If not for the aragalaya of March 2022, which continued for nearly four months until it was forcibly ended by the current President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) after pretending to support it, none of the political changes, such as the resignation of the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the appointment of RW as replacement, eviction and short-term exile of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the final elevation of RW himself to presidency, would have taken place. But those changes were not what the aragalaya youth were aspiring for. They put their demands in a nutshell and in the form of two catchy slogans: “System Change” and “No 225”. The second was, in essence, their vote of no confidence on the entire parliament, which they viewed and has been proved since as an unwilling and incapable lot to deliver the primary demand – system change. But because of the absence of any clear leadership there was practically no one among the aragalaya crowd who could articulate what they meant by system change. Its quintessential meaning however, was evident from the politically neutral and ethnically inclusive character of their revolt. Their expressions and behaviour made it clear to those who wanted to listen and observe that a growing generation of young men and women had come to realize the need to renounce the divisive and pernicious ideology of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism which had caused so deep a fissure in Sri Lankan society and ended up bankrupting the country’s economy. In the perspective of that generation therefore, the current economic crisis is only one deadly symptom of a deadlier disease that required radical treatment.
That message however, did not seem to have percolated within the community of elders, a vast majority of whom stood to benefit from the status quo and believe in its durability and desirability once the economic crisis is won over, adjustments made to accommodate the reasonable grievances of minority communities and provide incentives for the young generation to join the system. RW represents the epitome of this thinking. His attempts to entice the youth to join his 25-year economic marathon and his decision to implement fully the Indian inspired 13th Amendment are reflections of this thought. They are meant not to change but to fine tune the existing system. Unsurprisingly, except for the NPP and its new avatar JVP component all other parties are in cahoots with this philosophy. NPP on the other hand agrees with aragalaya’s call for system change and see it as prerequisite for the nation’s ultimate redemption.
Since there is a general consensus between the President and his government on the one hand and majority of the opposition parliamentarians on the other, to isolate the economic crisis from system change, RW has thrown the gauntlet to the opposition and challenged its leaders to come out with an alternative to the IMF backed revival agenda, or, at least propose improvements on it for him to submit for consideration by the IMF board. So far none had been suggested except to cry over unfair taxes, increased utility tariffs and privatization of state-owned assets, all of which were included, as per order from IMF, in RW’s 2023 budget. These measures no doubt, would inflict more pain to a citizenry subjected already to numerous hardships since the advent of the global pandemic. The opposition therefore expects to capitalize on increasing public discontent if an election were to be held soon. Curiously, while both the government and the opposition seem to have agreed on the indispensability of an IMF solution to the economic crisis, they disagree on the dispensability of any election at this point of time. Hence, the controversy over the Local Government Elections (LGE) scheduled to be held on 9 March this year. While the opposition, including NPP, considers LGE as a referendum on RW’s Presidency and his government, RW views it as a nuisance to be dispensed with in the interest of the economy. Hence his manoeuvres over tactics to postpone LGE indefinitely or cancel it altogether. It appears that he is winning this battle.
As far as the IMF and its shareholders are concerned whether LGE is held or not, and depending on its outcome whether a general election would follow and change of government also eventuate or not is immaterial because, as noted earlier, there is broad consensus between RW and the opposition on the indispensability of IMF’s role in economic reparation. Even the Central Bank is in compliance with that choice.
In fact, IMF itself is a guardian of the neoliberal economic order or system, of which Sri Lanka is a member since late 1970s. Therefore, as long as that system is left unthreatened by any party or coalition of parties IMF would be happy to work with and extend help, but subject to certain strict conditions, which is what happening now. According to RW, the country had met all fifteen conditions laid down by IMF and prospects of an early release of the $2.9 billion under its Extended Fund Facility are bright. When one considers in addition the geopolitical interests that IMF’s shareholders have on Sri Lanka RW’s confidence seems to be justifiable.
The only dark horse in this scenario is NPP with its commitment for system change. Opinion polls indicate that a reasonable chance exists for NPP to pass the post or at least to hold the balance of power were an election to be held now. Understandably, IMF would prefer to avoid such an eventuality.
To the aragalaya youth however, there is unfinished business. System change requires outright renunciation of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism and demands a constitution that reflects that renunciation and guarantees the democratic rights and freedom to all communities and citizens. Under that constitution which would be based on secular principles, the present 13th Amendment would become superfluous. On the contrary, under the existing system that amendment will have only zero chance of being implemented fully. That impossibility might have been the tactical reason why AKD boldly supported RW’s proposal to implement that amendment, because he knew that RW would never be able to do. The system won’t allow him. Similarly, AKD is also silent on the issue of power devolution because power devolution became a necessity to prevent the excesses of majoritarian rule. Under the new constitution however, power would be devolved through the democratic process and guaranteed by the constitution. These are details which need to be sorted out by constitutional experts once the people give mandate to a team that is committed to change the system.
In the meantime, the aragalaya mission has to resume its journey from where it was forced to stop. The time has come to complete its business possibly in coalition with its sympathizers. To the country and its people at large a regime change by ballot, as RW seems to promise, would be meaningless without system change.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia