By Kumar David –
From about mid-September to late November this year the President was on the back foot; defensive and acknowledging that his Administration had lost pubic support. Then the hard-core around him fought back till Anura Kumara Dissanayake exposed regime and Finance Minister Basil Rajapakasa’s contractual shenanigans in the LNG/Yugadanavi deals. (During the fightback we had three proclamations and appointments of task forces for greening Sri Lanka and reposing much power in the military). Now in the second week of December President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has turned tail again and made a run for cover. This is my interpretation of the impulsive prorogation of parliament. All this shows that state-power can be still be concerned in Sri Lanka and that the checks and balances, the bouquets and brickbats of democratic contest are alive. The press is free enough and the opposition bouncy.
There is another bloke in a similar fix now, Boris Johnson. But there’s a big difference from the perspective of democracy. Parliamentary democracy is secure in Britain; governments come and go, there are infractions on fairness but God Save the Queen and all that, it muddles on. Not so in third world countries where economic weakness keeps the kettle sizzling; in Sri Lanka a dissipated regime is on the boil. Defending the remnants of the democratic order is crucial. The usual approach is for the opposition to band together for this purpose. There is no need to pretend to be putative partners in a future government. Not at all, as in 2015 the task is minimal and it is defensive. Except this each party is free go its way.
There are four entities which can play a role in this regard – the JVP, the SJB, the TNA and the multiple Muslim factions. It is good to set down the programmatic differences between them so that we do not confuse ourselves. The Muslim entities are splintered so it is not easy. I do not speak of them hereafter except once. This summary is my understanding; if I have eared, readers are welcome to amend.
Sajith Premadasa I believe favours the retention of a presidential system but not all in the SJB may be likeminded. The JVP wants it abolished and a return to the parliamentary version. The TNA after years of vacillation now prefers the parliamentary option. All proclaim the virtues of democracy, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary etc. etc. you know the usual litany. All abhor a one-party state. All prefer a mixed electoral arrangement – proportional and directly elected parliamentary representations (details differ).
The JVP and the SJB-TNA are poles apart. The latter are aficionados of liberal-capitalism – free-markets, investor-capitalists in the lead, penetration of foreign investors into economy and portfolio finance; the state to be responsible only for welfare (health and education) and infrastructure. The TNA doesn’t understand any of this – maybe just as well. The JVP envisages a bigger role for the public sector and sees the significance of directing economic policy. It accepts the need for private capital in economic development but is wary of a tilt in class balances to the disadvantage of the less privileged. It sees the need for foreign investment but will be watchful. I think it would favour foreign-local joint development. There is nothing new in either of these models, both are well established in Asia. The former in Singapore and Korea, the latter Vietnam and Mongolia. I do not include China as an example of the second model (though it is the prototype) because of gigantic differences in scale and in international significance.
The National Question
Though the JR enacted 13A in its heart of hearts the SJB (except the late Mangala) is uncomfortable with power devolution to minorities and terrified of being identified as soft on the Tamils. Being soft on the Muslims seems to be less dastardly. The raison d’être of the TNA is democratic rights and power devolution to the Tamils, ideally Federalism. The Muslims are ok with anything as long as the community is not harassed. I know the TNA is genuinely against separatism; a lousy status under the Sinhalese is better than being boxed-up in the arid and internationally insulated North and East. The JVP seems to be dumbstruck on devolution though it has dropped its former demand for the repeal of 13A and the abolition of Provincial Councils.
I have not touched on culture, education and women’s issues because my Editor is not infinitely generous with the word-count on Wednesdays – he is less mean on the weekend. What I have tried to do is to explain why ‘everybody getting together’ in the sense of a coalition government is infeasible but everybody uniting against a rogue state for the defence of democracy is essential for the next 18 to 24 months, after which the government, though facing defeat in the next election cycle will not dare hanky-panky to scuttle or fiddle them.