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Sri Lanka’s Irony: Hoping for a ‘New Political Culture’ Under the Old Guard

There is no new blood anywhere close to the power centres in parties and the government.

Published
Opinion
8 min read
Sri Lanka’s Irony: Hoping for a ‘New Political Culture’ Under the Old Guard
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Over 50 days after Sri Lanka’s very own ‘Arab Spring’-like popular uprising against the nation’s elected government, there is stagnation on the political front, with greater governmental care slowly but surely drifting towards the more important needs of the economy, which has been in the ICU through the period, requiring greater and more urgent attention than the previous day.

This has meant that barring a committed core group of protesters, the rest have begun moving out of the ‘GotaGoGama’ protest site at capital Colombo’s Galle Face Green sea-front to tend to their daily chores, with a greater realisation that their personal situation will take a lot more time to reach even the pre-protest levels, leave alone a more prosperous phase of more jobs and greater family incomes.

For many across the nation, the daily chores still include standing in long fuel queues outside petrol stations.
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Fresh Aid Is Pouring In

The situation has improved through the past few weeks and months, thanks to the generous assistance from India, to be followed now by oil from Russia, which is only the second country to extend substantial assistance of any kind since Colombo sent out an open appeal for help, from wherever possible, whatever possible. Indications are that Moscow had planned an aid package even earlier, but the intervening war with Ukraine had delayed it.

India and Japan have decided to coordinate their assistance. What shape it takes remains to be seen.

This is because after coming to power in 2019, the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had cancelled the three-nation project to develop Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), citing perceived labour protests; he also stopped a $1.5-billion Japanese-funded light rail project, claiming that it was not cost-effective.

As may be recalled, Sri Lanka had signed the MoU for the two projects when incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was in office from 2015 to 2019. Now, it remains to be seen whether the India-Japan cooperation to aid Sri Lanka will cause a revival of the two earlier proposals, or whether they would come up with new ones. It will be even more interesting to see how the trade unions react and how President Gotabaya responds.

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In context, prospective aid-givers would be looking at Colombo’s possible revival of the US-funded projects under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), again cleared by Ranil as Prime Minister in his earlier innings but contested by the Rajapaksas on their return to power in 2019. For the record, the US had yanked the $480-million project, which was aimed at improving urban and rural road and transportation systems over a five-year period. Interestingly, China, which was said to be behind the Rajapaksa decisions, is nowhere to be seen when it comes to giving additional and much-needed aid now, and when Beijing is needed now more than ever.

Wickremesinghe Is Performing Well, Slowly but Surely

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who upon taking over the office for the sixth time in his long political and parliamentary career, has begun bringing a smile to the lips of the average Sri Lankan. Expending more time on political and constitutional aspects of the public protests over the past weeks has drained Ranil’s time and energy, no doubt. But he has still come around to taking a long-term look at economic revival.

The Prime Minister has met with representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and also Samantha Power at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a friend of Sri Lanka, the last one on video. With Ranil in the saddle, the UK has since called a meeting of the Paris Club to see how – and how far – they could help the erstwhile British colony in this hour of crisis.

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Indications are that until Colombo has a clear picture of from where what aid would come, and when and how, it would need to ask New Delhi for more. And India would oblige.

In between, Ranil, as his own Finance Minister, is also working on a realistic new Budget, reflecting the ground realities and restoring the tax structures that President Gota had scrapped with great enthusiasm after assuming office, without any regard for the nation’s revenue needs, especially in those weeks and months of COVID-19 lockdowns. The government is planning to follow up on his idea of an aid consortium of willing nations and also hold an international consultation on reviving the nation’s tourism sector, which used to be a major forex earner before the 2019 Easter bomb blasts.

Under Ranil, Colombo would also go back to the US and the European Union (EU) for export concessions on value-added textile goods. In particular, he will have to negotiate with the EU, which has linked its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP)-Plus concessions to host nations’ human rights records, which, under the Rajapaksas, was not anything to write home about. In doing so, the government will also have to find ways to revive the third major export product, tea. India has since supplied chemical fertilisers in the place of the untested organic fertilisers of Chinese origin, which was one more of Gota’s Tughlaq-like decisions, only to be rescinded later.

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But What About the Forgotten Predecessors?

What should surprise Sri Lanka watchers is the way the nation has forgotten its LTTE war victor in Ranil’s predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom they alone had forced to quit. After his exit from ‘Temple Trees’, the Prime Minister’s official residence, and taking shelter in the Trincomalee naval base, Mahinda, the two-term President (2005-2015) has since returned to attend Parliament like any ordinary member.

The fact is that even as the nation is reacting strongly to the ‘Rajapaksa goons’ attacking peaceful protesters outside ‘Temple Trees’ and later at the protest site, the country is also equally shocked at the unanticipated ‘retaliatory violence’, in which one ruling party MP was killed and houses, businesses, costly cars and other properties of 78 other party leaders were gutted across the Sinhala South in a matter of just two hours.

At least one property belonging to each of the Rajapaksas was among those torched, including their ancestral home and their parents’ monument. A day later, in broad daylight, their father DA Rajapaksa’s statue was destroyed.

No one is talking about it openly or on social media, but the eerie silence on that score is deafening. That was also because of the late information (or realisation) that as many as 20 Molotov Cocktails could have been thrown at ‘Temple Trees’, when Mahinda and family members were still residing inside, on the very eve of his forced exit.

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For the Gotabaya-Ranil combo now, all these factors raise questions about the ability of the nation’s police and security forces to contain a future uprising.

In fact, when some protesters violated the court-ordered restrictions while taking out yet another impromptu rally to mark the 50th day of their agitation, no one, including the western embassies, criticised the police for use of teargas or water cannon. The violence of the kind had heralded the peaceful protests when government transport buses outside of President Gotabaya’s residence were burnt down, leading to the promulgation of an Emergency and the imposition of a nationwide curfew, both of which were observed only in their breach.

Can the Constitution be Amended?

Today, no Rajapaksa other than President Gotabaya is in office. The peaceful protests are also to make him quit, but he is not the one to oblige. However, he has reportedly agreed to have the Constitution amended to surrender or take away some of the powers of the Executive President, and restore them to Parliament and the Prime Minister – as in any Westminster system – and also to other statutory bodies, which the Rajapaksas had scrapped more than once.

This is also because amending the Constitution to do away with the Executive Presidency would require a national referendum, which the political class wants to do without just now.
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Indications are that some in the Opposition may want Gotabaya’s poll promise to have a new Constitution to be taken up next, but not necessarily based on the draft an expert panel had prepared at his instance and which remains to be publicised. A section of the Tamil polity, in particular, is not unlikely to insist on another draft of the Constitution that Ranil as Prime Minister had put together as steering committee chair in his earlier innings.

Thinking New, Doing Old

Going beyond obtaining the exit of all Rajapaksas from power centres, the public protests are also aimed at creating a new political culture, a new political leadership, and a new way of political thinking and administration. Thus far, the first part has been achieved, not wholly but to a substantial level. However, hiccups remain for the passage of the prospective 21st Amendment to the Constitution, or 21-A; the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) organiser and President Gotabaya’s brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is said to be keen on retaining ‘dual citizenship’ for himself to retain his membership of Parliament, which alone had helped him become Finance Minister until a forced resignation some weeks ago.

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Basil’s support comes from Mahinda, who has not made his next move, playing along with Gotabaya thus far, as the 119-68 parliamentary vote against the resolution to take up the ‘censure motion’ against the President underlined. In the shadow-boxing with brother Gotabaya that preceded his exit as Prime Minister, Mahinda had volunteered to curtail presidential powers. He did not express himself on ‘dual citizenship’ and other issues.

The question is this: will he ditch his brother-President to form a parliamentary group of his own? And if yes, when?

What Lies Ahead for the Opposition?

The situation is no different in the 54-member Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in the 225-seat Parliament. Detractors of party president Sajith Premadasa, who is also the Leader of the Opposition, have reportedly disapproved of his near-unilateral decision not to join the government and take over the Prime Minister’s job. The post finally went to his eternal rival in the parent United National Party (UNP), which, according to other SJB leaders’ fears, has the capabilities to bring around the economy and also liquidate their party.

Some of them want the SJB to take an honourable way out, by accepting 21-A, which severely curtails the President’s powers, and then join the Cabinet. Needless to say, Sajith Premadasa, even if the SJB is forced to join the ministry, cannot be seen as accepting a Cabinet berth with his twin rivals at the helm. It will be a let-down for him when seen from the perspective of some of his supporters.

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But in the larger scheme, he may still be able to wrest the initiative at an appropriate time. His greater fear is whether by joining the government, his MPs would be tempted to ditch him, and help Ranil & Co revive the UNP as it stands before the GoP split in 2020.

Even Fresh Elections Can’t Bring a Fresh Vision Right Now

Whatever all this may bring, most discourses of the kind centre only around the existing set of politicians, young and old, urban and rural, elite and commoners. There is no new blood visible anywhere close to the power centres in parties and the government for the nation to hope for a new political culture, about which, again, there is only a desire, not a roadmap.

And in the given circumstances and with the given persona, even a fresh election cannot usher in a new political culture, one way or the other.

(The writer is a political analyst and commentator based in Chennai. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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