By Harini Amarasuriya –
One of the things that I have learned during the past 11 months in parliament, is the importance of timing in politics. As a member of the opposition in a parliament where the government wields a large majority, I understood fairly early that this government wasn’t about to be magnanimous about their majority or relax their absolute grip on power. Demonstrating their might over the opposition – the fact that they could use their numbers to push through many things – from bills to parliamentary agendas and procedures – was deliberate and calculated and they never let up. Even when they could let things go – such as appointments to committees – if they were interested in signalling a more cooperative relationship with the opposition – this simply did not happen. At every opportunity, they used brawn and noise to get their way. Operating in such an environment, as members of the opposition, requires an immense amount of patience and a large dose of political acumen – both which admittedly, I need to develop much more!
The Samaji Jana Balawegaya’s (SJB) decision to move a motion of no confidence against Minister Udaya Gammanpila took us by surprise. Yes, the government was beginning to show signs of division. Public opinion was swinging away from them much faster than excepted and murmurs of discontent could be heard from within government ranks. The government was looking incompetent, weak and out of touch and becoming the butt-end of ridicule, especially on social media. The aura and magic of the Rajapakse brand was definitely getting a battering. What was critical for the opposition at this point was not to allow the emerging divisions and weaknesses to heal.
The NPP was of the view as made clear by Comrade Anura Kumara Dissanayake during the debate on the no-confidence motion, that mishandling of the no-confidence motion by the SJB provided an opportunity for the government to once again close ranks against the opposition and demonstrate its strength. None of the other opposition parties outside the SJB signed on to the no-confidence motion. It was quite obvious that with no election in sight and therefore no possibility at this point of a shift in the balance of power, whatever the disagreements within the ruling alliance, none of the constituent parties would do anything openly to show any division within government ranks. Even those whose absence in parliament during preceding weeks was notable – like Minister Wimal Weerawansa, rallied around to defend the government vociferously during the no-confidence debate, and predictably, the motion was not only defeated, but provided a platform from which the government (which for some weeks had been forced on to the back foot) to signal cohesion.
The NPP voted in favour of the no-confidence motion after much discussion because we were of the view that the government had placed an unfair burden on the people at this point with the increase in fuel price. For instance, fishing communities, bludgeoned by the X-Press Pearl disaster on top of the general economic downturn, were especially badly affected. Across the board, the hike in fuel prices meant a price increase on several essential goods – a price increase that few can afford at this point. However, we could have expressed and mobilised our opposition to the fuel increase without also giving an opportunity to the government to regroup. Despite our misgivings regarding the no-confidence motion, we voted in favour to mark our protest at the fuel hike and the rapidly unbearable increase in cost of living. The cost of essentials – food stuff – is higher in Sri Lanka than almost all neighbouring countries. A substantial percentage of household income is spent on food. With loss of income and employment experienced by many due to the downturn in the economy, these price hikes are proving to be unbearable for many.
The debates around the no-confidence motion both inside and outside parliament, highlighted the volatility at the current political moment. Right now, there are various groups and individuals who are advocating a joint opposition or the need for all those opposed to the Rajapakse regime to come together and form an alliance. Various potential candidates for the next Presidential election are being discussed and efforts are underway to revive the idea of a ‘common candidate’ from the opposition. Comrade Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s critical comments against the SJB’s during the no-confidence motion were painted by some as evidence of NPP’s refusal to cooperate with the main opposition or an uncalled for attack on the Leader of the Opposition. It was also suggested that it reflected NPP’s reluctance to work with other political parties and movements. This is an extremely superficial reading not only of NPP’s position but of this current political moment. NPP is an alliance and has always indicated that it is open to discussion and collaboration on areas of common interest. The NPP is and will continue to be fully engaged in joint political and mass action. However, the idea of a ‘common electoral front’ needs to be deliberated carefully and the common programme developed prudently.
What most efforts to form a ‘common front’ or field a ‘common candidate’ or calls for a ‘joint opposition’ fail to recongise is the extent to which the disastrous failures of the Maithri-Ranil government, which included members of the SJB, contributed to the return of the Rajapaksas to power and how stained the last government and those associated with it are in the eyes of the people of this country. The last government’s failure to deliver on the promise of ‘good governance’ not just returned the Rajapakses to power, but has also made the idea of change and reform highly suspect. What people are yearning for is something fresh and untainted by past debacles, not simply a re-hash of what was offered before and what failed before. This is the challenge before us all at the moment.
One of the key breaks that have to be made with the past is with regard to the economy. It is now abundantly clear that we are heading towards a debt trap unlike anything we have ever experienced before. Whatever the glib assurances being offered by the government there is no doubt that the months and years to come are going to be extremely tough for the majority of people and that the government’s only response to the economic crisis is selling assets and getting further into debt. Already, consumers are experiencing shortages of goods: shelves in grocery shops are beginning to look bare; prices of mobile phones, computers and computer accessories have shot up. Particularly for those of my generation and above, memories of the times of austerity and shortages in the 1970s are being re-kindled. Public services are barely able to deliver and social security is at its lowest. Since the majority of people have little to no safety nets to protect them from economic crises, there will only be an intensification of discontent and unrest.
Yet, this does not mean that change of regime will be easy or a given. The people of this country have been fed far too many lies for far too long. Promises of change and reform are made and broken. Whatever alternative we offer the people at the next election must be evident in policy positions, ideologies as well as political practice and culture. The alternative we offer to the brand and politics of the Rajapaksas, must not be simply about replacing one set of people with another – but an alternative that is based on a choice people have on substantive issues, especially with regard to economic and institutional policies.
The politics in which the NPP is currently engaged is precisely to mobilise around that alternative: an alternative that is not limited to rhetoric of change and difference. In that effort to mobile and alternative political and socio-economic model, certainly, there will be collaboration and co-operation with a variety of other groups and individuals. It will include struggles where we may come together on issues where we can form a common platform or agree on common positions. But it does not mean that we can over-estimate the strength of growing public dissent or take the challenges before us lightly. It is also important to note that any electoral opportunity for challenging the current government’s hold on power is at least 3 years away – and as the opposition, we have to be able to read the political moment carefully and choose our battles strategically with the long haul in mind. The growing discontent and the ineffectual nature of the ruling party does not mean that power will shift automatically or easily to another camp. There is work to be done – much work to be done. The NPP will always be open to broaden its alliance; at the same time, we believe the alternative we offer the people of this country must provide a real choice rather than a mere political charade that seeks to obtain power at any cost.
*A version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on the 31st of July