By Uditha Devapriya –
The man in front of me in the pharmacy was talking about the price of paint. His voice rose in predictable and righteous anger. Furious at not the powers that be, he railed against the difficulties and hardships he was facing back in his torn down, decrepit home. He had tried to refurbish the whole place for a long time, but the rising prices had put a stop to his plans. Paint, in particular, had become hideously expensive: “It’s up by 7,000 rupees, damn it!” he spat out, practically at the cashier. Clucking his tongue sympathetically, the cashier replied, “That’s a shame, you’ll probably have to wait for some time.”
The man had ordered a number of pills and drugs, so the conversation could move on. He began to talk about the budget. Revealing himself as “a government worker”, he let out his anger at there being no relief for “the common man.” The cashier then asked him about the salary increases for teachers, to which the man snorted and responded, “Yes, they got it, we didn’t.” Clearly, he was holding back his contempt for teachers, begrudging them for having won their demands through protests. Underlying this perhaps was his frustration at being unable to organise a protest at his own office. “They promised much and gave us little,” he snorted. Ending his tirade, he paid his bill and left the pharmacy.
Marking two years in power, the SLPP regime is going through the worst public health crisis the country has ever seen. The health crisis has spawned an economic crisis, and that has in turn sparked off a crisis of legitimacy, arguably the worst since the 1980s. Exacerbated by a pandemic we never really prepared ourselves for, it continues to disrupt supply chains and constrain demand, leading to shortages and ramping up prices. While the public sector has been badly impacted, government workers have not really faced the brunt of the crisis. It is menial employees, including those engaged in the garment sector, and gig workers, like taxi and trishaw drivers, who are the worst affected. Yet everyone is united in their suffering and nearly everyone has witnessed declines in status and position.
Given this situation, it is difficult if not impossible to find anyone supportive of the present government, its actions, and its policies, over what it has done and, more crucially, what it has chosen not to do. The fertiliser fiasco, complicated as it may be, is in one sense easy to make sense of: it is another symptom of the regime’s inability to resolve the contradictions that the pandemic, and the crisis, has bequeathed it with. While its parliamentary majority remains intact, at least in theory, its support bases have begun to erode.
Faced with the prospect of its staunchest advocates turning the other way, it has begun to crumble and unravel under its own weight. The Opposition has still not, I think, tapped into the soaring discontent on the streets, but it has been able to bring hordes of angry, deeply frustrated people to their rallies. Last week’s rally, the biggest since the February 2015 rally in Nugegoda where Mahinda Rajapaksa showed that he could return to the public and that he was still a presence to reckon with, is symbolic for what it means, not for the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, but for the ruling party. This is a time-bomb waiting to go off.
It is crucial that we unravel and try to make sense of what’s happening. To me it’s all very simple: each and every social class and milieu, barring the urban and suburban upper and upper middle classes, are feeling the strain of the crisis. Even the lower middle-class, by no means a revolutionary milieu, has lent crucial support to causes it normally wouldn’t have supported: the anti-KDU protests, to give just one example. In this it has been joined by no less than the Sinhala peasantry. Taken together, these two groups formed the bedrock and the foundation of the SLPP’s victory in 2019. That they have turned not just away from but against the party they voted in shows that they become ripe for rebellion.
Though united in their suffering, each of these groups has suffered differently under the pandemic. The government’s inability to stabilise prices of fuel and provide fertiliser has eroded its support among agrarian and fishing communities. Its inability to control prices of rice, wheat, dairy products, and gas has diminished its standing among the lower middle-classes. The import restrictions, particularly those on automobiles and electronics that we will see for a long time to come, have hit merchant capitalist elites. The country’s middle-classes are being proletarianised, while peasants and rural workers are being pauperised. Menial workers remain lodged between a rock and a hard place, unable either to find work or to demand for better conditions from employers.
It is easy to reduce all this to the regime’s doing. Easy, but hardly accurate. Incompetent as the government and the opposition have been in their handling of the pandemic, this is strictly speaking not really a political crisis. Debates and discussions continue to rage and simmer, and rage again, over what is to be done with the pandemic. While doctors have found themselves on the other side of PHIs, PHIs and trade unions differ over street protests and large-scale demonstrations. Institutional advocates of free markets are finding it more and more difficult to rally supporters to their cause, but sections of the middle-classes, even those impacted by the removal of price controls, are claiming that things will improve only if the government reduces its interventionist role in the economy.
The picture that emerges from the protests and the demonstrations, then, is far more complex than what political analysts and Opposition MPs are conjuring up. Certainly, one comes across conjunctions of class, but there are important disjunctures too, particularly between urban and rural elements. Take a very simple example: prices of agricultural and cash crops. Theoretically, while farmers want better prices, urban consumers more or less oppose them. Simple as this conflict may seem, it has been complicated by the intervention of merchants and middle-men. Disliked by both rural and urban elements, these merchants have themselves joined the oppositional resistance.
Meanwhile, a debate has cropped up over issues like the Executive Presidency, due to the pandemic and to the failures of such institutions to resolve the crises it has unleashed. While liberal critics of the regime target the Presidency, however, commentators allied with the SJB have urged the Opposition to think beyond abolishing these mechanisms. Dayan Jayatilleka stands prominently among the latter crowd, but so do younger commentators like Kusum Wijetilleke, who has in column after column critiqued intellectuals and activists opposed to the regime who want to revive the yahapalanist project.
Personally, I remain sceptical of those who claim that the flaws of the government can be reduced to the flaws of its policies regarding presidential and parliamentary power. While it is certainly true that the Executive Presidency as revived by the 20th Amendment did away with the checks and balances imposed on it through the 19th, this did not entail a return to the 18th Amendment, back when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president.
It is important in this regard to draw a line between what the government aimed for with these reforms, what it could have done with the powers those reforms brought to the ruling party, and what it has done and not been able to do with them. The problems of the regime, as any commonsensical analysis will reveal, have less to do with its authoritarian tendencies than with its inability to use such powers against vested interests, like rice oligopolists. This is a critique I am yet to encounter with Colombo’s liberal commentariat.
The road ahead, then, is difficult, and will continue to be so for a long time. While much of this can be reduced to the incompetence of the ruling coalition and the Opposition, some of it has to be attributed to a crisis of systemic proportions that we are not alone in undergoing or suffering through. It takes foresight to draw lines, make distinctions, and strategise a way out. Whether or not that involves voting out the rulers, as the SJB demands, or replacing the parliament with a new set of parliamentarians, as the JVP desires, is a question we are yet to address, much less resolve. It will all depend on where will be in 2024. As far as the SLPP’s prospects are concerned, they’ve passed the point of no return. It remains to be seen where they will be, three years down the line. Meanwhile, the crisis continues.
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