of elected civilian leaders.
These problems—ethnic and religious majoritarianism, attacks on independent institutions, and continued military influence—do not outweigh the many advantages of liberal democracy. But South Asia’s experience shows that progress and backsliding can be difficult to distinguish.
The conflict between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe in Sri Lanka might never have come about if the two men had not passed important, badly needed reforms to the powers of the presidency after the 2015 election. Those reforms proved destructive in the short term, but in the long run they are likely to strengthen Sri Lankan democracy. Myanmar’s opening up has unleashed a dangerous majoritarianism, but it has also contributed to a freer press, more open political competition, and new possibilities for civil society. Myanmar may yet move—if only incrementally—toward fuller democracy. India’s elections remain highly competitive, and the BJP cannot rest easy in the face of a reenergized opposition. Even in Pakistan, under the shadow of military influence and religious radicalism, democratic competition still holds out the possibility of a government that is more responsive to its citizens.
Democracy is unambiguously in retreat from some countries, such as Hungary. That is not the situation in South Asia. There the contradictory nature of democracy’s advance shows, above all, the importance of vigilance. Those who defend liberal democracy must do so continually, pushing back against rights-denying ideological projects, politicians who undermine institutions, and institutions that seek to escape accountability.
The willingness to defend democracy proved essential to resolving Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis. Sirisena’s daring power play could very easily have succeeded. Two of the key dangers to democracy in South Asia were present: ethno-nationalism and contempt for political institutions. Sirisena’s goal was to quickly establish facts on the ground that could not be rolled back. But the concerted mobilization of individuals, civil society, and politicians has (so far) preserved the constitutional order. That hard-fought success stands as both an inspiration and a warning to democracy’s defenders elsewhere.