ver the last week, in Sri Lanka as in the United Kingdom, the United States and India, there is much talk of major court rulings, confidence motions, elections, referendum and impeachment. Such intense politics has led to further escalation of political moves and manoeuvres by those in power, but what are the plans of the left and progressive forces?
Trump and Brexit
British journalist Gary Younge has written an interesting article in the progressive US magazine The Nation titled, ‘Which Is Worse, Trump or Brexit?’ (www.thenation.com/article/trump-brexit-gary-younge/) Younge begins the article with a question usually posed to him about racism in the UK and the US, and says “it’s not morally possible to weigh up whose racism is better.” He claims that the last two years of heightened politics after the referendum on Brexit in the UK and the election of Trump in the US, have been around identity, immigration, sovereignty, patriotism and nostalgia, and worse about misogyny and xenophobia.
Younge goes on to argue that the left in opposing Brexit and Trump cannot merely call for a return to the status quo of few years back, as it is the economic and political problems in the past that allowed for the rise of such right wing politics. In other words, merely returning to the EU and the US under their neoliberal stewardship are not going to address the concerns of the British and American people. Rather, the need of the hour is to start from this crisis and chart a different path.
Many of the authoritarian, populist and nationalist regimes that have determined global politics in recent years are currently facing trouble. Trump faces many legal challenges with many of his top aides indicted or under scrutiny, and the prospect of impeachment hangs over US presidency. Similarly, May leads a fragile government on the brink of collapse, and is unsure of the consequences of an agreement with the EU on Brexit with even the possibility of a second referendum to reverse Brexit. Closer to home in India, Modi and his BJP have been hammered in the recent state elections, and his future as Prime Minister is at risk with the upcoming national elections in mid-2019.
Here in Sri Lanka, similar changes are in motion. President Sirisena’s manoeuvre and MahindaRajapaksa’s crooked entry as Prime Minister have failed. But is it merely a question of returning a Ranil Wickremesinghe government with little change in their policy direction? Was it not the four year-long failures of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government that strengthened the MR camp as evident from the local government elections in February this year. What would a new Wickremesinghe government do different?
There is a common strand between the US, UK, India and Sri Lanka, and for that matter many other countries prior to the rise of authoritarian, populist and conservative regimes. That is the tremendous dispossession with neoliberalism over the decades and the failures of successive governments in these countries to address the economic and social aspirations of their populations. Even with the escalating global economic crisis after 2008, the concerns of the rural, working and marginalised peoples have been forgotten allowing for right wing regimes to mount an offensive.
Changing the terrain
Many of the challenges to the right wing regimes have been through legal, parliamentary and electoral means. In other words, they have been moves that have relied on questioning their political legitimacy. But from history, we have seen that such right wing regimes when challenged have proven capable over time of mobilising their social bases and class forces against procedural aspects of democratic legitimacy. These social bases combined with class power, whether it is the Christian right and the Wall Street bankers, the anti-immigrant forces and the British neoliberals, or the Hindutva rump and the Indian conglomerates, have a history of shifting politics through financial power, mass mobilisations and even violence on the streets. When such attacks are unleashed the liberal democrats cow down.
In Sri Lanka, it has to begin by reversing the disastrous turn with the JR regime in 1978, which saw the amassing of state power under the executive presidency and the launch of neoliberal economic policies.
The impact of that historic shift on the trade union movement are captured in a statement on December 7, 2018 titled, ‘Abolish the Executive Presidency Now!’ signed by T.M.R. Rasseedin, Deputy General Secretary, for the Ceylon Federation of Labour:
“The working class has always realized the dangers of the Executive Presidency having experienced first-hand how it could be used to undermine attempts by the working class to protect its rights and achieve better living standards for itself. The Executive Presidency which was used to suppress trade union protests through strong-arm tactics resulted in the death of Comrade Somapala. The July 1980 Strike saw the overnight firing of over 40,000 workers, Trade Union offices being sealed and bank accounts of unions on strike made inoperative. Workers were not paid the salaries due to them for the month they had already worked.
The Government successfully broke the back of the strikers and gave the trade union movement in the country a lasting blow from which it has still not fully recovered. The private sector employers took advantage of the situation to get rid of all those who joined the July 1980 Strike.The full force of the Executive Presidency had been used throughout its existence to fight the legitimate demands of the working class. The powers were used to suppress the trade union struggle against the introduction of a spurious pension Bill in 2011 that resulted in the death of a young worker.
The agitation of the people of Rathupasswala for clean water was put down with brute force resulting in the deaths of three protestors. The leader of the fisherfolk campaign for the restoration of the fuel subsidy that was withdrawn was gunned down. The Presidential system allowed monkeying with the judiciary to undermine trade union struggles as was seen during the port strike, trade union actions of teachers, railway employees, health sector workers, etc.”
If we are to think and plan even broader – to address the undemocratic attacks on the minorities, the dispossession of the rural people and the rising inequality in the country – the year ahead with elections requires shifting the debate towards abolishing the Executive Presidency and reversing the onslaught of neoliberal policies including those of financialisation, free trade and privatisation. Economic power and political decision making should be brought closer to the people through strengthening the social welfare system and greater powers to the provincial and local governments.
But the struggle for such a progressive programme will be met with the divisive politics of ethnic polarisation and nationalist mobilisations as well as dismembering the rural, estate and working class constituencies through political patronage. Therefore, any serious effort at such a progressive programme from the outset has to focus on rebuilding inter-ethnic relations in parallel with solidarity among the marginalised classes.