Socio-political resurrection via economic recovery
6 months ago
Experts deconstruct the trajectory of new political power structures within governance
BY Sumudu ChamaraA panel discussion titled “Sri Lanka’s Crisis: Evolving Developments and Future Trajectory”, organised by the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore focused on what significant changes the country has seen in the context of the prevailing economic crisis and what changes can be expected in the near future. Political changesThe economic crisis, according to panellist, University of Colombo’s Emeritus Professor of Political Science Jayadeva Uyangoda, involves several major political changes, most of which have contributed to a state of political instability. He stressed that the “aragalaya” (struggle) movement and the political changes it led to played a key role in these changes. He added: “The ‘aragalaya’ marked the sudden appearance of a historical movement for re-democratisation in Sri Lanka, almost like an eruption of an unannounced democratic revolution. It happened against the backdrop of five decades of de-democratisation in Sri Lanka and authoritarianism. What is significant about this citizen’s movement, from the perspective of the theory of democratisation, is that there has been what one may call a molecular process of re-democratisation among the citizens belonging to the subordinate social classes, not citizens belonging to the elites, amidst de-democratisation at the level of the Government through arbitrary and unjust governance.”He added that in the post-”aragalaya” context, new forms of polarisation have emerged in the political sphere in the country. According to him, at one level, there are citizens pushing for democracy, and on the opposite side, there are elites for de-democratisation. He opined that the struggle, or the conflict between democratisation and de-democratisation, has taken a new form at the moment.He highlighted the changes in the political arena, saying: “There is a new coalition for political power. It is important to understand the nature of this new coalition in order to understand the possible trajectory of Sri Lanka’s politics. This consists of one traditional political establishment represented by the United National Party (UNP) and the political cronies of the family of former presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The second group of the coalition is the political class organised within the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the political party established by the Rajapaksa family, and which has the majority in the Parliament. The third component is the security and intelligence establishment, or the elements of what one may call the Deep State, which is a component a lot of people do not pay much attention to, although during the past few weeks, it has emerged as a major player in the process described as restoring political stability.”Adding that there are certain complexities and several dimensions of uncertainties in the current political context, Prof. Uyangoda further explained: “One of the uncertainties is the unstable political coalition between the UNP and the SLPP. The SLPP, which has the majority in Parliament, is facing a crisis with several splits. Sri Lanka’s new President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the SLPP and the UNP coalition are facing a legitimacy crisis too. It has no public trust, which is a major problem in the crisis. The new President does not seem to have a stable political base, as his party has only one MP. That is one reason as to why he has been relying so much on the armed forces and the security and defence establishments.”He opined that there is no evidence at the moment of any political stability or of a stable Government in Sri Lanka, adding that the President is finding it very difficult to demonstrate to external actors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that there is any sign of political stability, for which creditors and other parties are waiting.With regard to the prevailing social crisis, he pointed out: “One of the crucial aspects of the crisis, which has almost been forgotten, is the social crisis. The rising economic crisis and even the new policy package prescribed by the IMF will certainly exacerbate the social crisis. It will also increase poverty. The middle class will have to bear the burden of the economic recovery that the Government is attempting to implement in collaboration with the IMF.”Prof. Uyangoda stressed that all signs at the moment imply that the crisis will deepen at the economic, political, and social levels. Adding that in a context where a state of emergency is becoming the new normal, he said that what is prevailing is essentially not the rule of law, but the rule by law. “One of the key messages given by the new President to the younger generation is that protests, and reform attempts through peaceful means, would be easily ignored by the political class. Then will there be a reinvented regime of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka, necessitated by economic factors, in order to secure political power for the new coalition?”Constitution and the law in crisis Meanwhile, University of Colombo Faculty of Law Senior Lecturer Dr. Dinesha Samaratne highlighted several points with regard to the Constitution and law-related aspects pertaining to the present context and to the people-led movements that the country has witnessed.She said that the proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution (tabled by the main Parliamentary Opposition Party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya [SJB] as a Private Member Bill) is a significant reform the country needs. She added: “The proposal by the SJB is by far one of the most progressive reform proposals Sri Lanka saw in a long time, as it proposed to abolish the Executive Presidency, with the President to play a symbolic role and to be elected by Parliament, and to establish a Parliamentary system of governance, among others. As the country’s situation evolved, this proposal was sidelined and political mobilisation around this was also sidelined. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was proposed to counter this 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which shows disregard for the demands of the people, including the abolition of the Executive Presidency. There is very little discussion on Constitutional reforms now.” With regard to the people’s movements demanding democratic reforms in Sri Lanka’s history, Dr. Samaratne said: “It is a cautionary tale, but it is also a hopeful tale, because while it may seem like the citizen’s movement has lost its momentum as of September 2022, the story is not over yet. With the incidents that happened in our past, we are considered to be divided along ethnic lines. Depending on how far we go back, we see signs of democratic movements.” She pointed out several examples, including the incidents surrounding the introduction of universal suffrage in the early 1930s/late 1920s and the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, the early 1990s opposition to the State’s response to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrections in 1988-1989, and the 2011 garment factory workers’ pension-related reforms. She further explained: “While Sri Lanka’s people’s movements have been historic, unexpected, and surprising, we have long had people in the margins demanding for democratic reforms. But what we have in contrast is a crisis in terms of our State. We have reasons to think that the political elite have rejected the pro-democratic reforms that the people have called for. One can make the argument that the State has been captured by anti-democratic forces. This is not new, but, in 2022, it seems to be very clear. We have seen this playing out in Parliament, in our Executive, and in the difficulty in using political parties as vehicles for Constitutional reforms and democratic changes. “Other examples are State-owned enterprises being taken advantage of in order to further politicisation and political patronage. The use or abuse of Sri Lanka’s criminal law is another example. Particularly post-July, we have seen the rule by law. The law was used selectively to target protestors. The public do not have the confidence that the law is also being used to address other violations that have taken place in Sri Lanka during this time.”Speaking of the Constitution, Dr. Samaratne added: “If we take the Constitution, its language, and its design, it is familiar with the concept of citizens, or persons. Humans are presented as rights-bearers, voters, or office-bearers. What our crisis is showing us is that the Constitution, the Constitutional system, and its terminology are less familiar with what the people have to say or do within the Constitutional framework. “It is not an economic crisis brought on by a political crisis. Constitutional responses to the crisis are often limited to looking at the declaration of a state of emergency, the restrictions of rights, and what happens when an office bearer has to step down or is impeached, among others. Typically, Constitutions are silent on collective issues of inequality. It is silent on large scale abuses. It can only deal with very specific instances.”Economic crisis During the discussion, Centre for a Smart Future Co-Founder Anushka Wijesinha described the nature of the prevailing economic crisis, adding that even though media coverage focuses on events that happened in recent history, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has been in the making for some years.He added that even though Sri Lanka commenced many development projects after the war, it lacked the fiscal discipline that a middle-income country is required to maintain. One example he pointed out was the excessive dependence on loans, especially on more commercial terms, despite the fact that the country had been getting most of its funding on highly concessional terms before. Politically motivated or connected projects with no adequate return on investment, which have now come to be known as “white elephants”, according to him, are also reasons behind the weakening of the country’s economy.With regard to the country’s economic recovery, Wijesinha said that even though tourism is a key industry in the recovery process, it is over-relied upon to deliver economic transformation. Reforms to enhance trade, investments, competitiveness, and innovation are necessary in this process, he highlighted, adding that economic recovery in the coming few months would be a painful experience.