By Rajan Philips –
May Day this year arrives in the middle of an already month long political protest. The confluence of the two is a historically fascinating coincidence. The political implications of the current protests have proved to be quite consequential so far, but while their direction is clear there is no certainty as to when and how they will end. To be sure, there is no end game or end state in politics. Politics is always work in progress, a perpetual quest for something more perfect. To be sure, as well, the current protests in Sri Lanka are more a revolt against too much and too unbearable imperfection than they are for anything identifiably more perfect.
There are still suggestions that the current protests calling for the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime are irresponsible because they don’t have a post-Gota plan. The reality is that the only plan that can be before the country now is to get the incumbent President out of the way so that a new interim government can start planning and acting to find a way out of the crisis that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has singlehandedly led the country into. Before asking the protesters on Galle Face Green for their post-Gota plan, one must ask the President the same question.
What is the President’s plan for the post-protest period? What plan or process has he been showing for one whole month after the protests began? Except taking one more wrong step forward and four hasty steps in retreat. He has all the powers under the 20th Amendment and an elder brother, who is also a former President, for Prime Minister. What plans are the two showing jointly or severally? The two brothers have come to such a pass that each wants the other one to quit.
By the end of the week, the President would seem to have managed to turn the tables on his older brother by shifting the focus and attention to the resignation of the Prime Minister from that of the President. For this Gotabaya Rajapaksa owes a great deal to the Wimal-Gaman-Vasu troika and Maithripala Sirisena. The infamous troika has mysteriously shifted its allegiance from Mahinda to Gota. As for Sirisena, he has always had a soft corner for Gota among the brothers, and perhaps no corner for either Mahinda, whom he betrayed after breaking hoppers with him, or for Basil, whom he hates more than any other living creature. For all four, however, the primary and sole motive is political survival as parliamentarians, now and until death do them part.
After a spate of conflicting reports on Friday on the status of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, the old horse has come to terms with the reality that his race is over. The Island on Saturday said as much: “Premier Mahinda ready to bow out.” The certainty of his bowing out has been picked up by international media as well. But that does not change anything. And nothing will change unless Gotabaya Rajapaksa also quits, either gallantly along with his brother, or ignobly alone under more intense protest pressure.
The President is continuing to play his half-clever games by calling for a show of hands for an interim, all-party government, even though he knows full well that there will never be all-party consensus on anything so long as he remains President. All the opposition parties have unequivocally said that they will not be a party to anything ‘interim’ under the current President. So, the President’s next government will only be a recycled, dressed-up government of the SLPP and the SLFP with the 40+/- independents included, albeit with a reduced majority. Is that going to satisfy the protesters and send them home claiming victory? Get real.
In the makeup of the current parliament, SLPP is still the biggest bloc (and block), the SJB comes second, the tri-headed and self-serving independents come third, and the JVP has only three MPs to count for all the weight it carries. The Tamil and Muslim parties are mostly for the resignation of both the President and the Prime Minister, although a handful of them are disgraceful enough to have been allegedly bought for money and/or co-opted into cabinet. As GG Ponnambalam used to say, that is their “itch.”
As I have argued earlier, at times to the annoyance of puritanical leftists, the catalytic role in breaking the current stalemate clearly falls on the SJB and the JVP. For starters, they have to break the stalemate between them. Without even limited co-ordination between them, the SJB and the JVP will not be able break the current deadlock in parliament. The least they could do is to enable parliament to pass a No Confidence Motion against the President. A No Confidence Motion against the government is irrelevant now because of the new vacuum that will be created if Mahinda Rajapaksa were to “bow out”. And because an NCM against the government is not going to do anything to the President.
A No Confidence Motion against the President is constitutionally appropriate even though it will not be binding for the President to resign in compliance. As well, passing an NCM against the President is the only way by which parliament can align itself with the protesting people and keep itself relevant in the moment. Nothing can or will happen until the President and the Prime Minister both agree to resign and do resign. Once there is agreement over resignations, parliament can act to elect one of its MPs as interim President to succeed the resigning President. It does not require much brainpower to formulate an agenda for an interim government, for modifying the presidential system through a constitutional amendment, and for calling a timely parliamentary election.
The SJB and the JVP ought to appreciate that the ongoing protests do not require any help from them for mobilization outside parliament. The singular contribution they can now make is to bring parliament into alignment with the protests. That is necessary to make it impossible for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to pretend being President. And leave it to the people and their protests to make it inevitable for the President to bow out like his older brother.
The protests that began more than a month ago in Mirihana shifted to Galle Face opposite the Presidential Secretariat ten days later and has kept growing. A General Strike was successfully launched in solidarity with the protest by a thousand trade unions. The trade unions have warned that if President Rajapaksa and his entire cabinet, which includes the Prime Minister, do not resign immediately the unions sill launch a continuous strike from 6th May. The voice of the people could not be clearer and louder. When will parliament start hearing the people clearly without vacillation, and start acting without hesitation? That is the question.