By Rajan Philips –
Every crisis in Sri Lanka’s checkered history both before and after independence began and ended with a political crisis. More accurately, perhaps, every crisis got extended, for nothing ever ended except the war. Ironically, it is the Rajapaksas, who claim sole ownership for ending the war, that are now caught all ends up in all manner of crises. What is strange and paradoxical about their situation is that for all the crises that they are the primary cause of and are being resoundingly blamed for, their political positions are in no immediate danger.
There is no threat to the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. No one is even thinking impeachment, let alone saying it. The SLPP government has a solid majority in parliament to ward off any no confidence motion (NCM). Not that anyone is looking like trying one. And the Samagi Jana Balawegaya will not risk a second setback after falling on their face when they tried an NCM against Minister Gammanpila over petroleum price hikes. Where there might be some reason for worry, for President Rajapaksa and the SLPP in parliament, it is about the prospects in the next elections. But elections are a full three years and more away, which are a long time in politics by any measure.
When government worked
The next three years are also going to be peppered with crises if what is going on now is any indication of what is going to follow. It is this juxtaposition of political stability and circumambient crises that renders the current situation strange and paradoxical. This is a uniquely unprecedented situation. In the past there was political instability, governments were elected and ejected, but the departments of government did their job like clockwork, unlike the broken clocks and daily alarms we now have for government agencies.
There was always a political dimension and overtone to a serious crisis. The malaria health crisis in the 1930 became the baptismal fire for Sri Lanka’s left movement. The 1947 General Strike, Sri Lanka’s belated substitute for an independence struggle, hastened the departure of the Empire and the arrival of independence. Public outrage over food scarcity and prices precipitated the Great Hartal of 1953 and the resignation of a young Prime Minister (Dudley Senanayake) who had won a popular landslide victory barely a year earlier.
Three years later, in 1956, the blunderbuss government of Sir John Kotelawala was routed at the polls. The next eight years were years of tumults and crises – communal riots, labour strikes, the assassination of a Prime Minister, schools take-over, a failed army coup, Tamil satyagraha in the North, emergency rule and so on. There were three elections, four Prime Ministers, two centre-left coalition governments and several cabinet overhauls. Through it all, and to my point in this essay, the government worked.
The schools and hospitals were open. Children studied and played. The sick were attended to. Look where they are now. Trains and buses ran, though not like in Japan or Singapore, but infinitely better than now after forty years of economic liberalization and privatization. Farmers and fishers, the largest of Lanka’s working populations, subsisted and produced. Colonial era plantations were past their productive peaks, but they were kept on a plateau through careful research and correct ministering. Now the bottoms are coming apart.
The farmers effortlessly straddled tradition and modernity, switching from the plough to the tractor, blending the organic and the inorganic, and reaching the elusive self-sufficiency in rice in the 1980s. There were middlemen in agriculture, but no mafia. No one executively told farmers, no more pohora, only manure. Until now. And no one apparently advised the current omnipotent executive that tea doesn’t grow on cow dung unless there is a cow for every bush.
For all its travails, the 1956 government introduced income tax and taxation became the staple source of government revenue. Until someone lamebrained in the current government decided that removing taxes is a shortcut to economic growth and bigger revenue. In one stroke, half a billion rupees of revenue were written off. Balance of payments and imports became chronic problems in the 1960s, but government after government kept managing them.
Foreign reserves began to be counted in terms of months of imports, but never in terms of weeks or days. No one ever thought there will come a day when a Sri Lankan government will runout of cash to import basic food and the new necessity of fuel. And after imposing the biggest import ban in history, this government actually ended up increasing the annual import bill. That is the record. Not even the most blinkered Rajapaksa apologist can pretend not seeing the record for what it is.
Stability and Crisis
After two decades of frequent government turnovers, electoral stability was realized for the first time between 1965 and 1970, when the third and the last Dudley Senanayake government lasted its full elected term. It was badly defeated in the 1970 election, but the UNP maintained its largest vote base despite the poor electoral returns. After 1970, electoral stability came to be more contrived than democratic.
The 1972 Constitution provided for a one-time extension of parliament by two years. Objectively, it should have been a defensible extension to make up for the time lost owing to the JVP insurrection. But the United Front government’s intentions were not pure, and the First Republican Constitution itself was arrogantly adopted as a proud government product to the exclusion of not only the UNP opposition but also the constitutionally sensitive Tamil Federal Party.
After lambasting the two-year extension of parliament from 1975 to 1977, JR Jayewardene went for broke and cancelled a whole election for the chicanery of a referendum in 1982. JRJ had already upended the country’s parliamentary system in the name of providing political stability. The outcome though was not political stability but electorally enduring governments.
Internal instability of governments has been a feature of Sri Lanka’s political history from 1947, if not from 1931. The difference before and after 1977 is that, before 1977 internal instabilities eventually brought down governments and precipitated elections. After 1977, governments lasted in spite of internal instability. More often than not, after 1977, presidents and governments have lasted in office much longer than they deserved to last. But there has been no political stability in spite of prolonged government tenures.
What President Jayewardene was planning to achieve by way of political stability, was to have the same party, obviously for him – the UNP, in power over several electoral terms, if not for ever. What he did not bargain for was that internal instability would arise within his Party (and his government) almost instantly over the position and powers of the Prime Minister in the new presidential system, and more persistently over presidential succession. As it turned out, the presidential system that was created to entrench the UNP in power ended up devouring the grand old United National Party itself.
What JRJ could not also have foreseen was how his constitutional experimentation would play out in the event of the SLFP returning to power with a younger Bandaranaike as President. True to form, as under the UNP presidential governments, internal political instability became a government problem for President Chandrika Kumaratunga. More so in her second term, and she was even forced to bow out earlier than she was planning to, and reluctantly left the family torch to be usurped by the newly arrived Mahinda Rajapaksa.
What JRJ most certainly could not have seen coming, at least in President Jayewardene’s view of the Sri Lankan society, was the arrival of the Rajapaksas out of nowhere. The now powerful brothers and their extensions were not only out of JRJ’s political radar, but were not even embryonic in the presidential order when it was newly set up. Whatever may have been their status in the 20th century, the Rajapaksa brothers have dominated Sri Lankan politics in the 21st century, and it would be correct to say that their dominance over the last two decades has no parallel in the politics of the last century.
There has never been an instance in Sri Lankan politics when so many brothers and sons and nephews have been part of the same kinship political apparatus. It is their kinship apparatus and their success in subordinating the state resources to kinship power that has made their hold on power internally stable. The 2014 defection of Maithripala Sirisena was an aberration that has only proved the rule, in that even after defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential battle, Sirisena lost the war over the SLFP to the Rajapaksas. Whether there will be another defection to end the Gotabaya presidency three years from now, it is too early to speculate.
The more immediate question is how will the current contradictions between regime stability, on the one hand, and the plethora of crises – health, social and economic, on the other, play themselves out between now and the electoral reckoning more than three years from now? The traditional perspective is one of crisis heightening and potential confrontations between public protests and government forces. The government is far too entrenched to be knocked over in a single strike. Equally, the government is not in a position to permanently rule by force, suppressing protests.
Between these contending options, is there a role for the national parliament to play – to make the current regime change its ways, rather than the proverbial regime change? The 1972 Constitution exalted parliament, the National State Assembly, as the Supreme Instrument of State Power. The 1978 Constitution trashed that notion and introduced the notion of separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But from day one of the 1978 constitution, the executive has been the dominant instrument of state power. It is time for parliament to restore its role as a co-equal branch of government. Is the current parliament capable of restoring itself? (To be continued).