Commentary

The spectre haunting Lankan democracy

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

8 June 2016

Will economic austerity come in the way of democracy?
Photo : Flickr / Nazly Ahmed

Photo : Flickr / Nazly Ahmed

Sri Lanka is a democratic success story at a time when success stories are rare and failure is the norm. But it is easy for Lankans to lose sight of that fact as their attention gets mired in everyday issues – soaring prices, crime rates, venality of politicians. This is not helped by news from another continent about the less salubrious fate of another people, providing a glimpse of how much worse things could have been: such as the presidential investiture of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni on 12 May 2016.

The inauguration made news across the world because of the controversial nature of Museveni’s victory and the subsequent wave of repression. It made news in Sri Lanka because one of the honoured attendees was the country’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. There was no invitation to the government of Sri Lanka but Rajapaksa was invited by Uganda’s foreign affairs minister.

Museveni has been in power uninterruptedly since 1986, a leading luminary of the leaders-for-life club to which Rajapaksa too had hoped to belong. That hope was shattered by the electorate twice, in January and August 2015. Notwithstanding those rejections, Rajapaksa remains defiant and determined, intent on regaining power, making no secret of his intent. The former president’s obsessive desire to be the next president is rapidly becoming the driving-force in Lankan politics.

Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa – all three hold a share of power; none is in total control. This division has worked well for Sri Lanka in the last sixteen months. It has strengthened democracy without endangering stability – so far.

Path to Return

By mid-2015, Rajapaksa had his return path to power planned: win the parliamentary election, become the prime minister, form a government and eject Maithripala Sirisena from the presidency, probably via an impeachment. The electorate dealt that plan a decisive blow at the parliamentary poll of 19 August 2015. A hybrid government was formed under the leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and many Rajapaksa loyalists jumped ship, accepting ministerial positions from Sirisena.

In the run-up to the general election, Sirisena, in a swift move which took both supporters and opponents by surprise, sacked the pro-Rajapaksa general secretaries of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and its main constituent, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – the party to which Rajapaksa, Sirisena and former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga belong – replacing them with two of his loyalists.

Post-election he tightened his grip over the SLFP’s top decision-making bodies, effectively ending Rajapaksa’s capacity to manipulate the party.

But neither electoral defeat nor the loss of hold over SLFP could make a dent in Rajapaksa’s determination to get back into power. He promptly formed his own group within the parliament, consisting of some fifty members belonging to the SLFP/UPFA. This group calls itself the Joint Opposition (JO) and virulently opposes the government, both inside and outside the parliament. On 1 May 2016, it held a separate meeting and demonstration to mark International Workers Day, presided over by Rajapaksa. Having failed to wrest the leadership of the SLFP away from Sirisena, Rajapaksa is planning to split the SLFP and form a new party. The fifty parliamentarians identified as JO are with Rajapaksa. Though there were reports of several JO members backing Sirisena, the latter still faces a considerable threat.

This is the sword of Damocles which hangs over Sirisena. He would know that the effects of a Rajapaksa-orchestrated split on the SLFP – and on his own political future – could be devastating. The fear of precipitating such a crisis, rather than a tendency to dither, is likely to be the reason for his unwillingness to move decisively against the JO.

Despite Sirisena’s inaction and his efforts to paper over the deepening fissures, it would seem that the breakup of SLFP is unavoidable. Sirisena is too shrewd a political operator to be blind to that fact: he is likely to ensure that the split happens at a time and in a manner which is most favourable to him. If Sirisena clamps down on Rajapaksa loyalists en masse, Rajapaksa would have the excuse he needs to split the SLFP and blame Sirisena for it. But if Rajapaksa gets tired of his nebulous position or is pushed by his more hard-line supporters into forming his own party, then Sirisena can blame Rajapaksa for the breakup and gain the sympathy of SLFP rank-and-file.

In the ensuing waiting game, Sirisena has one decisive advantage over Rajapaksa – age. As the younger man, time would be on his side. Another factor which might push Rajapaksa into making a precipitous move is the worsening legal plight of his immediate family. His younger brother, former Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, was arrested on charges of misappropriation of money. Rajapaksa’s second son Yoshitha was arrested in January 2016 on charges of money laundering. Two businessmen closely associated with the Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabhaya, the once omnipotent Defence Secretary, have been named in the Panama Papers. Rajapaksa might see a quick return to power as the only way of saving his family from these legal tangles.

Rajapaksa currently enjoys considerable support of the SLFP/UPFA parliamentary party, as demonstrated by their participation in the JO’s May Day event. He also has substantial backing in the provincial councils and local government bodies. He remains popular at the grassroots level. But how big a split he will be able to effect, how many SLFP members would be willing to abandon their traditional political home and follow Rajapaksa into unknown territory remains to be seen. Since the birth of the Lankan two-party system in 1956, popular leaders who broke away from their parent parties and formed new ones haven’t fared well electorally. Would Rajapaksa be able to buck this trend?

The main beneficiary of a split would be the United National Party (UNP). But the UNP is not without its own share of problems. The recent price hikes are giving rise to considerable popular discontent and the UNP, as the major partner in the hybrid government, is getting much of the blame. Party activists are becoming restive about the absence of the usual bonanzas of power, especially pensionable jobs in the public sector. Party leader Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s reputation as an efficient and honest technocrat has taken a beating with the Central Bank bond scam.

Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa – all three hold a share of power; none is in total control. This division has worked well for Sri Lanka in the last sixteen months. It has strengthened democracy without endangering stability – so far.

Economics and racism

As a lesson from contemporary politics, we can take a look at the Arab Spring, which regressed into a brutal summer partly due to the inability of the new democratic governments to provide economic relief to the masses and the unwillingness of the Western world to acknowledge the historic link between economic injustice and extremism.

A somewhat similar drama is in the making in Sri Lanka. Years of unlimited borrowing and unwise spending by the Rajapaksas turned the Lankan economy into a ticking time-bomb. Faced with mounting debt and foreign exchange crises, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration turned to the IMF for a bailout. The requested facility was granted, with the standard conditions. The immediate outcome has been a sharp hike in indirect taxes and a consequent increase in prices. For those who ousted Rajapaksa and voted in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration hoping for a real and continuous improvement in their own economic conditions, this sudden soaring of living costs would be a bitter pill. Their lost hopes and sundered faith might provide Rajapaksa with relevance and acceptance he cannot acquire in any other way.

Rajapaksa’s attempt to return to power depends on whether his camp succeeds in redefining Lanka’s political centre in Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist terms and render ethno-religious racism respectable again.

As historian Tony Judt points out, in France a segment of the working class and the poor, disproportionately affected by economic austerity, became the vehicle of growth for the right-wing National Front. These people were “looking for someone to blame and someone to follow” and could relate to the neo-Fascist right, “whose programme consists of one long scream of resentment.” Going by that example, in Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa-led JO might step into the breach, providing disheartened Sinhala-Buddhists with ‘someone to blame’ and ‘someone to follow’. Minorities, India and the West would be the scapegoats, and Rajapaksa the saviour. Economic pains will be interpreted as an exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist problem, created by a set of leaders who are either ‘alien’ or in thrall to aliens. This is because of the long-standing myth of poor Sinhalese oppressed by rich Tamils and Muslims.

Perhaps the first step in this direction would have been the JO’s plan to hold a separate event to mark the seventh anniversary of the defeating of the LTTE. According to leading Sinhala newspaper Sunday Divaina, this decision was made at an informal gathering presided over by Rajapaksa. “…the group talked about the ‘Victory Day’ which falls on May 19. ‘This government does not celebrate the victory. They are not having military parades which showcase the bravery of the war heroes. They will lay a bouquet of flowers at the war memorial and will be done with it. We will hold a victory commemoration in Kurunegala, in a way which honours the war heroes,’ Mahinda proposed. The proposal was approved in one voice.” The commemoration was supposed to be held in a temple but was cancelled due to the landslide and floods.

After January 2015, Sri Lanka has a reasonable chance of returning to the path she abandoned in 1956 when she embraced majoritarian-supremacism and imposed a Sinhala Only Act on Tamils and a thirty-year war and two insurgencies ensued. As the electoral outcomes of the last year demonstrate, most Lankans do not want to return to that past. Though ethno-religious racism is far from dead, it has been banished from centre stage to the margins of polity and society. There is still mistrust and perhaps even fear amongst the different communities, but the danger of a new conflagration has dwindled, for now.

The present administration has promised to bring in a new, more democratic constitution and find a political solution to the ethnic problem. The JO will oppose both measures, screaming that the country is being endangered and divided. So long as the economic discontent of the citizens is contained, the harm caused by such a racist outcry would be minimal. The costs of the floods and landslides in May 2016 are expected to be between USD 1.5 and 2 billion. This will exacerbate the country’s economic and financial problems and make the government even more dependent on international assistance, including the International Monetary Fund. The disasters have reportedly displaced more than 350,000 people and destroyed or damaged 125,000 homes and 300,000 small and medium businesses. This devastation will exponentially increase the political costs of austerity economics. Any tax or price increases in this context can have an implosive effect on the government. Those SLFP parliamentarians who contested as Rajapaksa supporters and came over to Sirisena in return for portfolios might jump right back to the Rajapaksa camp. Such a change in parliamentary balance can unseat the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and enable the forming of a new government headed by Rajapaksa. This may not be a very likely outcome but is not impossible either.

“Economic anxiety and racial anxiety are not separate forces, but rather a growing snarling hydra.” The comment was made on the rise of Donald Trump, Republican nominee for US Presidential elections, but has a near universal relevance. Rajapaksa’s attempt to return to power depends on whether his camp succeeds in redefining Lanka’s political centre in Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist terms and render ethno-religious racism respectable again. Such a strategic regression would be possible only if the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration underestimates the political danger of economic pain and allows it to reach the boiling point.

~ Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan commentator based in Colombo.

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