By Dayan Jayatilleka –
We are sitting on a massive, active, rumbling volcano which will explode soon. What we saw on May 9th was the first spewing of lava.
The causes are quite well-known and must be addressed but the most pressing threat is that the combination of unprecedented material hardship, perception of privilege, understandable rage and the determined anarchism of ultra-left forces will soon trigger a tsunami of a violent uprising which will overwhelm the state, the economy and society.
Given the background of the organized drivers of the violent anarchy, and their vengeful memories, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces will also be in danger if the wave overruns the system.
Certainly, we have faced such challenges before, in 1971, 1987-1989 and the 30-years-war. We came through, prevailed. However, we cannot rely on the same outcome this time because of at least three reasons.
Firstly, as Leon Trotsky said “the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of leadership”. Sri Lankan democracy does not have the quality of leadership we had during those crises and conflicts. In 1988 we had two alternatives, both of them impressive: Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Ranasinghe Premadasa. During the war we had Mahinda Rajapaksa who in 2005-2009 was unrecognizable different from what he became ten years later.
Secondly, in 1971, 1988 and 2005, we had dramatic democratic change in the form of new governments, new leaderships. The JVP had begun arming during the UNP administration of 1965-1970 but when it went into action it faced a very different government which had been elected a year before. In 1988-89 Premadasa had taken over from JR Jayewardene. As Prabhakaran prepared for the ‘final war’, in 2005, Mahinda had taken over from Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
Thirdly we have a crisis of ethics and morality; of combative spirit in defence of democracy. The fact that ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has yet to publicly denounce the mob attack on Kumar Welgama, her supporter, SLFP veteran and the first public denouncer of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was allegedly stripped, beaten and sought to be burnt alive, is emblematic of the collapse of moral leadership in the democratic space.
There has been no expression of regret or condemnation by the Aragalaya leaders or those of pro-Aragalaya parties on the attack with murderous intent on Welgama or the assault of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa at Galle Face Green.
How can this country avoid plunging into a post-apocalyptic anarchy in the coming weeks and months, because the lethally violent wave of May 9th has receded like a tsunami wave, only to roar in again, not entirely spontaneously, this time in its deepest-reaching and most conclusively destructive surge?
We have to learn the lessons of the past and apply them. If the UNP had stayed on 1970 instead of the shift to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, if JR Jayewardene had stayed on in 1988 instead of the shift to Premadasa; in short if the profile of the leadership of the democratic system had not changed, the system would have been overrun by the forces of ultraleft anarchy. If the leadership had not changed and we had faced Prabhakaran’s Final War with Chandrika as president instead of Mahinda as leader and General Sarath Fonseka (who she had marginalized) as Army chief, we would have lost the war.
Today, the choice is either the continued Presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the survival of the democratic system. Either he goes, or he and the Parliament will go, together with the democratic system, the market economy and society itself. Simply put, either Gota goes or the entire democratic order– social, political and economic—goes. And goes up quite literally in flames, this time with the factories, shops, offices, and the inhabitants of the houses of those perceived as more affluent in every neighborhood.
So, how to toss Gota overboard in a manner that doesn’t get rid of all that is best about our democratic system?
The history of global politics and indeed life itself, teaches that not every desirable and legitimate goal can be achieved in one go. But that does not mean that the first step is not to be taken so as to swiftly complete the journey or that an all-or-nothing leap is better than a measured series of brisk steps.
In 1988-89, there was no way to stabilize the situation without removing the main growth factor of the unrest. That was the presence of the IPKF. It didn’t cause the uprising but it was the fuel or accelerant that gave the uprising a national cause.
The deeper socioeconomic causes of the uprising could be addressed by Janasaviya, the 200 garment factories program etc., only after the main plank of the platform of the uprising had been removed.
Similarly, the coming uprising cannot be prevented or rolled back without removing the main plank of its platform: the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency.
Since he is not leaving, how can one throw him out without leaving the task to the tender mercies of a lethally violent uprising? I suggest a three-step strategy, the first step of which can be taken right now, or next week.
1. The 21st amendment: Time is of the essence so the trap must be avoided of going for the full package of the abolition of the executive presidency because that will be a protracted process and may not even secure the support of the SLFP, let alone the SLPP. Do not overshoot the mark. Even the SLPP will be loath to vote for the continuation of the 20th Therefore, give the 21st amendment a haircut, so it contains only that which can obtain a 2/3rds in parliament while avoiding a Referendum. Rush it through. Once that happens, Gotabaya and indeed any President loses his/her grip on the state machine. The desirability of this option is not merely tactical, because the frame of the executive presidency is needed for decision-making in the face of imminent anarchy.
2. Elections, the Magic Bullet: Elections have always saved us. The dreadful economic situation of 1970-77 was quickly turned around with the general election of 1977 and the opening up of the economy. With two civil wars raging, transformers exploded and an acute foreign exchange crisis, we held provincial, presidential and parliamentary elections in 1988-89. That was the portal for the country’s recovery. Today there must be an agreement on the self-dissolution of parliament before crazed, anarchic mobs set fire to the parliament with its MPs blockaded inside it.
3. All-parties or multi-party government: The PM has no mass base or political base in parliament. Domestically he brings nothing to the table because he cannot. He has no political real-estate. Either the Leader of the Opposition and the main Opposition party must be invited to takeover immediately or there must be an all-parties government after snap elections, well within the year. It is only such a government that can re-brand Sri Lanka and reach out in all directions to the world for support.
If pressure is manifestly building up in a boiler and the safety valves stay shut, then an explosion is inevitable. The ruling party or should I say ruling party+1, the plus being Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are keeping the safety valves shut. A Cabinet reshuffle with a sprinkling of SLFP and SJB defectors does nothing to outrun the coming explosion.
The ruling party had the chance of a confidence-building measure aimed at a consensual dynamic in Parliament. It could have made the gesture of voting for Rohini Wijeratne Kaviratne as Deputy Speaker. It did not. By rejecting that option, it enhanced the rhetoric of confrontation in Parliament.
The ruling party may well continue on this path, on an issue that is far more crucial, and that is the 21st amendment. That amendment is the very last chance to show that anything positive and accommodating of the Aragalaya demands, can come from this Parliament. It is perfectly alright for the SLPP to enter negotiations with all other parties over the text of the draft resolution but those negotiations must have a tight deadline, because a clock is ticking outside. The SLPP must not be or be seen as the deal-breaker. It must agree to whatever all the others agree to.
The new Prime Minister, who is also the very old Prime Minister, not only in age but also because it is his 6th go round in the post, is compounding the problem. In the first place, it was a wrong choice. If Gota didn’t want to appoint the Opposition Leader because the latter had attached too stiff a price tag, the next best choice when facing a YOUTH REVOLT, would have been his own party colleague Dullas Alahapperuma, who shares in part the same ideological formation as the young rebels or rather the parties that back them.
Not only was Ranil the wrong choice, Ranil has or Gota-Ranil have yet to do the right thing. What is that right thing?
The deep and deepening Sri Lankan economic crisis requires the very best brains we can muster, just as a complex surgery would require the finest surgeons handling it. What and where is our A-team which is handling the economic crisis and also negotiating with the world system? Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe is definitely a huge plus, but where are Dr Nishan de Mel, Dr Dushni Weerakoon, Dr Deshal de Mel and of course Prof Howard Nicholas (who has worked with the Vietnamese government)? These stellar talents have to be on the frontlines of the economic war, not in some backroom advisory group.
Now to the Opposition. I think that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa should have responded faster to President Gotabaya’s last speech, which provided an opening. The speech was in the evening, the reply, even the very same reply, should have gone in early next morning. Timing is essential in politics. The response should also have been somewhat more nuanced than it was. The stress should have been on the President’s remarks on the 19th amendment. That should have been nailed down. The exit issue should have been flagged but worded more diplomatically; not quite so ‘in your face’. The approach should have been what the Cold Warriors used to call Soviet ‘salami tactics’, i.e., a slice-by-slice incremental approach to taking power and displacing the existing governmental leader.
Today, the most glaring lapse of the Opposition is its divided character. The main opposition is too heavily tilted towards one side of the Opposition spectrum, i.e., the TNA, and too far away from the centrist group with the larger numbers; the SLFP-led 11-party bloc of roughly 40 MPs. The main opposition party should be more even-handed and equidistant in the opposition space if it is to get the arithmetic right. if not it will have to inhabit a liberal enclave, with the JVP-NPP growing on the ground, outside parliament, and posing a serious electoral challenge.
In the face of galloping quasi-anarchic radicalization, no Opposition formation can make it alone. It is only—I repeat, only—a progressive centrist re-groupment; a new Center-Left, that can rebalance the democratic system and save it. That means the SJB plus the SLFP; Sajith Premadasa plus Maithripala Sirisena. Nothing else would be sufficiently broad-based.
The chance is coming up with the 21st amendment. The SLFP is not for outright abolition of the executive presidency. The SJB has recently converted to abolition. Either the latter can remain politically fundamentalist and lose the vote, or it can arrive at an agreement with the SLFP and secure a solid vote for abolition of the 20th amendment and its replacement by a version of the 19th.
In my personal view as a political scientist and ex-diplomat (rather than a lawyer, accountant or banker), the most responsible and correct view on the executive presidency is held by the SLFP, the 11-party bloc it leads, the 43 Group of Patali Champika Ranawaka, and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka the chairman of the SJB.