Sri Lanka: Beginning of a new Dawn

Let us take the three factors differentiating 1994 from today – organizational strength in the campaign; institutional and individual failings in government; and new challenges facing the government and the country.

by Rajan Philips

The countrywide people’s protests and the November 16 Colombo political protest have made one thing clear. The Rajapaksa brand is now irreparably damaged in the Sri Lankan political market. The regime is not going to fall tomorrow. The 160/60 budget vote in parliament proves that. For all the turmoil in the country, the Opposition Leaders cannot make all their MPs vote against the government on a budget that everyone is laughing about. But there is no mistaking the beginning of the end for the Rajapaksa hold on state power. The fall will be softened if the end and the exit are democratic and constitutional. It will turn hard and violent if extra-constitutional methods are unwisely deployed to stay in power by putting down protests. Such methods are foredoomed to fail in the end. The fury of the people is unmistakable and unstoppable. And in Sri Lanka’s social formations with myriads of kinship and old-school ties, the soldiers are more socialized than the state is militarized. Military-led Task Forces notwithstanding!

At the same time, the beginning of the end for the Rajapaksas is not automatically the start of a new beginning for the country. The prospects of the decline and fall of the Rajapaksa dynasty have triggered prognostications about who is best positioned to pick up the reins after the newest dynasty fall. In particular, the Colombo protest rally defying all attempts by the government to scuttle it, has inspired a flurry of commentaries and predictions on the political fortunes of Sajith Premadasa. In fact, the commentaries about him, be they for or against, are more cutting and colorful than what the man himself has to say about himself or his politics.

Contenders and Pretenders

Of all the opposition detractors of the regime, Mr. Premadasa has the largest parliamentary contingent and electoral following. But he is yet to make a convincing impact on the people about his own self-belief and political intentions. Among other contenders, if not pretenders, Champika Ranawaka is by far the biggest self-believer in his own qualifications, credentials, and even destiny, to become President – one day. But he also has the thinnest of a political base or presidential launch pad. The JVP/NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has been consistently scoring high marks among seasoned political observers and politically sensitized middle classes – including those who would rather have him not say anything about socialism. Recently, he has even exorcised the JVP of its 1980s (second coming) past. How that will reward the JVP in an election is still a known unknown.

Speculations and contentions are rife about who should/would take the lead in the emerging vacuum and how ‘new’ alliances are likely to be formed. There is something common about these speculations, and it is also the same thing that is missing from them. More often than not, speculations are predicated on past political experiences, on one or more versions and interpretations of past experiences. This is inevitable in political commentary and analysis. You look (longitudinally) to the past for comparison, and/or (cross-sectionally) to other societies for similarities and differences. But at times, past comparisons are becoming ‘period narratives’ of historical parallels, akin to period (historical) dramas in television entertainment.

What seems to be getting missed, or not sufficiently emphasized, is the specific set of current circumstances in Sri Lanka. Some of them are even unique, either when looked back to the past, or looked across among other societies. Apart from commentators, and among frontline political leaders, only Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Champika Ranawaka come anywhere close to formulating anything substantial in interpreting the current situation and suggesting a response to it. This is quite different from the 1950s and 1960s when Sri Lanka’s parliament dominated the national discourses on politics, political economy, and yes, the constitution. The Hansard then was the go-to reference book for academics and journalists. Now, what is produced in parliament might be too toxic to qualify even for the President’s organic fertilizer specifications. And the challenges facing parliament and the country are far more daunting than what they were facing then.

Even as parallels go, it would be a stretch to see parallels between now and say 1964 or 1970, if not 1977. When a Political Scientist contrived a parallel between SWRD Bandaranaike’s electoral defeat in 1952 and Sajith Premadasa’s in 2019, an Emeritus Engineering Professor dismissed it as trying to find parallels between skew lines in 3-D space! Inasmuch as we are discussing the displacement of the Rajapaksa alliance potentially by a new alliance led by Sajith Premadasa, it is possible to see some similarities between 1994 regime change and what might happen as the final act in the current scenario. There are also significant differences.

1994 and 2021

In 1994, the UNP government after 17 years in power was long past toppling time. The UNP had accomplished many significant feats – a new constitution, the open economy, accelerated Mahaweli development, countrywide housing schemes, Test Cricket status etc. Many of them were controversial, not all of them beneficial, and some of them patently harmful. After 1994, the SLFP, its offshoots and their allies have been in power for 27 years, but with a clear internal break that came about in 2005. For eleven years between 1994 and 2005, it was Chandrika Kumaratunga who was at the helm, and she has been the only President in 43 years of the presidential system, to serve two full elected terms and retire in accordance with JRJ’s Constitution.

From 2005 to the present, it has been the Rajapaksa dynasty, and if President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were to serve out his full term till 2024/25, the dynasty would have lasted a full twenty years, including the five-year yahapalana interregnum. In fairness, this is only President GR’s second year of his first term. But he has come at the tail end of a tired family tenure. And although his admirers have been expecting him to magically rejuvenate the family, its power and, as a side effect, even the country, President Rajapaksa is presiding over withering family power and a suffering country. As in 1994, it is getting to be past toppling time. But there is a difference. There is no People’s Alliance or anything that can be seen as a parallel.

What is crucially missing is not the absence of a figure like Chandrika Kumaratunga who was seized by charisma in 1994 and led the PA to spectacular victories. What is crucial in missing is the groundswell of politics that sustained the People’s Alliance as a movement and energized its electoral machinery at every level and in every corner in the country. In his “Analysis of the Southern Provincial Council Election in 1994,” W. A. Wisva Warnapala recounts this dynamic and its effects in the South. They were successfully carried over to the presidential and the parliamentary election campaigns later that same year. There is no denying that President Kumaratunga’s achievements in office equally spectacularly fell short of her campaign promises. That disappointment 20 years ago raises key questions for the campaigns of today.

On the one hand, the organizational strength of the PA is not there today. On the other, all the institutional and individual factors that led to President Kumaratunga’s failures are abundantly present and even multiplied today. And the challenges facing the government and the country today are far more severe than they have been for any previous government. What is unique to today’s circumstances is the anger of the people against the government, against its incompetence and its insensitivity. The government is on the ropes because of the people’s anger and their spontaneous protests. If the government’s impending fall is a given, what cannot be taken for granted is that those who replace the Rajapaksas will govern differently and start a new beginning for the country.

Let us take the three factors differentiating 1994 from today – organizational strength in the campaign; institutional and individual failings in government; and new challenges facing the government and the country. In building up its organizational strength, the PA benefited from the fact that its constituent parties have been out of government for 17 years, and from the presence of new faces among its frontline leaders. Neither is the case today. There are no new faces today. And the current opposition parties are tarnished by their association with the betrayals and blunders of the Yahapalana administration.

The Yahapalana experience also seems to be making it difficult for the opposition parties and leaders to work towards a new alliance. These shortcomings, even if an SJB-led alliance were to come to power eventually in one or the other of the next elections, will fuse with the overall institutional failings within the state apparatus and make a new government to be no different from the current government, or its immediate predecessors. It will be, as the Yogi Berra saying goes, “Deja vu all over again”!

Fundamentally, nothing will change until political parties stop behaving as if they are in the pre-1977 political system. As I have been arguing recently, there have to be changes in how political parties operate, how they nominate candidates for elections, and once elected how parties and MPs work together constructively in parliament. Simply put, nothing is going to work if political parties and parliamentarians are not prepared to work together between elections. In the current situation, this work should be started in the current parliament by opposition MPs before the next elections, if they are honest and serious about governing differently after the elections. Although Sri Lanka is world apart from Germany in political ethos and culture, it will be instructive for any serious Sri Lankan MP to look at recent developments in Germany.

After 16 years, Angela Merkel and her centre-right Christian Democrats are being replaced in government by a new ‘traffic-light coalition’ led by the centre-left Social Democratic Party (red), and including the environmental Greens (green) and the business-friendly Federal Democratic Party (amber). The process of coalition forming went on for two months since the elections on September 26, to strike a governing agreement running into 177 pages. The agreement, reportedly based on firm continuity and bold changes, will be presented for ratification by the general membership of the three parties before the new government can assume office. This is expected to be in the second week of December. No one rushed, and no one wanted more power, a new amendment, or a new constitution.

In 1994, the People’s Alliance campaigned promising a new constitution and the abolishing of the executive presidency. Today, the present government is insisting on producing a new constitution drafted by an outside Committee of Experts. The government has not explained why a new constitution is needed if it is going to retain the existing presidential system. The real question is if this government, given its record so far on everything it has touched, can be trusted with the task of producing a new constitution.

Even informed constitutional observers seem to be missing this danger. The opposition parties have not pro-actively challenged the need for a new constitution. Instead, they seem to be waiting to react to the government’s unilateral draft when it is presented in parliament for adoption. What is needed is not a new constitution, but changes to election laws which may require amendments to the constitution. The opposition parties must push for new election laws even though their leading lights have not much credibility left after their pathetic record in the yahapalana government.

As for the new challenges facing the country, public health, public finance, economic hardships and climate change effects are new problems that were not there even five years ago – on the current scale and with potential to get worse. The present government has clearly demonstrated that it does not have the wherewithal to deal with them. For that, the people have turned against the government. The opposition parties can take advantage of the people’s anger against the government. But what do they have to show as alternative approaches before they get their turn to govern? Until this question is answered there will be no start of a new beginning for the country. Only the beginning of the end for the old regime.

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