Sri Lanka’s Democracy: Awakening from a deep slumber?
In the wake of the worst economic crisis in its post-independence history, over the past two months thousands of Sri Lankans have been taking to the streets to peacefully demand the resignation of their government. After protests reached President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence, the government temporarily declared a State of Emergency, imposed curfews and blocked social media. On 19 April, the first death was recorded when police opened fire on protesters. Yet, violating the right of Sri Lankans to their freedom of expression and assembly has only fuelled the peoples’ grievances further. On 12 April 2022, two decades of a brewing debt crisis resulted in the Sri Lankan government defaulting on USD 51 billion of foreign debt. In the coming months and years, 22 million Sri Lankans will likely suffer from increased living costs, taxes, and borrowing rates as a result. These difficulties are compounded by frequent electricity outages and growing shortages of fuel, medicines, staple foods, and other essentials in what was once known as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.” As the going gets tougher for all Sri Lankans, much of the country’s population is uniting against a seemingly common “enemy”—their very own government. Growing public pressure by ordinary Sri Lankans and civil society on their elected leaders indicates that Sri Lanka’s faltering democracy may be at a turning point. Propelled by economic hardship, Sri Lankans are finally waking up from a deep slumber to voice the need for urgent and far-reaching system reform. While many past protests have been partisan in nature, we are now witnessing Sri Lankans of different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds overcoming those divisions to pave a path for radical change. The unity is especially striking in a country that faced 26 years of civil war. In response, the entire Cabinet (including the President’s nephew) resigned, but President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, refuse to cede power. The Rajapaksas are criticized for exacerbating a culture of corruption, nepotism, and dishonesty in Sri Lanka’s political and business communities. Their practice of awarding project contracts to their henchmen and appointing unqualified friends and family into senior posts has led to incompetent and unchecked decision-making. The absence of good governance has also contributed to a continuous brain drain from the island. Soaring inflation, rapid currency devaluation coupled with decades of debt accumulation and economic mismanagement—including ill-conceived infrastructure and vanity projects that generated no or negligible returns, baseless tax cuts and arbitrary policies to force organic farming—are just a few of many decisions that now threaten what was once one of South Asia’s fastest-growing economies. International IDEA’s 2021 GSoD report identified Sri Lanka as being at high risk of “democratic backsliding.” GSoD data show that Sri Lanka has suffered decreases in all of the sub-attributes of Check on Government as well as decreases in Absence of Corruption over the past several years. Declines in these attributes signify serious failures of the Rajapaksa government to uphold the rule of law in the delivery of services to its people. Declines in Selected Subattributes, 2015-2020 Protest momentum is being driven by Sri Lanka’s youth, business owners, artists, activists, and entrepreneurs. C. Perera, a Sri Lankan national who advises the tourism investment sector notes that “Sri Lankan university students and labour unions regularly stage protests; but now, the elite, upper classes and business community are taking to the streets themselves, for the first time in our history.” Perera adds, “Younger generations are showing more courage and confidence, unafraid to voice opinions and request for a much-needed system overhaul that older generations have failed to address. Responsible thinking and years of pent-up frustration drives the current momentum for positive, values-based change. Sri Lankan people are rightfully demanding for transparent and accountable leadership which simply has not existed for decades across government and big business.” Photo by C. Perera The country began talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on 18 April with the aim of expediting financing to Sri Lanka, but addressing the fragmented political system will take time. Reforms which have been recommended include abolishing the executive presidency, reinforcing and protecting an independent judiciary, increasing accountability among the political classes i.e., declaring their assets and auditing expenditures, enforcing transparent and professional tender and contract processes; and filling key economic decision-making roles with competent and experienced professionals to reinstall confidence among the Sri Lankan public and international creditors. For many, there is hope that this crisis—echoed by people’s protests- will serve as a wakeup call and turning point toward much needed political, economic and social reform. Ultimately, an uprising of this scale and diversity will be hard for the rulers of Sri Lanka to ignore. Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
The Day after the Digital Service Act
The European Union has approved landmark legislation, known as the Digital Service Act (DSA), that seeks to transform social media into a safer space, tame disinformation and illegal content, increase transparency and create monitoring and enforceability mechanisms. It is not only an important milestone for the European Union; it will likely serve as a global benchmark on how to regulate social media content. The DSA is not alone, and lives alongside other EU legislation - some approved, some being discussed - on political ads, digital markets and Artificial Intelligence. The question remains, though: Is this enough to protect democracy from digital threats? The short answer is simple: no. The target of the Digital Service Act is big social media companies. It makes them liable for the content they host insofar they know it is illegal and imposes requirements on how to control content. However, social media companies are not the only actors trying to manipulate public opinion online, and it could be argued that they are not even the most important ones. A key next step in the legislative battle is a law that confronts the origins of the threats to democracy: political parties and PR companies, and to the enabler: money. Political parties and other interest groups can mount successful online operations because they can pay for them without breaking any laws. Also, the public remains largely in the dark about those expenditures. A possible solution could be to update political finance regulation to tackle the issue. For example, all political actors should have to disclose detailed expenditures for online activities. Yet, legislation to control the flow of money wouldn’t be sufficient. EU and Member States alike should seek to promote actions that deter engagement in disinformation activities. These can range from electoral codes of conduct, such as the Dutch rules that require a rejection of foreign money for election ads, to broad agreements that open their data. As key actors in democracy, political parties should be open to impartial digital audits that allow oversight institutions to find instances of wrong-doing in their behaviour online. Opening up their servers to oversight agencies could also be established as a precondition to access public funding. To carry out these audits, we also need increased capacity of oversight agencies. Political campaigns are increasingly complex, and every political party relies on private marketing and public affairs companies to run their campaigns. This isn’t the problem. The issue is that these companies are a black box. While a political party might not be allowed to engage a troll farm, private PR companies are not subject to the same level of controls; they should be placed under strict scrutiny. All such companies should be included in a publicly accessible registry that shows all contracts with political parties and interest groups. The EU or member states can also create a pre-approval authorisation mechanism to work on political campaigns for private companies, under the condition they open their servers to digital audits and provide data to regulators. The day after the DSA has arrived, democracy is far from being shielded from digital threats. What the DSA’s long negotiation process has shown is that online regulation is possible and effective, even if imperfect. That same spirit should be carried forward to protect democracy online.
Global Monitor of COVID-19´s impact on Democracy and Human Rights
A Tale of Two Years: Findings from the Global Monitor of Covid-19's Impact on Democracy and Human Rights
Public health experts had been warning of the likelihood of a global pandemic for many years before Covid-19 became that long-feared pandemic in 2020. To the extent that governments had prepared for such a pandemic, most of the focus had been on the immediate dangers to life and health. The secondary effects of pandemic responses on democracy and human rights did not become a major area of research until we were in the midst of the pandemic. Nonetheless, International IDEA quickly developed a data project to track the impact of Covid-19 responses on democracy and human rights. Two years after the pandemic started, we have published a new report: Taking Stock After Two Years of Covid-19 that takes a hard look at the data. One of the most devastating impacts we found—that pandemic restrictions most severely affected individuals and regimes with pre-existing vulnerabilities—was something decision-makers should have anticipated. Learning from our experiences, we must put forward more inclusive, responsive and accountable measures that protect public health while safeguarding our democracy and human rights. Emergency legal responses One might have expected that high-performing democracies would be the most likely to invoke emergency provisions to provide legal cover for extraordinary public health measures, but that was actually not the case. While 59 per cent of the 166 countries we cover invoked some form of state of legal exception during the pandemic, mid-range and weak democracies, along with hybrid regimes did so most often. High-performing democracies had the capacity to legislate their way through the crisis, while in authoritarian regimes emergency powers were not needed to take extreme steps. The invocation of states of emergency was not associated with more violations of Civil Liberties. Rather, our annual data show that the majority of countries that experienced a significant decline in this area had not invoked an emergency. Restrictions on civil liberties Certain civil liberties were restricted during the pandemic in the interest of protecting public health. With the exception of Turkey and Yemen, all of the countries we covered implemented restrictions affecting Freedom of Association and Assembly, including school and business closures, bans on public events, and limitations on the size of private gatherings. At least 89 per cent of countries introduced a lockdown at some point during the pandemic. Source: International IDEA, ‘Global Monitor of Covid-19’s Impact on Democracy and Human Rights’, 2022, <https://www.idea.int/gsod-indices/covid19globalmonitor> In much the same way, all countries we covered placed restrictions on Freedom of Movement, with at least 86 per cent of countries introducing border closures even though their effectiveness in preventing the spread of viruses is disputed. Lockdowns and other pandemic control responses were most devastating in developing countries, where more people rely on the informal economy for income. Going forward, restrictions that last beyond the point of community transmission should be questioned. While Freedom of Association and Assembly was the most directly affected civil liberty, Freedom of Expression is of more concern going forward. This vital support of democracy had been under threat before the pandemic, and is under continuing stress due to three phenomena: a) a wave of repression of journalism, b) a flood of pandemic-related disinformation that continues to jeopardize public health measures, and c) an increase in laws against disinformation that are ripe for exploitation by anti-democratic governments. Contact tracing apps Data collected by a variety of organizations show that 51 per cent of the countries we covered deployed a contact tracing app (CTA), with the highest regional proportion in the Middle East (71 per cent) and the lowest in Africa (24 per cent). The first CTA however emerged in China in February 2020—before the potential for a global pandemic was known to much of the world. Sources: International IDEA, ‘Global Monitor of Covid-19’s Impact on Democracy and Human Rights’, 2022, <https://www.idea.int/gsod-indices/covid19globalmonitor>; MIT Technology Review's The experiences of women and minorities The pandemic has had disproportionate impacts on women and marginalized communities all over the world, including through an increase in violence, both in terms of domestic abuse and hate crimes, higher rates of unemployment, long term loss of educational opportunities and racial and ethnic minorities exposed to increased xenophobia and racism. Moving forward, it is vital that governments fully integrate the voices and needs of women and minority groups in the post-pandemic recovery processes. Building back Given humanity’s previous experience with pandemics and other emergencies, it is surprising that we were not better prepared for the impacts of Covid-19. One of the most devastating findings is one we could have expected: individuals and regimes with pre-existing vulnerabilities were the most severely impacted by the pandemic. Regimes that were already looking for ways to exert more control over their populations found pandemic-related justifications to do so. Governments everywhere struggled to find the proper balance between respecting individual rights and protecting public health. We must think about how to better integrate disadvantaged groups at the front and center of recovery efforts and systematically into our institutions and mend the broken bonds of trust at all levels. The good news is that the mechanisms for dialogue and accountability that are at the heart of democracies are perfectly suited for the work that will go into rebuilding trust. Building back better is possible, but it means being responsive and accountable to everyone.