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Power-sharing won’t bring peace to SL

The power-sharing experience shows that even having a Grand Coalition or a second chamber could not sustain peace and democracy in power-sharing regimes

  • Some thoughts on the Daily FT Guest Columnist of Wednesday, 30 November 2022, Raj Gonsalkorale’s article, ‘Resolving the ethnic issue’ 

By Dinesh Dodamgoda

Sharing power among the political representatives of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims will solve the ethnic issue and guarantee a democratic, peaceful, plural society, Raj Gonsalkorale, the Guest Columnist of Wednesday, 30 November 2022, Daily FT, argues. 

In his article, ‘Resolving the ethnic issue’, Raj believes that the power-sharing resolution will be long-lasting. However, as the power-sharing global experiences suggest, power-sharing institutions cannot find sustainable peace and democracy.


According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘power sharing’ entered the English language as a term in 1972 in conjunction with the short-lived settlement in Northern Ireland. Arend Lijphart, the foremost consociational power-sharing theorist, views power-sharing as a mechanism that secures the participation of representatives of all significant groups in political decision-making. Therefore, in an ethnically or religiously divided society, a power-sharing mechanism should ensure the involvement of elite political representatives of ethno-religious groups from all significant ethno-religious groups in making governmental decisions.

According to the proponents of the power-sharing strategy, under proper conditions, as suggested seven conditions, can favour the success of power-sharing institutions. Those conditions are: having an elite dominance over their groups to facilitate the successful implementation of the power-sharing agreement; the existence of a culture of accommodation similar to Switzerland, Netherlands and Belgium in which groups find negotiated settlements to their disagreements rather than resort to conflict; a sincere commitment from all stakeholders to honour the power-sharing agreement; having the state strength to secure an effective and legitimate government and administrative bureaucracy; having economic prosperity and equality that facilitates a proper redistributive justice system; maintaining a stable demographics among groups as any change may affect the proportional system agreed in the power-sharing agreement; and the existence of a constructive relationship with the international community. 

It is easy to understand that Sri Lanka does not have many conditions that favour the success of a power-sharing agreement. As critiques of the power-sharing strategy view, in ethnically divided societies, few, if any, of these conditions are typically present at the end of conflicts – particularly after intense civil wars. 

Contemporary realities

Raj proposes, ‘Rather than a debate on who came first and who lived where a solution based on contemporary realities would be more beneficial for the current and future generations.’ However, suppose Raj aims to find a solution based on contemporary realities. In that case, he will never suggest a resolution based on sharing power, as it is a counterproductive mechanism, as evident.

What happened in many of the power-sharing regimes is that power-sharing gives power to the ethno-religious elite from parties and groups that contributed to creating, maintaining, or ending ethno-religious conflicts. Therefore, the power they would be given enhances these elites’ capabilities to press for more radical demands, especially once the violent phase of the conflict is over and peace is in place. These capabilities give opportunity and power to these elites to escalate the conflict in ways that can threaten democracy and peace. This is evident in most of the conflict theatres, especially after severe conflicts such as civil wars.

Arend Lijphart, the foremost theorist of consociational power-sharing in 2002, listed 16 consociational power-sharing regimes in the 20th century. Yet, Philip G. Roeder shows that three of these cases mentioned by Lijphart (Suriname 1958-1973), Netherlands Antilles (1950-1985), and Northern Ireland (1999-1999) were not independent states, and four more (Austria 1945-1966, Netherlands 1917-1967, Luxemburg 1917-1967, and Colombia 1958-1974) were not ethnically divided societies, Czechoslovakia’s four-year experiment with power-sharing (1989-1993) ended in the partition of the country, Cyprus’s (1960-1963) and Lebanon’s (1945-1975) experiments ended in civil wars, Malaysia’s (1955-1969) experiment with power-sharing was particularly rocky: The Malaysia federation saw session (or expulsion) of one ethnically distinct region (Singapore) and only strong-arm tactics prevented the secession of the ethnically distinct Sabah state. Malaysia’s consociational government ended in widespread ethnic violence, Fiji’s one-year experiment (1999-2000) ended in a military coup, South Africa’s (1994-1996) ended in a peaceful slide into majoritarianism, and only three consociational regimes in ethnically divided societies have reportedly survived – Switzerland (1943 -), Belgium (1970 -), and India (1947 -). 

Therefore, it is understandable that contemporary realities do not favour a power-sharing solution. Despite many attempts to portray power-sharing as a practical peace and democracy-building mechanism for Sri Lanka, the power-sharing strategy has been unsuccessful. 

The perils of power-sharing

Researchers who evaluated the success of the power-sharing strategy, such as Donald Rothchild and Philip G. Roeder, observed seven conditions that threaten the consolidation of peace and democracy in power-sharing regimes: power-sharing mechanism limits democracy as it deviates from competitive practices of political decision-making – the accepted norm of Western democracies; power-sharing institutions empower the leaders of the ethnic groups with means to challenge the power-sharing agreement, weapons such as vetoes; as the power-sharing strategy focuses on the interethnic allocation of power and resources and only adopts the principle of proportionality in doing so, it was often debated whether the rules of proportionality disadvantage one or the other group unfairly; the ‘second generation problem’ which is even whether ethnic elites are initially sincere in their commitments to power-sharing, the emergence of more radical leaders in the same group tends to put the initial commitment away as it was evident in Serbian power-sharing experience; as the power-sharing institutions are designed to expand the representativeness of the state, this representativeness comes at the cost of more significant governmental inefficiency; as the power-sharing strategy freezes a status quo when entering the agreement, institutions tend to be inflexible and unable to adapt to rapidly changing social conditions during a period of transition; and it is extremely difficult to enforce the rules of a power-sharing agreement against opportunistic behaviour of the ethnic leaders of significant groups of the accord. 

If this is the reality, the proponents who push for a power-sharing resolution for Sri Lanka are either unaware of the perils of power-sharing or lying, maybe with ulterior motives. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, on 22 November 2022, told President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament, “Tell the truth to the Sinhala people that the federal path is the only solution to the ethnic question in Sri Lanka… He should not hesitate to tell the Sinhalese people. Federalism is not separation. Quite the contrary.” Was not Gajendrakumar either unaware of the perils of power-sharing, or was not he lying? 

The myth of a plural society 

Raj also holds a narrow perception of diversity, like the other proponents of power-sharing. He limits ‘diversity’ only to recognising cultural diversity and everything associated with that diversity. A society comprises people with many identities; some are cultural identities such as ethnicity, religion, or language. Some are non-cultural identities, such as the identity of professional groups, occupation-related identities, etc. A society has multiple identities. Yet, Raj proposes to uphold diversity by suppressing the rest of the identities to recognise the most vexatious identity, in the Sri Lankan case, ethnicity. 

Can Raj or other proponents of power-sharing celebrate the diversity proposed by the power-sharing mechanism as genuine? In such a model, ethnic identity with a numerical majority dominates over any different identity in Sri Lankan society. It, therefore, does not recognise principles of equality and diversity or the fundamentals of a plural society. It is evident that Raj also believes the same myth that the proponents of power-sharing believe, “power-sharing brings a plural society”. 

A second chamber 

To find a fresh approach, Raj proposes, as an interim solution, to establish a second chamber comprised of representatives from Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims with the power to veto to block bills that impinge on the equal rights of ethnic groups. However, nothing is fresh in that approach as Raj proposes the same ‘Grand Coalition’ of a power-sharing regime that uses ethnicity to select representatives to the chamber. Does it secure the fundamentals of a plural society? Or does it suppress other cultural and non-cultural identities to give a dominant status to ethnicity?

Yet, Raj portrays a rosy picture of the proposed second chamber’s role: It could bring all communities together via ethnic representatives, according to Raj’s beliefs. This is instead a wish than a rationale expectation, as the power-sharing experience shows that even having a Grand Coalition or a second chamber could not sustain peace and democracy in power-sharing regimes. 

So, what fresh evidence can Raj suggest convincing readers that a second chamber as an interim mechanism will not result in counterproductive effects? So far, nothing afresh has come, even in the global context.


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