Newspaper article International New York Times

Desire for Democracy Wins in Sri Lanka

Newspaper article International New York Times

Desire for Democracy Wins in Sri Lanka

Article excerpt

In a surprise to analysts last week, Sri Lanka, which had been on a trajectory away from democracy, elected a relative unknown who promised a weaker presidency, not another king.

Across the great Eurasian plate these days, from Belarus to Beijing, one can find leaders dispensing with truly competitive politics. But traverse the Himalayas to South Asia and the climate is different: Democracy is on a winning streak.

Over the last two years, virtually the entire population of South Asia has had the opportunity to take part in elections, and the voters have shown a marked desire to send their leaders packing. There was plenty of evidence for this already, including Pakistan's first-ever democratic transfer of power and, last May, India's epic rejection of the party that has dominated the country since independence.

Even so, last week's vote in Sri Lanka was a jaw-dropper.

Sri Lanka stood out because it had been on a trajectory away from democracy, with an ever-stronger state dominated by an ever-smaller circle of leaders. After nearly a decade as president, Mahinda Rajapaksa could boast of ending a civil war that had dragged on for nearly 26 years and presiding over a steadily expanding economy. He had also imposed an atmosphere of fear quite atypical for Sri Lanka, forcing the news media and judiciary to heel. Six weeks ago, when he scheduled early elections, he had no viable opponent.

The man who came out of nowhere to defeat him, a soft-spoken former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, promised voters something simple: a weaker presidency. On Sunday, in his first address as president, Mr. Sirisena said Sri Lanka would return to a parliamentary system.

"What our country needs," he said, "is not a king, but a real human being."

South Asia is one of the few parts of the world where countries are actively jumping into the democratic column. For many years, India and Sri Lanka were surrounded by a grab bag of monarchies, dictatorships and military governments. But then, in 2006, the king of Bhutan ordered an end to the country's absolute monarchy. In 2008, Nepal followed suit, abolishing its monarchy. In 2009, the authorities in the Maldives allowed its first contested election in 30 years.

Eastern Europe had a period of democratic expansion like this, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the South Asian trend was not actively propagated by the West -- or even by the local giant, India. Sumit Ganguly, a political science scholar who has studied democracy in the region, said that India's influence was a subtle, slow-burning one, as Nepalese, Bangladeshis and even Pakistanis said, "You know, after all, India has one thing going for it: They throw out their politicians with regularity."

During a recent visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, Mr. Ganguly said, he was struck by the current of fear he encountered among civil servants, academics and political activists, who confided in him about the recent "lurch toward authoritarianism." He said Mr. Rajapaksa's shocking defeat would take its place alongside that of Indira Gandhi, who was so certain of her popularity that she called early elections in 1977, two years into the crackdown known as "the emergency."

Both Mrs. Gandhi and Mr. Rajapaksa "were in for a rude shock," said Mr. Ganguly, a professor at Indiana University. …

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