SIGNS OF A DICTATOR
Many dictators start off liked or even beloved. With centralised power, they can get things done, from fighting wars to building infrastructure. A dictator is only called a dictator when they overstay their welcome, when the weight of little injustices becomes too much to bear. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a dictator. Yet.
Today, people really don’t mind how Mahinda Rajapaksa does what he does, as long as he does it. Prior administrations have combined corruption and nepotism with incompetence, whereas Rajapaksa still seems to deliver results. His ending of an intractable war and revitalisation of a stagnant economy are cases in point. The cracks, however, are there to show if you look close enough.
The last person to oppose him in an election is in jail. That candidate, Sarath Fonseka, made a complaint that the election was not free and fair based on Rajapaksa’s abuse of state power, media and flagrant violations of campaign law. Those charges are largely true.
A public protest against Fonseka was recently broken up quite violently, with government MPs known to be in the vicinity. One of the main agents of violence against the public and the media has been made Minister of Public Relations. Beneath the velvet glove of ‘everything is fine’ there is a clenched fist.
The last Editor to seriously oppose Rajapaksa is dead and countless critical journalists have been assaulted or fled the country. Opposition media institutions like Sirasa and LankaeNews have been attacked and torched. Other media institutions practice scrupulous self-censorship.
The legislature and judiciary have been made into almost ceremonial arms of the executive. Power is concentrated within the Rajapaksa family, a few political appointees and select ministers. Almost none of this power is allocated institutionally, but based on direct personal relationships leading back to Mahinda Rajapaksa himself.
A family successor has already seemingly been appointed in Namal Rajapaksa, already a young MP. Unlike his uncles, he has yet to prove himself in any significant capacity.
Meanwhile, countless lower level political appointees and business-people benefit from connections to the ruling family. They often, however, are not especially qualified and deliver little economic value for the contracts they are able to win.
The regime also benefits from a cozy relationship with a foreign power which supplies them with arms, credit and infrastructure, with tax payers picking up the often inflated tab.
Like strange sounds from a car engine, however, the people of Sri Lanka seem to be content to ignore these signs until the car breaks down. Even as peoples lives are shaken by floods and food shortages, they still trust the system to deliver them a better life in the future.
In time, however, the steps Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken to make his power unbendable may mean that the only option is to break. By weakening elections, the media, the opposition and institutions he has made his short term power more secure, but he has also removed gradual ways for the people to let off steam.
That is fine now, while things are going relatively well, but if things start to go badly (and bad patches inevitably come) the people will have no recourse through their government. All they will have is the street, and there they will be faced by the massive military Mahinda Rajapaksa is building, which is not a pretty sight.
Of course, right now, all these concerns seem irrelevant, but all the little injustices and abuses of the regime will come into full light if people’s standard of living declines. The government is more inclined to ignore public and international opinion in pursuing what it thinks is right. In terms of the war and perhaps the economy, the government may be right. In the future, however, there may be cases where the opposition is right for the country and the government knows no other response but to suppress.
In time, dictators often get stuck in this loop, believing their own propaganda, ignoring advice, growing out of touch with the reality on the street, until that street knocks on their door. Perhaps Rajapaksa will be lucky enough to avoid misfortune and the need to have efficient institutions and a merit based economy. If he or his successor faces difficulty, it is because he has greatly reduced their possible options by making a government so rigid and unflexible.
Like errant noises in an engine, these problems only become serious when the engine of growth breaks down. That is when you wish you’d followed the book, done regular services and taken care of all the irritating details that get in the way of simply going where you want to go. At that time, however, all those small details become critical, and the car simply stops. If the engine of growth slows down, all those corners Mahinda Rajapaksa has cut will cut the Sri Lankan people in return. When they go to complain they’ll find a wall of suppression. Then, if things are bad enough, they’ll have to fight for a government that listens to them again.
The biggest problem with any dictator is that they cannot see this day in the future. They can only see their present and remember the mistakes of the past. They cannot conceive that they will someday die, that their heirs may not be qualified, so they build pyramids of oppression on the backs of their people in the hopes that they may live forever.
Dictators, however, cannot dictate to the fates. The weather affects everybody, the global economy affects everyone, and new generations emerge that will demand more than the end to a war they don’t remember. At that time, a nation will rise or fall by its institutions, its communications and its integrity, all things that Mahinda Rajapaksa is undermining in the name of temporarily securing his own power.
He may feel that things are stable now, but in time the weight of little injustices can start to weigh the country down. By then, the system he has built will be too entrenched to move, more prone to collapse than gradually change. Thankfully, everything seems fine and that day hasn’t come. Yet.