Colombo Telegraph

The Missing Connection: Street Protests And Presidential Politics

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Apart from the necessary distraction of the watershed elections and government change in India, Colombo’s parlour politics has been keeping its obsession with the future of the presidency in Sri Lanka. However, the parlour discourse of presidential politics is rarefied from street level protest politics, even though it is the Rajapaksa Second Term that has spawned both the obsession with presidential politics as well as the disaffection of the working people towards the government. The last few weeks have shown trade unions getting more and more restive, although they are not storming on the war path yet. But strange as it may seem, there is no articulation of the presidential politics that dominates the Colombo parlours and internet chat platforms, on the one hand, and the almost continuous trade union protests on the streets. This is the dismaying disconnect – between the reality of disaffection among the working people and the fantasies of presidential politics that fascinate the pundits.

This disconnect and its implications are the result of the presidentialization of politics and its growing irrelevance to the experiences and struggles of the majority of the working people. Many of them have been out in force on the streets over the last few weeks protesting against broken promises by the government, its Ponzi scheme for pension gratuities, and stagnant wages and rising cost of living. University teachers, school teachers and principals, railway and printing employees, nurses and medical technologists, bank employees, and CEB unions have been taking to the streets one after another, day after day, to show  their frustrations against the Rajapaksa government.  With deep seated frustrations among the employees, the quality of work in government has also suffered terribly.  The government has ceased to be the people’s benefactor, it has become their malefactor.

Teflon Rajapaksas

After the disastrous shooting of 22 year old Roshan Chanaka in Katunayake on 30 May 2011, the unions have found that they could push back the government on specific issues. The government, however, has learnt the art of appearing to be pushed back, to retreat, even provide tantalizing presidential intervention, but not really doing anything substantial to change anything. If at all it finds a different route to achieve old objectives, or, starts opening new fronts of attack, such as the attack on fishermen protesting in Puttalam over fuel price hike in February 2012, and the attack in Rathupaswela at people asking for clean drinking water in August 2013. At the rate of one government shooting death an year, after the mother of all shooting ended in 2009, there are still six months left in 2014 and no one knows where the next shooting will be.

If the Katunayake shooting was to quell protests over the government’s schemes for the EPF belonging to private sector employees, the government has now opened a new line of attack targeting the pension gratuity of government employees. Can you imagine any government seriously suggesting that retired government employees should obtain gratuity payments as bank loans if they want those payments before the government can find the money to pay them?!

Well, that is what Finance Ministry officials told the Human Rights Commission inquiring into trade union complaints about the Ministry’s latest circular on pension gratuity. The officials who are bottom drawers themselves told the Commissioner that the government has no other choice because of financial shortage. For the same reason, apparently, 18,000 new pensioners have not been receiving their pensions after October 2013. The HR Commissioner has ordered the Commissioner of Pensions to appear in person and explain where the money allocated in the budget for pension payments has gone. We will wait to see what happens. Mind you, this is still at the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission. If nothing happens, don’t be surprised if the complaints find their way to the UNHRC in Geneva. Wouldn’t that be something?

There are other broken promises as well.  The Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) is on the strike-path again realizing that it has been taken for a ride by the government after making high level promises to bring the FUTA strike to its end in October, 2012, after it had been going on for 100 days. The FUTA should have known better, or should know better at least now – after what happened to the extraordinary gazette notification issued under the authority of the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education earlier this year, giving license to private institutions to offer professional education without accreditation by Professional Associations or Institutions. Following requests by the FUTA, the GMOA, and Prof. Carlo Fonseka, the President handsomely ordered the cancellation of the gazette notification. Four months have passed, nothing seems to have been cancelled, and it is now one of the additional reasons for the FUTA to re-launch its 2012 strike.

The ugly developments at the Ruhuna Campus are even a greater reason for a new FUTA strike. The Ruhuna University students have been beaten and faculty members targeted by government thugs because of their opposition to holding the Deyata Kirula exhibition on the campus premises.  In Jaffna, it is a different story. The University premises are barred by the government army from holding anything other than classes for students. The students must not do anything else. How things have changed?

In February 1969, the ill-advised decision of the then UNP government to station the army at the Peradeniya University gymnasium before parading at the Independence Day celebrations in Kandy led to student protests and closure of the university. The bad taste lingered and the mobilized university students were a major factor in the crushing defeat of the UNP in the 1970 elections, including the personal defeat of I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla, the UNP’s Minister of Education, in the Kuliyapitiya electorate. The curses went the other way six years later as the police shooting of Peradeniya University student Weerasuriya, in December 1976, started the undoing of Mrs. Bandaraniake’s SLFP (the United Front was broken by then) government which went down to an even more crushing defeat in the 1977 elections. But nothing touches the Teflon Rajapaksas.

The third option

Student protests, union strikes and Supreme Court rulings against the government were signals that the time was ripe for a change in government. Invariably, protests, strikes and court rulings all came together towards the end of a government’s term to put it out of its misery in the election that was due every five years or so. But after 1977, national elections have become few and far between. The UNP lasted in power for seventeen years with three presidents, and the SLFP has surpassed it by being in power for twenty years with two presidents. This in a country that had seven Prime Ministers over thirty years, between 1947 and 1977, with two of them serving multiple terms and two others dying while in office. The last of the seven Prime Ministers became the first President and nothing has been the same since. It used to be said that frequent government changes created instability and made governing difficult. But what has been so stable over the last twenty years, or thirty years, and has not the level of governance dropped to levels much lower than anything many of us experienced in the first thirty years after independence?

Pundits clinically blame the executive presidential system. That includes the more enlightened among the Rajapaksa supporters, who exonerate the incumbent while blaming the office. And no one is spared – David Cameron, Samantha Power, Jayalalithaa and Navi Pillay (she will soon be out of the scene, but wait for another Modi-like rebuke in Geneva), they all must share the blame for the follies of the Rajapaksa government. Practically every political party and organization, other than the Rajapaksa faction in the UPFA government (that might include the CWC), wants the presidential system abolished. The SLFP has been committed to abolishing the presidency almost from the time it was foisted on the country, but that commitment was quietly omitted in Mahinda Chinthanya II.

Even the UNP that foisted the presidency is now all for its removal. But the UNP, that was all-powerful in introducing the presidency, is all-powerless when it comes to taking it out. No one gives any UNP candidate even quarter of a chance in the next presidential election.  The hegemonic opinion considers a Rajapaksa Third Term as a given. The counter-hegemonic voices are looking for a common candidate to emerge from the wilderness, defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa, and abolish the presidency – all in one fell swoop. An interesting third option, although the idea itself is nothing new, seems to be emerging from opposite sides within the UPFA ranks.

The Old Left and the (new) JHU seem to be on common ground in seeking a constitutional amendment to end the presidential system. The three Left Parties have already written to the SLFP proposing such a change, while the JHU held a meeting last Tuesday at (appropriately) the BMICH seeking all-party consensus to end the presidency. Attending the meeting was the UNP Chief Ranil Wickremesinghe. Going by the way he does politics, any outside initiative is a godsend diversion for him from the internal naggings of his Party. But the JHU prelate, Ven. Athuraliye Ratana Thera, was pointedly clear about his objective, which is not to campaign against the executive presidency at the next presidential election but to prevent it altogether.

President Rajapaksa may not be too receptive to this third option, and certainly not the rest of the clan, although D.E.W. Gunasekara has extended the sop that Mahinda Rajapaksa could return as Executive Prime Minister at the first parliamentary election after voluntarily abolishing, in Asokian style, the Executive Presidency through a simple constitutional amendment. If the Old Left/JHU idea were to start having legs within the UPFA, the proponents of the idea would do well to keep it simple: just a one sentence amendment (like the “Sinhala Only” bill, but for an infinitely better purpose) without the usual shopping list all other desired constitutional changes. Take one constitutional step at a time and avoid an omnibus tumble.

But this old idea now in new clothing will not go far without a substantial section of the old SLFP buying into it. And it would be too much to expect the aging SLFPers after being soporific for so long under the Rajapaksa spell to suddenly wake up and issue an ultimatum to the boss. They need to feel the political pressure from the people. This is where the disconnect between street protests and parlour politics needs to be bridged, and the FUTA is well positioned to play a role in this. Is it also possible to close the old political loop of student protests, union strikes and court rulings to signal the end of a government’s term? The JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, during his recent visit to England, said that there is a “big question mark” about the eligibility of the incumbent president to contest a third term because the 18th Amendment should have been subjected to a referendum before extending the presidential term of office. Of course, it will be argued that the Supreme Court has already determined that a referendum was not necessary. But what harm in the JVP putting the question again to the apex court?

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