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Democracy Notes
Published: 13/07/2022
Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister to Resign Amidst Protests: Democracy in Action and Challenges Ahead 
Hours before his expected resignation, Sri Lankan beleaguered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country on a military jet on Wednesday,13 July 2022. Protesters marked the moment with jubilation, hopeful that this marks the end of decades of rule by the Rajapaksa family.    The president’s flight comes after months of public protests demanding that the leadership step down for its perceived failure to address the country’s most severe post-independence debt crisis.    The world is witnessing democracy in action. For over 100 days, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans from all walks of life have marched and protested peacefully, expressing genuine dissent while exercising their democratic right to peaceful assembly. In a tipping point over the weekend, protesters stormed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence. Pictures of people lounging in the opulent surroundings went viral, standing in stark contrast to the dire situation outside, where fuel is being rationed and food prices are soaring. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s residence was also set alight, and he has offered to step down.      In a recent development, though, Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as Acting President and no resignations have occurred. Protests have moved to the Prime Minister’s office. This adds fuel to the impression that Wickremesinghe, a long-time opposition politician and former prime minister, is little more than a “lifeline to the Rajapaksas.”   These leaders’ resignations, if they occur, will be an important milestone in what is Asia’s oldest democracy according to universal suffrage, spearheaded by a massive show of public anger.   What Next?   Regardless of whether these leaders step down, significant challenges lie ahead. The legislature’s lack of confidence in leadership, within both the opposition and ruling parties, remains a key challenge. Even after the President’s removal, many ruling party members tainted with corruption scandals who supported the Rajapaksa family will remain. Protesters are therefore calling for an interim government and constitutional reform, which will be vital to gain confidence in a new  government. An all-party alternative is feared to be a way for the Rajapaksa’s to remain in power behind the scenes.    Ultimately, Sri Lankans wish to see legal and institutional changes, including reforms that restore good governance and end impunity for high-level corruption linked to the crisis. Addressing the underlying issues—such as the strengthening of structural checks and balances—will not only address the country’s economic woes but also provide an opportunity to achieve real democratic legitimacy.   Indeed, fundamental reforms and transparency throughout the process will be required, not just by the public, but by the International Monetary Fund and international creditors. Among the priorities upon forming a stable government will be to strengthen Sri Lanka’s judiciary (in tackling corruption) to make it impartial to political interference. As noted by Chalana Perera, a Sri Lankan advisor to tourism businesses, “This is where Sri Lanka has yet to prove that we are geared for recovery—our laws must be upheld to hold those responsible for the crisis accountable, otherwise we risk a repeat of gross negligence in the future.” It could also be a chance for Sri Lanka to reckon with its past and to build a new and more inclusive national identity; the much-touted unity that has marked the protests could ring hollow without a sincere reflection of what it means to be Sri Lankan. There is, however, room to be “cautiously optimistic,” as Chalana suggests that “the peoples’ uprising and its strength across social strata, has cautioned those who come into power next. Sri Lankans expect competent and selfless leaders to navigate the island out of troubled waters with integrity and accountability. We need sustainable, long-term solutions to propel Sri Lanka forward.”
Democracy Notes
Published: 08/07/2022
Boris Johnson finds the limit as the last hope of democratic accountability asserts itself
Initially buoyed by popular support, entering office with the largest Conservative majority since Thatcher, Boris Johnson leaves on a different note, forced out by his own party, with a sudden and immense slate of resignations. Johnson managed to survive a series of political scandals before they eventually caught up with him, raising important questions about intraparty democracy. The scandals have included Johnson’s defense of corrupt politicians, the questionable refurbishment of Downing Street and a blatant flouting of his own government’s pandemic lockdown rules. Still, Johnson held out, narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence within the Conservative Party caucus last month. In the end, it was Johnson’s promotion of MP Chris Pincher, who had been accused of sexual misconduct, that proved too much for the Conservative party and triggered mass resignations. Despite publicly claiming otherwise, Johnson was aware of the allegations when he made the decision to promote Pincher. Achieving accountability for the scandals proved challenging. As long as Johnson enjoyed the confidence of his Conservative majority in the House of Commons, the legislature was limited to spotlighting his conduct and testing the probity of his frequent denials and evasions. They pressed him at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. They pressured him into commissioning an extra-parliamentary investigation. They triggered an inquiry by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee. Johnson was not to be shamed into a resignation. Accountability only began to look likely on 6 June, when 41% of Conservative MPs voted against him in a vote of no confidence.  Johnson soldiered on, but by 6 July it was clear that he was hemorrhaging support where it mattered. Belatedly responding to the revolt among Conservative MPs, Johnson resigned as leader of the party. However, he has stated his intention to remain in office as Prime Minister until the Conservative Party chooses a new leader.       Ultimately, it was not his disregard of constitutional conventions, lies to parliament, violations of ethics rules, or personal moral scandals that were his undoing. Rather he found the limit when the scandal around Chris Pincher irreparably damaged Johnson’s electability, and led his party to finally and decisively turn against him. Given the Conservative Party’s strong position in the House of Commons, the last hope for democratic accountability for the scandal-racked Johnson government was the Conservative Party itself. While intraparty democracy often works more slowly than many might like, this is one of the unique strengths of a parliamentary system. Unpopular or even criminal presidents are often unchecked by weak political parties, but prime ministers are ultimately accountable to members of parliament in the last resort to their own party. A vote of non-confidence is far more likely to succeed than a drawn-out impeachment process. Intraparty democracy is an often overlooked but vital element of a well-functioning democratic system. The Conservative Party under Johnson missed the opportunity to be an effective institution for accountability several times, ultimately delivering for self-interested rather than principled reasons. As the party moves forward, it must recommit itself to being an institution that advances democracy over narrow self-interest. As we seek to reverse trends of democratic backsliding and the closing of civic space, intraparty democracy must have a prominent place among the solutions.
Democracy Notes
Published: 11/07/2022
How independent is the US Supreme Court? Updated GSoD Indices show a decline
In the last weeks before its 2022 summer break, the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled in several cases that will have life-altering consequences for millions of Americans and which captured the world’s attention. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, the Court ruled that the state governments may not prevent people from carrying concealed firearms in most circumstances. In Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization, the Court struck down a 50-year-old precedent (established in Roe v. Wade in 1973) and ruled that there is no constitutional right to abort a pregnancy. In West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Court ruled that executive agencies cannot regulate without explicit authorization from Congress—stymieing the Biden administration’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. These cases address issues on the political fault lines in the USA, and highlight how changes on the bench have delivered different outcomes. The political backlash to the Court’s rulings raises questions about the Court’s powers and its independence. As opponents of these recent rulings begin to float proposals for reforms that would reduce the Court’s powers or independence, it’s natural to consider how the US Supreme Court compares to courts in other countries. International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices (GSoDI) have data on judicial independence in 173 countries from 1975 to 2021, facilitating comparative analysis of the independence of the US Supreme Court both now and in the past. In 2021 (the most recent full year for which we have data in the just-released v6.1 of the GSoDI), the courts in the USA were among the most independent in the world. The USA was solidly in the top 25 per cent globally but was not the most independent among countries that have similar legal traditions. Figure 1. Map of Judicial Independence scores Among countries with British-derived system of common law and a high level of overall democratic performance, there is relatively little change over time. The USA has consistently had lower levels of Judicial Independence than Australia and New Zealand, higher than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and has been roughly the same as Canada. Figure 2. Judicial Independence trends in selected countries Despite very different appointment processes between the USA and Canada, the courts have historically had very similar levels of independence from the other branches of their governments. Both countries have seen declines in Judicial Independence over the past few years. In the case of the USA, the decline is statistically significant. The overall trend is driven by declines in variables tracking the willingness of the Court to rule against the government beteween 2016 and 2020, and by a decline in 2021 in a variable tracking the impartiality of the legal system more broadly. Considering these data alongside public opinion data, we find that while the US Supreme Court is now less in step with the broad trends in public opinion in the country, it is also less independent of other (elected) branches of the government. One should expect that this imbalance will be addressed in some way, most likely through new legislation in Congress. Some of the proposals for reforming the court in the wake of the paradigm-shifting rulings of the last month (such as adding new justices, establishing term limits, or reducing the Court’s jurisdiction) could potentially have democracy-enhancing effects but could also reduce Judicial Independence in other ways. Whatever happens, we will report on developments during 2022 in version 7 of the GSoDI, planned for release in the second quarter of 2023.