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JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1995, Pages 49, 91
Sri Lanka and Nepal Both Complete Democratic Elections
By M.M. Ali
The Asian subcontinent is not only India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It also includes the smaller countries of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim which have equally rich histories that go back more than 3,000 years and a combined population of nearly 40 million people. Although they, too, confront formidable geopolitical and economic challenges, all possess the potential to become models for sustainable, free-market democracies.
Unfortunately, many of their efforts to date have been directed toward surviving with dignity in proximity to a very large neighbor that has not always been friendly. To understand the genesis of the current political discomfort in the subcontinent, one needs to understand the basic thinking of the majority in the area.
The most revered ancient Hindu theory of statecraft, Matsayana ("it is in the nature of things that the bigger fish swallow the smaller ones"), appears to guide the rulers in New Delhi. Further, the teachings of the Hindu political philosopher Kautiliya, who is likened to Niccolo Machiavelli, remain a point of reference for many contemporary Indian political leaders. To fully comprehend the fundamental ethos of the Hindu world, one needs to go into the historical records to learn how and why Buddhism was driven out of India, where it was born centuries ago, and to understand the minority experiences and circumstances that caused the breakup of the subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947.
A further manifestation of that ethos currently is on display with the growing influence of India's "religious right" organization, the Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP). Any growth of religious extremism in India, with a population of almost 900 million, impacts heavily on all of the countries of the region.
The smaller countries of the subcontinent must also contend with an emerging U.S. policy of seeking to manage the post-Cold War world through regional surrogates. Such prioritizing of countries within geographical regions tends to place smaller members at the bottom of the pile unless they have some offsetting asset, as in the case of Israel, with its strong domestic media and political support in the U.S.
With the meltdown of the Soviet "evil empire," the ideological as well as the physical threat to the northern land mass of the Indian subcontinent has been greatly reduced. However, China's vast population, its economic growth rate and its remodeling of the Marxist-Leninist paradigm keeps policy-makers in the West concerned. It also heightens Western interest in buffer states like Nepal to India's north, and lends significance to access to the Indian Ocean in the south, wherein lie countries like Sri Lanka. Coincidentally, both Sri Lanka and Nepal formed new governments following turbulent elections in November 1994. Each presents an interesting, though different, scenario.
Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), an island country located some 21 miles south of the Indian mainland, comprises 25,330 square miles (as compared to India's 1,269,340 square miles) and has a population of about 18 million (as against India's almost 900 million). Not coincidently, Sri Lanka's $500 per capita gross national product is the highest in South Asia, and its annual 1.5 percent population increase is the lowest in the region.
Sri Lanka provides free education through the Higher Secondary (high school) level, has a 90 percent literacy rate, and life expectancy rates of 68 years for males and 73 years for females. All of these statistics are comparable with those in many developed countries. Sri Lanka's impressive economic growth rate of 6.8 percent is unmatched by any other country in the subcontinent.
What is particularly remarkable is that these figures have been achieved despite the political turmoil that Sri Lanka has experienced for more than two decades. The repeated violence in Sri Lanka results from its ethnic and linguistic mix. Seventy-five percent of the population are indigenous Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhists or Christians; 18 percent are mostly Hindu Tamils, descendants of immigrants from the south Indian state of TamilNadu, and 7 percent are Urdu and Sinhalese-speaking Muslims. Most governments formed since Sri Lanka became independent have attempted to include all major segments of the population.
However, aided and abetted by India, the Tamils have demanded special status for themselves in almost one-third of the country. At one point their demands included secession.
In pursuit of this claim, their political party, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE), launched an armed insurgency. It has resulted in a series of assassinations of Sri Lankan leaders and the spread of fear and unrest throughout the country.
Each time Sri Lanka has readied itself for elections, a major political candidate has fallen prey to bombs or bullets. These institutionalized political killings began in 1959 when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Solomon Bandarnaike was assassinated and his widow, Srimavo Bandarnaike, ran for office and won. In 1991, Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne was killed in a car-bomb explosion. In 1993, opposition leader Lalith Athulathmudali was shot dead at an election rally and two weeks later President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed.
On Oct. 23, 1994, just before this year's November presidential elections, opposition leader Gamini Dissanayake was killed and, following contemporary Sri Lankan tradition, his widow, Srima Dissanayake, was selected to take his place at the head of the United National Party (UNP) election ticket.
The political system in Sri Lanka provides for a strong president and a weak prime minister, as in France. A 225-member unicameral parliament is elected first, allowing the leader of the majority party to become prime minister. This is followed by the presidential elections.
The August 1994 parliamentary election brought to an end 17 years of UNP rule. Chandarika Bandarnaike Kumaratunga, 49, a widow since the 1988 assassination of her husband, and the daughter of assassinated Solomon Bandarnaike and his widow-successor Srimavo Bandarnaike, led the People's Alliance, a left-leaning centrist grouping, to victory by a very slender margin. However, when she ran for president in November 1994 against newly widowed Srima Dissanayake, Kumaratunga won a resounding 63-to-36 percent victory. After moving up to the presidency, she then appointed her mother, Srimavo Bandarnaike, as prime minister.
India's support for the LTTE appears to have waned following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, which was attributed to the Tigers, and Chandarika Kumaratunga had made preelection promises to the LTTE to negotiate peace with them. In light of her party's slim majority in parliament but her own strong personal showing in the presidential election, it will be interesting to see how she follows through on her election pledge.
Where recurrent killings have put the country to considerable shame, it is to the credit of the Sri Lankans that they have not allowed the democratic process to be derailed. In fact, the LTTE problem, which has been mostly imported from abroad and which remains concentrated in the northeast of the country, probably can be solved in the absence of further meddling by outside powers.
In the Nov. 13 Washington Post, staff writer Molly Moore aptly summed up the emergence of female leadership in the subcontinent: "The Sri Lankan women join Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, 41, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, 49, at the pinnacle of power during a critical moment in South Asian history...Propelled into politics by executions and assassinations...many endured imprisonment, exile and death threats. Together, they have become the most powerful female political leaders in the world."
Nepal is another story. It is a landlocked kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas on India's northern border. Its population of nearly 20 million is largely Hindu, but with a significant Buddhist segment. It is a poor country with per capita income of $170 and an area of 56,360 square miles. Nepal's hills and valleys still are very pristine, with more than 90 percent of the population living in rural areas. However, the growing population is increasingly straining the fragile mountain environment.
Nepal first experienced political turmoil in 1950, when the Socialist-leaning B.P. Koirala and his Congress party brought a temporary end to the royal rule of the Rana dynasty. The Nepalese Congress party has always been a middle-of-the-road socialist organization inspired by Indian leaders like Jaya Prakash Narain and Ram Manohar Lohia. Neither won political office in India, but both had a large following in Nepal.
Nepal's King Mahendra, who had taken refuge in India after the 1950 revolution, was restored to his throne in 1951 with the help of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The king soon took control of the state machinery, jailed Koirala, and for a time halted political activity in the country. However, the Congress party of Nepal maintained close links with the Indian National Congress and this association reduced the influence of the monarchy in the state affairs. Although the Nepalese people revere the king, the institution of kingship has had to make way for democracy.
According to its official documents "Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, democratic...constitutional monarchy." The constitution provides for a parliamentary system of government with two houses—the House of Representatives and the National Council. The leader of the House of Representatives is invited by the king to assume the office of the prime minister.
In recent years political activity in the country has been dominated by the Congress party and its leaders, including G.P. Koirala, K.P. Bhataria and Ganesh Mansingh. However, the present King Birendra has discreetly encouraged leftist groups, including the communists, to counter Congress party political influence. Because the government that G.P. Koirala formed after the first elections in 1991 soon lost support in the parliament, with almost a third of his own party members deserting him, the king dissolved the parliament in the summer of 1994 and called for new elections.
In the November election, a grouping led by the Communist Party of Nepal won 86 of the 205 parliamentary seats, while the Congress party was splintered. This is an impressive showing for any communist party after the demise of the Soviet Union and at a time when Marxism is in decline all over the world. The Western media have tried to discern global significance in the communist victory, without realizing that Nepalese Marxists resemble neither those who once prevailed in Moscow, nor those who exist in Beijing today. Meanwhile, the Nepalese Congress party has obtained the support of the old Panchayath pro-monarchist groups and even received the backing of dissident communists of the Workers and Peasants Party. As a result, Girija Prasad Koirala was invited to form the government. However, he failed to obtain a majority in the parliament.
King Birendra then had to turn to Man Mohan Adhikary, 72, the president of the Communist Party of Nepal, to form the government. Adhikary, thanks to the split in the ranks of the Congress party and the last-minute willingness of other leftist parties to join in, managed to obtain majority support and has formed the government. How long a communist government under a monarchy will survive is a question that only local Nepalese politics can determine. In any case, Adhikary has made history. He is the first communist prime minister south of the Himalayas.
M.M. Ali is a professor at the University of the District of Columbia.