he power grab and subsequent events over the last ten days are but the culmination of a plan of action that Mahinda Rajapaksa put into place following his defeat at the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections of 2015. The strategy was one of disruption of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government and power consolidation through mobilisation and elections, including a major victory at the local government elections in February this year.
The success of Rajapaksa’s strategy is also, thanks to the failures of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, within a political environment susceptible to and set up for disruption.
From the outset, and including after the Parliamentary Elections of August 2015, the Unity Government has disregarded its promises to the public.
Over the last four years, the trade and financial liberalisation policies carried forward by the Rajapaksa regime were accelerated, placing the national economy and working peoples’ lives in a precarious situation.
Instead of putting forward a coherent political vision towards strengthening the democratic body politic of State and society by, for example through Constitutional reform, the political bickering between the Wickremesinghe led UNP and Sirisena’s faction of the SLFP led to rising political instability.
The economic troubles and the political instability constituting the crisis facing the country today has many aspects. I focus here on three facets of this crisis, particularly shrinking democratic space, ethnic polarisation and economic dispossession.
Regardless of the criticisms, one may have of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government from 2015 to its recent collapse, one undeniable characteristic of this period was the tremendous opening of democratic space.
The decades of war and the authoritarian post-war years under Rajapaksa undermined freedoms of expression and association. Protests were brutally suppressed, dissent was silenced and the media came under attack, all amidst a climate of fear.
Although student and trade union protests continued to be dealt with harshly by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, the fear of extrajudicial means of repression had, for the most part, receded in recent years.
By democratic space, I mean the political environment that is conducive and enabling of peoples’ direct participation and action, including struggles and protests.
In the North and East, the opening of democratic space in January 2015 was akin to night and day.
From militarised surveillance where people felt wary to even speak in small meetings, the climate of fear dramatically lifted and protests and struggles emerged on a range of issues.
While the Government may not have addressed the demands of such struggles, the right to protest has contributed greatly to the security and dignity of the minorities in the country.
The question is whether another period of Rajapaksa rule may lead to the shutting down of this democratic space.
It was the Tamil communities in the war-torn regions and the Muslim communities throughout the country that faced the brunt of repression under the Rajapaksa regime.
A Constitutional political solution was dismissed by the Rajapaksas claiming that mega development was the answer to the grievances of the minorities.
State power was usurped by the Executive Presidency with the passing of the 18th Amendment even as the militarization of civil administration, particularly governance of the war-torn regions and urban development throughout the country came under the security apparatuses. Instead of fostering co-existence in the post-war environment, communities were polarised to consolidate the power of the Rajapaksa regime.
An ideological war was initiated against the Muslim community making them the scapegoats for economic woes. Violence including riots was instigated against Muslim shops and businesses. Drawing on global and regional Islamophobia, the crass attacks placed the Muslim community in a terrible state of fear. While the regime change in 2015 did not succeed in addressing the grievances of the minorities and did not mean an end towards the violence against Muslims, at the very least there was recognition of addressing such concerns at the policy level. The efforts towards drafting a new Constitution and the various reconciliation mechanisms set a trajectory conducive for dialogue. In this context, the stalling Constitutional reform process and meagre progress in addressing the legacy of war-time abuses as well as the failure to prevent more recent anti-Muslim violence, have been both causes and symptoms of increasing ethnic polarisation over the last two years.
The Joint Opposition led by Rajapaksa in no small measure contributed to such polarisation, and the logical question to ask is how their divisive nationalist politics will impact minorities if they consolidate state power.
The political crisis that we face today is very much linked to the economic instability and crisis that has troubled the country over recent months but has a longer trajectory spanning a few decades.
The broader economic policies taken forward by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government were not very different from the Rajapaksa Government. Urban development concentrated in Colombo, plans for an international financial centre, financialised sovereign loans, mega development projects with Chinese support and even free trade agreements, particularly with India, were all initiated under the Rajapaksa Government.
Rising indebtedness as a result of financialisation, ruined livelihoods due to neglect of agriculture and fisheries, investment in large infrastructure over small industries, have all contributed to the dispossession of the working people. Their cost of living has been rising while incomes have fallen with many out of work.
In the past, both Governments have sought the support of voters through populist measures prior to elections. As we approach a year of elections, the UNP’s Colombo-centred view of the economy and the anti-incumbent mood among the population are likely to translate into greater support for Rajapaksa who is pledging to solve the economic problems of the people.
"The economy, which should be critically debated in the run-up to the next round of elections, will once again be displaced by the recent manoeuvre, where the upcoming provincial, general and presidential elections, are likely to focus on personalities, betrayal and corruption"
This will not happen, as Rajapaksa’s economic policies are no different in substance, with the continuation of Sri Lanka’s neoliberal integration with global markets and finance capital.
The 2015 election ousted the Rajapaksa regime through a protest vote. The election debate then focused on challenging authoritarianism did not seriously address economic concerns, and reduced any discussion of the economy to corruption and nepotism.
The economy, which should be critically debated in the run-up to the next round of elections, will once again be displaced by the recent manoeuvre, where the upcoming Provincial, Parliamentary and Presidential Elections, are likely to focus on personalities, betrayal and corruption.
In the near term, the Programme for Economic Revival (2 November 2018), released by the Finance Ministry under its new leadership, outlines measures including subsidies and tax relief that will be provided at the behest of President Sirisena and newly appointed Finance Minister Rajapaksa.
These measures stick to IMF dictates and aim to boost investor confidence through measures of fiscal consolidation. They will merely disrupt ongoing development projects and transfer capital expenditure allocated in the 2018 Budget towards populist measures to shore up support.
Instability and crisis will be costly for the economy, and in the absence of a credible economic vision,those costs will only be transferred to the people.
State power consolidation under a Rajapaksa regime will make it much easier to implement Neoliberal Policies that require repressive State power, including those of further financialisation and privatisation, than was for the weak Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government.
As the tussle for power continues with forces aligned to Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa and Sirisena, what would a progressive path of engagement look like?
While we all know the limitations of our parliamentarians who are often up for sale, the parliament should be reconvened immediately. Parliament is often the first line of defence before peoples’ rights are abused, and the manoeuvre to hand Rajapaksa a government needs to be challenged in Parliament and on the streets.
For those who say that Rajapaksa will be different this time around, there is nothing to suggest this given his leadership of the Joint Opposition and the absence of self-criticism about his authoritarian stint in power.
In fact, the deterioration of our political culture including in parliament and the politicisation of state institutions to a large measure are consequences of the decade-long rule of the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime.
Wickremesinghe has failed as Prime Minister consistently, from his short stint in power that ended in 2003 to the current term. His politics and policies only elicit popular contempt.
It is high time the UNP holds its leadership responsible for its failures and prepares a leadership capable of dealing with the worrying times ahead.
The TNA led by Sampanthan abdicated its role as formal Opposition when it failed to oppose the attacks on the student movement and trade union struggles over the last few years. The TNA itself and its constituencies are facing the prospect of fragmentation, with its leadership done little to mobilise its base in recent times.
Former Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V. Wigneswaran and other narrow Tamil nationalist forces are gleeful at the current crisis, as their fortunes depend on further ethnic polarisation, but their suicidal politics drawing on the legacy of the LTTE will only setback the Tamil community.
Presidente Sirisena has come a full circle from challenging Rajapaksa in 2015 to delivering him a government.
"For those who say that Rajapaksa will be different this time around, there is nothing to suggest this given his leadership of the Joint Opposition and the absence of self-criticism about his authoritarian stint in power. In fact, the deterioration of our political culture including in parliament and the politicisation of state institutions to a large measure are consequences of the decade-long rule of the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime"
His role and power are likely to be drastically reduced as the unified SLFP consolidates under Rajapaksa and he increasingly faces the ire of those opposed to Rajapaksa. History will judge Sirisena harshly for this manoeuvre, especially for letting down his mandate from the people for a democratic change.
The citizenry cannot depend on any of these personalities and for that matter their party machines, which have been self-serving.
Nor are international actors sitting on their high horses with their share of dirt in their stables going to provide an answer. If anything, a national political crisis only enables international actors to manipulate the country. The international actors who seem so opposed to Rajapaksa today will fall in line if he consolidates power and toes the Neoliberal line.
Moreover, their visible opposition to Rajapaksa at this critical juncture will only strengthen his Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalist base, who claim to “save the nation”.
This is where the media get it so wrong—the current moment cannot be reduced to the acts of national leaders and international actors.
Against the odds, it is once again time to grapple with difficult questions. We need to ensure that the space for democracy is not shut down, and find avenues to expand democratic space including through substantive debates about the state and the uses of state power.
Rebuilding fragile inter-ethnic relations are crucial even as we challenge the divisive politics of ethnic polarisation. Finally, a meaningful economic vision on the principles of equality and justice for the people who are still looking for relief in the North and South is urgent. If these concerns are raised in broad-based campaigns by peoples’ movements, in national debates and the upcoming elections, they may provide critical resistance to the consolidation of State power by a repressive regime.