4 March, 2024

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Election Of A New President: Old Wine In A New Bottle Or System Change?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

On 20th July 2022 most Sri Lankans watched the events in Sri Lanka’s parliament with keen interest to see which candidate for the President was to be elected by parliamentarians to serve the balance of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s remaining term? In one sense it was a momentous day because people who are tired of old politics and protesting have been demanding a ‘system change’ to get over their short-term difficulties resulting from the shortages of food, fuel, medicine etc on one hand and the structural plus cultural problems in the politico-governance system on the other. They wanted to see a parliament and a President who are responsive to their needs and aspirations rather than a debating and discussion house focused on trivial issues or mudslinging at each other. The event was significant because under normal circumstances the executive President in the country is elected directly by people in a Presidential election. In this context, this election of a new President by parliamentarians was a unique event. Many tend to question whether the President thus elected and indeed the current parliament have the trust and confidence of the people from the last election when 69 million people voted for the former President Gotabaya. During the recent protests by those aligned with aragalaya have been arguing that the current system of governance -both political and economic- do not serve the interests of people at large. They have to be meaningful to the people outside those who hold levers of power.

Outcome of the ballot in parliament on that day will not satisfy many who look at the present condition and its causes from their own personal or political positions, particularly on the basis of negative ground experience. It will not satisfy those who are demanding an all-party government, including a consensus President and Prime Minister agreed by the parties represented in the parliament, to steady the ship. This may include the religious hierarchy, professional and civil society organisations, and of course aragalaya activists. Aragalaya activists want the government in place to implement their action plan. As Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected by a majority of parliamentarians, mostly from Podu Jana Peramuna, aragalaya activists are vowing to continue their struggle for a system change. National People’s Movement led by the JVP and others such as the Front Line Socialist party also follow a similar stance. Whether the current system of governance is to be preserved or protected is part of the current political and social discourse in Sri Lanka. It came to focus as a result of aragalaya activities centred around Gall face GotaGoHome makeshift village. When we talk about the system of governance it includes many layers and players. One layer or element that is being criticised widely is the centralised system of governance led by an executive president while the parliament has been made into a lame duck institution in the process of governance. People have criticisms about the public service and the absence of effective policy making to make a difference in people’s lives as well. This subject requires a lengthy examination and articulation at another time.

The distinction I like to emphasise here is between a President and a government that is patriotic and nationalist compared to partisan and narrow-minded one. Sri Lanka is in a dire situation economically and the decision-making or governance process at the national level has to be made efficient, cautious, consultative, wise and forward looking. This requires a cabinet and a Prime Minister who are able to examine issues at hand with the support of experts in various fields while being sensitive to the pulse of the nation. Collective wisdom should be the key rather than the exercise of individual authority over nationally significant decisions as traditional leaders used to do. A high degree of professionalism is necessary not only in policy formulation but also in securing the necessary support within the government before implementing them. A government that includes diverse parties and groups can provide challenges in this regard. However, with enough diplomacy they can be resolved internally.

Patriotism is an essential ideology and practice necessary at this juncture because if partisan politics is made the priority, Sri Lanka can face critical circumstances when it has to make compromises on its national sovereignty and/or independence. Partly such challenges can emerge from the economic crisis. Partly they can also emerge from geo-political circumstances in the region. As the country has been borrowing from regional powers heavily on a short-term basis and it will have to borrow more from the IMF and other international lenders in coming years, unless collective intelligence is not applied by a unitary cabinet and a President, the country can become highly dependent on external powers including the global market to the extent that it can lose its own identity, culture, uniqueness and the very existence. In the face of such a danger, it is imperative that parties and groups in the political sphere put down their weapons they usually employ in normal circumstances and work together to bring the situation under some control until the next election when people will have the opportunity to elect a government of their choice.

From the point of suffering masses, it is time that we all focus on assisting the vulnerable as we did during tsunami. On this front, Sri Lankan diaspora can be more proactive. Local organisations and the media can also play a critical role here. This means that the media and other opinion makers need to focus more on the social and economic welfare dimension rather than the political issues per se. Recently, the international media has been telecasting scenes from struggling families in Colombo. They show how children are being fed with very little to cook? Parental anxieties and paradoxes can be clearly seen from the faces shown. When we talk to family members at home, they explain the altered reality in the country due to the lack of fuel and inability to use their vehicles for transport or even hire a three-wheeler to go and see a doctor in an emergency.   People are not living in normal times. It is an emergency situation (not the one declared by the acting president) in every sense. People need to pool their energies and wisdom to ride this rough period and find lasting solutions for the political and economic emergency. This is possible only through an interim arrangement like the one starting today. Whatever the pitfalls in the arrangement, Sri Lanka does not have another option to face the existential challenge it is facing. Working together should be the motto for the rest of this and next year.

However, in doing so more creative and productive ways to overcome the existential challenge need to be found. There are examples from the government and non-governmental sectors that can be harnessed for the betterment of the country. Recently I watched an interview with an entrepreneur who is producing apparels for export. He uses imported clothes for the purpose. His company provides a dividend to the employees from the profits. His aim is to pass on his share of the company to the people in time to come. Such an example shows a different kind of logic for organising enterprises on a basis other than the individual gain. Altruism is at play in this example. If the profit-making imperative is the only aim, as it is in the private sector today under the neoliberal economic doctrine, it can be exploitative to the nation’s end. As a country we have travelled on this path until we realise that the treasury is empty and there is no money to pay for the fuel, medicine or food.

A new government and a President have to look for different ways to build social enterprises, for example by using cooperative spirit and principles rather than pure competitive market principles and practices. This can be applied in awarding tenders or sourcing food, and other consumables. While the world economy is made up of the so-called free market where companies compete with each other to market their products and services supported by their governments, it is not impossible to find examples of socially responsible, sustainable practitioners and solutions to economic and social problems countries face. Sri Lankan leaders in the new government are well advised to search for such alternative, sustainable, community-oriented solutions to the country’s problems rather than rely more and more on the market principles and practices even though economic gurus trained in Western economic theories may advocate the latter. This is where some caution has to be exercised in seeking help from IMF even though it may be necessary in the interim.

All this requires community empowerment. As a concept and practice the political leaders in Sri Lanka did not show much interest in encouraging this in the past due to the fear of losing their voting banks. They thought community empowerment goes against their own power and their party prospects. This mentality needs to be abandoned now. Aragalaya has shown what can be achieved through community empowerment? It not only pooled members’ physical energies. Members pooled their ideas, aspirations and criticisms of the existing ways of thinking and doing to come up with an innovative way to struggle and influence the political authority in a short period of time. They put into practice ideas and agendas that we who work on the decolonisation of knowledge space discuss remotely when we examine problems of the dependent state, economy, education, social science and thinking in the global south. No doubt that the unique circumstances prevailing in the country produced a pantheon of civil activists who could take on the might of a political and economic establishment with their sheer determination and activism. However, what they have achieved so far shows the possibilities for creating different ways of thinking and doing to overcome the fundamental issues facing the nation. I hope the newly elected president and the government will embrace this new approach to governance and politics free from corruption and work together to achieve the necessary outcomes for the good of the country and its people setting aside narrow considerations -be they party political, ethnic, religious or regional! This is imperative because Sri Lanka has a difficult path to travel in the coming years in order to establish normalcy. There is no need to declare emergency by gazette notifications because emergency is already there in terms of people’s survival capacity.

Postscript

It is reported that last night (21st July 2022), after the new president’s swearing in ceremony, troops moved to the Gall Face protest site and forcibly removed protesters. Videos circulating in the social media and reproduced in mainstream media show they were using heavy handed tactics to chase the protesters away. If this is an indication of the new president Wickremesinghe’s approach to solving the systemic issues at a time when the population is going through severe hardships, it will ultimately fail. What is necessary is a consensual and consultative approach for long term sustainability of the system. Given that Sri Lanka has had a bloodied past both in the south and the north, people do not need hardline approaches from their rulers. Instead the rulers need to listen to the people who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the system of governance in multiple ways. It is far better for the authorities to encourage positive initiatives rather than pushing the people, in particular youthful. Segment, toward anti systemic struggles. They are seeking a just society.it was promised by former president JRJ in late 70s and during the decades following the system has become more unjust. This is the reason why there is an aragalaya (struggle or confrontation).

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Latest comments

  • 7
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    On the 20th, I realized that SLPP is actually Sri Lanka Political Prostitutes.

    P.S: My sincere apologies to those who are in the oldest profession!

    • 3
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      Jit,
      Good morning.
      True.
      Prostitution started from 1970 when UPLF was formed with SLFP/CP/LSSP combine and it has now progressed to new dimensions??!!
      Money Talks all the way?

  • 0
    5

    Sri Lanka back to normal. Royalists as president and PM

    • 2
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      Dr.S. G and Tharma, When Royalists look for royalists, do you call that system change. Central bank robbery was by royalist. Karma has consequences for all who rob and murder. Justice and righteousness are not understood by robbers even after they are burnt out. They want to rob more and more. Hence aragalaya struggle is to finish family queues due to these robberies.

      • 0
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        Whether we like or not, there are system protectors of all sorts. Because the political class has constructed a patron-client relation network through the party/coalition,famly,kinship and friendship circles(plus deal karayo), supported by all kinds f otehrs who support it for a rupee, the system is not only being protected by such vested interests but also promoted via various mechanisms including the constitution,democracy,parliament etc. When these promotion mechanisms and their occupants no longer hold the trust of people outside the circle of loyalists(not royalists), the system is in trouble. However, change does not happen overnight. It can come about step by step over time or in one go if one of the the competing powers become dominant on a range of dimensions e.g. legal, political,international, national. The sum total of the competetion for power will be the determinant factor to give victory to one sie over another.

    • 0
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      “Royalists as president and PM”…..Opp Leader, Sagala R etc. etc

  • 4
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    “This is possible only through an interim arrangement like the one starting today.”
    Dr. Siri Gamage,
    I don’t know whether you are having the same opinion as yesterday. If you are, you are one of them who are happy to kill your own children for the sake of the so called “horse trading President” as an interim government.
    I don’t know whether it is a confirmed news that IMF said now they will not talk until they are confident that there is stability in this country and they can get back their loan. All international partners have condemned the brutal attack on protestors and international journalists by the President Ranil Wickremasinghe.

  • 8
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    “old-wine-in-a-new-bottle-or-system-change”
    No, the wine and bottle are exactly the same.
    There is a slight change in the label.

  • 4
    2

    Siri Gamage, Please look for a different pastime.
    I have to explain myself.
    … Or System Change, is what your are asking (nay, to be fair by you, doubting).
    What prompts your doubt. What recorded past prompts that doubt.
    When we had opportunities in the past, no one even dared to speak of a system change. You know why. Because it was working well for you. Now, when you also feel the heat, you want to be a nice boy!
    .
    Ranil has been there. Expecting change from him is like hoping for miracles. Not going to happen.

  • 2
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    Election Of A New President: Old Wine In A New Bottle Or System Change?

    Teaching what to do advice from US Envoy

    The first action he took wrong approach to people of Galle face and his standing in front international heads raises concerns over violence against protesters and US envoy so called experience president teaching what to do “This is not the time to crack down on citizens,” she pointed out. to look ahead at the immediate and tangible steps the government can take to regain the trust of the people, restore stability, and rebuild the economy

  • 1
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    A putrid wine? in a cracked bottle.

  • 2
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    Whether one likes it or not, the election of the present President by the “MPs” through a “Secret Ballot” system is in compliance with the present “Constitution”. However, in my opinion, (a) bringing Ranil W to the Parliament after a lapse of many months of his defeat at the Parliamentary Election and (b) appointing Ranil W to be the “PM” and (c) appointing Ranil W as the “Actg. President” before officially communicating the “Resignation” of Gotabaya,(d) holding an election in Parliament to “Elect” an “MP” by majority vote to fill the vacancy of “President” all ALL well “CRAFTED” and a well written “SCRIPT” that no one could have stood against because in the eye of the law, that “Process” was in compliance with the Constitution. That is how the “Rajapakses” “DYNASTY” works and is made very much “Acceptable” and “Feasible” by a massive “Majority” seats in Parliament. So this “Election” of Ranil W was “OBVIOUS” and “NO MIRACLE”. So be with it.

    What is now NEEDED, with the “Experience” gained is to “CHANGE” this whole system together with the Constitution. If not, we will continue to “COMPLY” and “COMPLAIN” and argue “FOR” and “AGAINST” what has happened. Aren’t we doing it even through these articles by the “Professors”?

  • 2
    1

    Hi Siri,

    Truly and truthfully written. Only party that can implement all that you speak of are the modern Marxist ones of the JVP et al.

    Economic gurus trained in Western economic theories might advocate the former, for they do not want self-sufficiency but constant innovative money-making procedures to top their treasuries. Colonization was the only way the West could survive.

    But at this time, they too have realized a grater socialistic environmentalist, climate recovery approach……..they seem to be putting the brakes on their old-fashioned money over money tactics to substantiate their existence. It would be a relief to see Sri Lanka putting a brake on their desires for out-moded capitalistic expansionism via China, or even India.

    We can thus, never expect Ranil to rest easy in this new-fangled Western thought of greater environmental socialism (for the better of capitalism). When he and his family horde the country historical artifacts for their exclusive parlor parties, rather than put them for the benefit of the Lankan Masses, and then use Batalanda tactics to punish people revolutionizing in their suffering, we can then be sure that no good to the country can come from a Ranil presidency.

  • 0
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    If the script in the constitution and constitutionalism can solve current problems in the countruy-economic, political,institutional, social and cultural- those with authority would have done so months/years ago. Likewise, if the parliament (or its majority in authority)can solve the problems, they would have done so earlier. All have shown their inability to do so. Solutions have to be found either (a) with a truly all party interim governmen , (b) National Council established by all those parties,groups and organisations who want to join hands to seek collecive solutions (c) a combination of these two. The dominanat and authoritative paradigm and mentality of governance reinforced by executive President and majoritarian governance may not be the mechanism that can find solutions for the problems.Hence the application of brute force over cooperation.

    • 0
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      Peradeniya Critical Tradition: All propositions at (a), (b), and (c) will not work in the present situation. The PEOPLE have lost “TRUST” and “CONFIDENCE” in all those models. That “All Party” is the most “HATED” and the “National Council” is yet another considered being a “Gimmick” talked of by the “Elite” composed both by the “Viyaththu” and “Civil Society” – a band of “Gymnastics”.

      The SOLUTION is to hold a Parliamentary Election and give the PEOPLE to “DECIDE” on their representatives. This is the most desirable time for it because the people are fed up with the “OLD” (Aged) and the “ROGUES” who are in Parliament. The people want a “CHANGE” in “Political Culture”, “Economy” and “Social Set Up” together with a TEAM of “YOUNG” and “PROMISING” (Dedication, skill, etc.) to manage the Governing functions. This THURST for change is widely expressed and the “Old Slavery” to “Party and Leadership Worship” has dwindled to a minimum.

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