The Popular Uprising in Sri Lanka – What Next?

Guest post by MAYA JOHN

People converge at the Presidential building in Colombo, July 9, Photo: @UnionProtect/ Twitter, courtesy greenleft.org.au

A powerful Sri Lankan people’s movement, Janatha Aragalaya, has shattered the legitimacy of the ruling establishment of the country and has come to pose a serious challenge to the imperialist powers that have been backing the corrupt regime. Functioning from the Colombo’s Galle Face and numerous other centres which have surfaced across towns and villages, the movement amply reveals that the Sri Lankan people are questioning the misuse of the popular mandate by the country’s ruling elites. One can easily glean that the people’s aspirations go beyond the simply dethroning a few powerful politicians.

Significantly, the people’s movement is at a crucial crossroad, and the current conjuncture in Sri Lanka bears a close resemblance to the condition of dual power that emerged in the Russian empire in 1917 wherein the bankrupt political system – embodied in the provisional government comprising of disparate political forces – vied for legitimacy and authority with the soviets, i.e., people’s assemblies which had mushroomed across the war-torn empire. Importantly, the Russian people threw in their lot with the soviets, paving the way for a new form of society, economy, and polity.

As history would have it, the Sri Lankan regime and state apparatus is up against a similar legitimacy crisis as demands for power to the people resonate in many quarters of the ongoing people’s movement. Two centres of competing power have emerged in the country: the legal, though illegitimate, power of the ruling elites, and the legitimate power of the people which resonates from the streets. At one level, having lost their legitimacy, the ruling elites are in the persistent effort to delegitimise the people’s movement. To better comprehend the present conjuncture and situation of deadlock, it is important to trace how the country has arrived at such circumstances.

The extraordinary situation is one that has been traced to a multitude of economic problems plaguing the country; many of which have been building up for a decade or more under successive corrupt regimes. Protests first erupted in rural areas in 2021 as the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government failed to stem the tide of falling foreign currency reserves, leading to a much-criticized ban on the imports of chemical fertilizers. The ban has affected the incomes of small farmers and overall agricultural output. In more recent months, the country has been confronted by a deepening crisis in the supply of fuel, cooking gas, electricity, medicines, food, and other staple items. Media reports of the past few months are replete with worrying images of people queuing up for gas cylinders. We have even learnt of exhausted citizens dying while waiting in long serpentine queues at fuel stations. Such a desperate situation has expectedly triggered mass discontent and regular protests since March 2022.

As conditions of everyday life moved from bad to worse, the question of large-scale corruption and concentration of power in the office of the President has repeatedly surfaced. People have also come to question the complicity of Parliament. On April 28, workers across the public and private sectors launched a general strike, the first of its kind in 40 years. Another general strike followed on May 6. These marked a crucial development in a country that has witnessed the organised trade union movement peter out following a spate of brutal government crackdowns in the early 1980s. Workers, as part of the general strikes, demanded an increase in wages in the light of rising inflation, as well as the stepping down of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for mismanaging the escalating economic plight of the country.

Agitations have repeatedly erupted this year in waves, and have even mobilized the support of the urban middle classes. This is not surprising, given the skyrocketing inflation. Annual inflation reached 54.6 percent while food inflation touched 80 percent in June 2022. Further, the value of the Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by roughly 80 percent, which has drastically eaten into people’s purchasing power. An acute shortage of foreign currency and defaulting on loans extended by foreign lending agencies has ensured that the country is incapable of purchasing many staple items from the world market. In the face of these acute economic hardships and the soaring cost of living, students are reportedly dropping out of schools and universities.

While the economic problems have had their differential impacts, they have nonetheless paved the way for the amalgamation of mass discontent. The resulting people’s movement has become a pole of attraction because it has managed to galvanise the popular aspiration. The current political system is the prime target because it has become the basis for rampant exploitation of labouring masses and for the acute alienation of the middle classes. In this way, different sections of society and their distinct aspirations are knit together in the ongoing movement by a common distrust for all those in power, i.e., a distrust for the ruling elites like the President, Prime Minister, and opposition parties.

Importantly, the distrust of the people is not simply with respect to individual politicians and ruling cliques whose moral right to govern is being openly challenged but is a latent distrustfor the system itself. This is evident in the movement’s successful occupation of the seat of power in Colombo, and more so in its demands. Within a short period of time, the aragalaya has transitioned from initially demanding for the resignation of the President, “Gota Gedera Yanu,” to demanding for the resignation of all 225 parliamentarians, “225 Ma Gedera Yanu”. In the consciousness of the majority of people, the current Parliament has lost its mandate due to the sheer fact that it has not prevented the use of draconic measures by the executive presidency and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. At this conjuncture, the public rightfully views all established parties with deep suspicion and hostility.

As the people deliberate on the new phase of the movement, the corrupt means and underhand dealings of the ruling elites continue to unfold. The recent months are filled with political intrigue. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fearing arrest, fled the country on July 12, and only subsequently proceeded to email his resignation as earlier announced. While in exile, he can be expected to try and call the shots through his party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Similarly, the rot in the given political system was revealed in May 2022 when a new Prime Minister took charge. The groundswell of people’s protests propelled the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is, notably, also the brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. At this juncture, the ruling clique hand-picked a new Prime Minister not from within the ranks of the ruling coalition but an opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has a long history in Sri Lankan politics and is the blue-eyed boy of the imperialist funding agency, the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This so-called change of guard was a strategic move of the Rajapaksa clan and their dubious partners in the ruling alliance to assuage the public anger whilst keeping intact their political clout. Being the sole member in the Parliament from the now washed away political party, the United National Party (UNP), Wickremesinghe has expectedly had no backing except that of the ruling clique which installed him as the new Prime Minister. His party fared poorly in the 2020 elections and for the first time since 1977, Wickremesinghe lost from the seat that he contested, making it to the Parliament only in late 2021 due to the UNP’s cumulative national vote. Thus, beholden to and dependent on the SLPP who promoted him, he has played a pliant role as Prime Minister, and represents an important go-between the corrupt Sri Lankan government and imperialist powers like the IMF, America, and other wary foreign capitalist funders.

Dual Power: Cunning Politicians and Struggling People

Currently, the nefarious dealings of politicians and their corruption are laid bare for all to see. Leaders of opposition parties and of the ruling alliance are hectically navigating their rivalries in the desperate bid to install an interim all-party government which can slowly steer the situation back to the status quo. Their opaque negotiations on the candidature for President openly clash with the people’s questioning of the authoritarian executive presidency system. Indeed, the manoeuvres of the existing parliamentarians to vote in a new President through a ‘secret’ ballot on July 19 marks the persistent rendering of the people as inert, and is an act of dismissal of the people’s aspirations. Can the fact be overlooked that it is the first time in the country’s history that a President has fled, and the Parliament votes for a new President? A delegitimised institution will, of course, produce an illegitimate and questionable authority. Given the behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity aimed at stabilising capitalist rule via a pliant regime that is pro-austerity measures, there is a significant likelihood of the Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe being elected President. To remain politically relevant, he will expectedly continue to cooperate with the largest party in the Parliament, the Rajapaksas’ SLPP.

Clearly, the current political system has been completely shaken, yet it illegitimately still maintains itself in order to represent not the interest and aspirations of the people but to espouse the entrenched interest of domestic and foreign capitalists. Here, of course, arises the question as to what is the legitimacy of a Parliament that has been constituted as per a Constitution which has itself been used against the people. When people arose to raise their voice and wanted to be heard, all measures were taken against them under the current Constitution. Without a doubt, the aragalaya has emerged in spite of the Constitution, rendering the latter as obsolescent. In this light, any parliamentary alignment only enhances the disrepute of established political parties and leads to further erosion and disintegration of whatever little prestige they have left in the eyes of some sections of society.

Desperate to install an interim all-party government, the ruling elites and their mouthpieces in the mainstream media warn of ‘anarchy’. Ironically, for them ‘normalcy’ is a political system wherein a politician whose party acquired just single seat in Parliament can be throned Prime Minister and possibly even the President. For them, normalcy evidently lies in the Sri Lankan economy entering a vortex of economic crises due to a pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist ‘bail-out’/‘relief’ package. In fact, for any status-quoist ready to label the discontent of the people as ‘chaos’, hapless citizens dying in serpentine long queues for fuel and ration is nothing but orderliness and normality! In real terms, their defence of the current Constitution and a political system built on it is nothing but the defence of the authoritarian state, corporate loot, and rampant exploitation of the labouring masses. What the political and media establishment conveniently project as ‘anarchy’ is the people’s questioning of an authoritarian political structure like the executive presidency, the constructive effort of the people to go beyond the status quo by denying corrupt politicians the right to decide the fate of the country, and the resilient endeavour to build anew. Contrary to the assessment of the forces of status quo, this is perhaps the most productive and meaningful phase of Sri Lankan history as its people destabilise an edifice that has been nefariously built on corruption; pro-capitalist economic policies dictated by imperialist forces and indigenous corporate houses; and divisive politics along ethnic and religious lines.    

The hollowness of the ruling elites’ promises of stability, and their toxic labelling of the people’s movement as ‘anarchy’ can hardly conceal the fact that whatever its composition, an interim government if formed, will be intrinsically unstable from its inception and unacceptable to the people. Deeply divided and fractured, Rajapaksa’s party, the SLPP, holds the largest number of seats in the 225-member Parliament. Given this, and the fact that opposition parties themselves are highly divided and tainted, a shallow exercise of introducing cosmetic political reforms and the gradual return to the status quo under an interim government looms large.

This brings us to the question of defining, in concrete terms, the status quo, as well as the more crucial question of what constitutes as the tangible alternative; the glimmer of which we have seen in the deliberations of the ongoing people’s movement.

The status quo, embodied in the incumbent representative system, has intrinsically undermined the will of the people and their concrete interests while simultaneously allowing the ruling elites to concentrate power in their hands. In effect, routine elections and representative constitutional political institutions built on them are accompanied by the disempowerment of people and denial of real self-rule. To elucidate, Sri Lanka shed its dominion status and transitioned into a republic in 1972. The country has seen a constitutional political order take root; first around a parliamentary system and later around an executive presidency system. As per the 1978 Constitution, people elect a President and members to 196 seats out of the 225 seats in the Parliament. The President, as head of the state, acts as the chief executive of the union government, and has essentially come to enjoy extensive executive powers as well as veto powers. The Sri Lankan Parliament, meanwhile, exercises legislative authority. The elections to the 196 seats are based on 22 to 25 electoral districts. The exact number of electoral districts and apportionment of share of different electoral districts is decided by the Election Commission from time to time. Apportion of the remaining 29 parliamentary seats is distributed among the recognised political parties and independent groups contesting the elections, depending on their cumulative national vote shares, i.e., following the proportionate representation formula.

The point to note is that this overall process and the resulting government formation renders people powerless every five years. Having cast their vote in routine elections, the people are subsequently alienated from decision-making. Denying citizens the right to recall representatives from any level of government, and divesting them of any role in the executive and legislative functioning of the government, a constitutional representative framework has come to exist in which elected parliamentarians act not as delegates of the people. It is largely up to them to represent their electors as they please. In other words, they are not delegates mandated by the views of the electorate. This is precisely why elected representatives tendentially concentrate power in their hands and use it to fulfil their own private ambitions, as well as to collude with the wealthy and powerful.

The country’s past is rife with the repeated silencing of the people’s will and crushing of their aspirations. Soon after attaining formal ‘independence’ from the British colonists in 1948, the UNP government abolished the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Indian-origin plantation workers at the behest of foreign plantation owners, in the bid to divide the labouring masses along ethnic lines, and thereby, bolster the economic might of capitalists. When the labouring masses, fighting various austerity measures of the government, organised the famous 1953 “hartal”, the mass movement was brutally suppressed, with opposition parties using the ripples created simply for parliamentary manoeuvrings and for pushing for fresh elections. The pathetic conditions faced by workers and the rural poor since then, including decades of anti-Tamil communalism and civil war, are the result of this historic betrayal. Colombo’s political life may no longer be dominated by the UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), like it was till recent times, for both parties have now dwindled to vestiges. Yet, their place has been taken by new equally problematic political parties that prey on Sinhala nationalism, ethnic differences, religion, and breed majoritarianism.

Beyond the deadlock

The whole talk of an interim government and selection of a new President by the Parliament is a political trap. The people’s movement needs to steer clear of this trap. Recognising this, the people’s struggle continues despite high profile resignations and talk of a ‘new’ government being ushered in by July 20. A deadlock between competing powers is apparent. Realistically, the situation can go either way; we could see the reproduction of status quo as people are waylaid by the ‘promises’ made by an interim government as well as snap elections, or we may witness the building of a new political system by the people’s movement.

Needless to say, to resolve the deadlock there is need to dissolve the status quo and to build a new alternative. The alternative must be one which not only addresses the immediate economic plight of the country, but also exposes how these problems are rooted in the way in which the economy is organised. Indeed, can Sri Lankans afford to overlook the mounting precarity of the labouring masses and how the government’s austerity agenda – to be ushered in at the behest of the IMF – would essentially make the working people pay for a deepening economic crisis while keeping intact the interests of local and foreign capitalists? As per 2021 data, the richest 10 percent strata of Sri Lankan society own 63.8 percent of the country’s total wealth, while the bottom 50 percent strata of society own a miniscule 4.3 percent of the total wealth. The income disparity is markedly further skewed: while the poor toil away to sustain the economy, the rich amass the wealth and poor accumulate miseries. The time has come to enforce an alternative in which there is reappropriation of the wealth created by the labouring poor.

Further, the present conjuncture demands an alternative which completely replaces the way in which the political system exists to keep the common people, the labouring masses, voiceless. The alternative, imperatively, manifests itself in the evolution of a new democratic system and the institutionalization of the people’s will through establishment of people’s assemblies across the country. The people’s assemblies in the cities, towns and villages should be empowered to decide upon the most pressing issues in the country. Moreover, their power should be supreme, and the Parliament should only be a representative body to manage the affairs of the country in consultation with the people’s assemblies. Such a restructured democratic framework would empower the people’s assemblies to summon and suspend their representatives in Parliament. Also, these assemblies should have legislative power to make or repeal laws for the country by the criterion that the majority of such bodies decide to do so.

A new democratic polity of Sri Lanka is not guaranteed by the mere act of framing a new Constitution under an interim government comprising of a sizeable component of existing ruling elites. Neither can the rights of the people be concretised without transforming the economy; a process which demands the active participation of the common masses in policy framing. Presently, the balance of forces is favourable to strategic use of the current conjuncture to transform the system in a revolutionary direction, so that there is not simply a change of degree in people’s life but a change in kind. For the struggling people of Sri Lanka, a better future lies in a revolutionary Constitution whose provisions embody and institutionalise a completely new political system, as well as the roadmap of a reorganised economy and society.    

Maya John teaches at the University of Delhi, India. She has been part of the Left movement for around two decades. Email: maya.john85@gmail.com

One thought on “The Popular Uprising in Sri Lanka – What Next?”

  1. Thanks for this in-depth analysis. Hope other South Asian countries learn a valid lesson from Sri Lanka.

    Like

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