17 April, 2024


Transfer Of Formal Power Vs People Power During Societal Transition

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Sri Lankans and those watching from outside are observing a crisis situation in Sri Lanka due to the instability caused by government’s failure to effectively manage the economic crisis facing the country since the beginning of this year. Popular protests called aragalaya (Struggle) involving diverse layers of society emerged as a result. Aragalaya driven by youth leaders and backed by civil society organisations, religious leaders, professional associations artists and indeed the trade union organisations is ‘a transformational force’ seeking change in the political, bureaucratic, law enforcement and justice, institutional and economic system. It has been developed out of the adverse experiences over the last decades in the country with governments that have not been responsive to the people’s needs and aspirations at the bottom of status hierarchies. Its leaders have developed a grounded and analytical reading about the particular causes and consequences of the country’s governance and management culture, style, process, leadership, parties over the previous 70 odd years as well as what needs to happen for a better Sri Lanka in the short and long term. Gall Face Gota Go Gama provided a symbolic venue and a focal point to gather diverse forces and activists.

Since President Gotabaya left the country a few days ago much has been written and commented on who will be the next President and Prime Minister. An acting President is to be formally appointed today (15 July 2022) by the Speaker. Moves are ahead to appoint a Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in the parliament. In a matter of a week or so, it appears that a President will be chosen by the parliament in place of the acting President who is Ranil Wickramasinghe. He has been the Prime Minister during the current crisis appointed by the departed President. All this relates to the transfer of formal power according to the country’s constitution. There are numerous political manoeuvrings behind the scene to bring about a result that each party or group desire. Two main interests in this game for power seem to be those who support Podu Jana Peramuna (PJM), the party led by Rajapaksas enjoying a majority in parliament and the opposition parties. Whether the new president will be one of these two camps or a different combination is yet to be seen. In the meantime, a more fundamental question being raised by activists Is whether the composition of current parliament reflects the true mood and aspirations of people as the ground situation has changed dramatically since the pandemic and recent economic crisis? This raises further questions from a legal and moral sense about the legitimacy of formal power and corresponding ‘political culture’ in a changed situation.

While such moves are taking place to identify and nominate suitable and acceptable individuals for the top positions in governance hierarchy, the people involved in aragalaya or at least some sections are talking about another concept i.e. people power. It is a concept born out of struggle or argalaya based on concrete action by way of resisting a system on the ground by a diverse population who are suffering from the economic crisis as well as the failure of governance in recent decades. It is a collective power pooled together by a range of activists, parties and religious figures who felt that the existing system of governance is not suitable to solve the issues facing the country and its people and a new way has to be found after an interim arrangement is found by all party leaders to address the more immediate vacuum in governance arrangements. Primary aim of people power is to change the existing government -not overthrow it- and provide space and a roadmap designed to create a new or substantially reformed system including a new constitution, removal of executive presidency, more responsive administration, cooperation rather than division. Such power is a combination of efforts by not only the youthful leaders of aragalaya but also the professional organisations such as lawyers, doctors, artists, journalists, actors, academics, and trade unions.

What we are passing through, especially during this and next week is a transitional period in terms of both these powers. Action taken by formal power have repercussions on people power. By the same token, action taken by people power initiators have repercussions on formal power. For example, the recent departure of the former president Gotabaya from the country can be considered as a result of the actions taken by people power. Similarly, actions taken by formal power can have consequences on those exercising people power. E.g. declaration of emergency and curfew. However, such movements need to be understood in terms of the competing social and political forces and their respective strengths and weaknesses. While the actual hardships faced by people contribute to the ability of aragalaya to be strengthened and organise collective action, organisational power and means used for such organisation are also important. For example, aragalaya activists use social media such as mobile phones, face book, internet for spreading their views and demands. Those occupying seats of formal power utilise formal declarations such as gazettes, media releases to convey their views and decisions. News hungry general population inside and outside the country turn to u tube, face book, internet-based news outlets and even TV and radio stations to find out the latest happenings. Where this contest between formal and people power end will be determined by the events yet to unfold in the coming weeks-organised by various actors and circumstantial.

Aragalaya reflecting people power is not a movement limited to realms such as parliamentary consensus, constitutionality or majority power. Its arena of activity has mainly been outside the existing parliament, government and other power structures. Garnering popular support for its platform and galvanising the same for pushing the rulers to change course has been its hallmark. It has achieved some successes by now and increasingly establishing itself as a credible and non-violent people’s struggle for socio-economic, cultural and political change with a humanitarian and non-violent platform. Historians, humanities scholars and social scientists will articulate the way aragalaya was born and expanded to face a dire situation that people in all walks of life were facing prior to its mass activism appealing to vital sectors of the economy, working life, religiosity, community and more. Given the way that the state responded to antigovernment protests in the past with lethal force, aragalaya has designed a creative approach to handle such eventuality with love, compassion, tolerance of difference, non-violence etc.

Whether a new politically significant movement will emerge out of aragalaya is uncertain at this time. The energies, criticisms and constructive ideas unleashed through aragalaya as well as the organisation of diverse interests and groups for a collective objective on a society-wide basis has the power to change the existing system and the nature of formal power if those involved could sustain the momentum in the face of various actions taken and to be taken by those holding formal power. If the crisis and the chaotic situation continues, aragalaya leaders including political parties and religious leaders may step into the task of ad hoc governance through ‘a leadership council’ formed for the very purpose to fill the gap. On the other hand, if those holding positions in the formal power structure are able to bring the crisis situation under some control with credible actions taken to satisfy aragalaya, a temporary calm can be the result. Such actions involve who will become the next President and PM, whether an all-party interim government is to be appointed to run the country until next elections, when will the election be held, and importantly whether the essential goods for living will arrive and distributed fairly? Establishing trust with the people who are suffering is an essential task for the current formal leadership.

Current changes are not driven by ideology alone. They are the result of material conditions in the country including the nature of economic and power structure. Activists are not driven by idealism but they are driven by powerful ideas.

In essence, what we have to understand is that there are those elements in the country who like the system to continue. This includes not only politicians and their families but others from the economic sphere, security forces, media, professions, and so on. On the other hand, there are those who desire a change in the system. They include farmers, fishermen, workers, students, religious leaders, media personnel, academics, artists and more. As I outlined in a previous article, these are competing forces for a share of country’s resources -natural and man-made for sustaining life. With or without an open struggle such as the one we are witnessing today, competition for a share of rewards from the system will continue.  At this time this competition has sharpened due to the extreme and unequal distribution of rewards or indeed their shortages.   If those holding formal power believe that the popular uprising that emerged from the material conditions in society can be suppressed by gazette notifications and acquiring more formal power, there can emerge a situation when the people at large may not follow the orders issued by formal power holders. Social disorganisation and human suffering can come to such a level that those holding formal power can lose control of the fast-changing situation. This is called revolutionary change. What is necessary is cool heads to prevail and open dialogue with the long-term national interest in mind. Sri Lanka cannot afford short term fixes that do not yield long term benefits or heavy handed unitary/military steps by the formal establishment to suppress popular dissent on the pretext of unsubstantiated grounds such as violence by the suffering and protesting people at a time when the international attention is firmly focused on the Island nation and its predicament.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 3

    The next Phase of Aragalaya is to get rid of the US-backed soft military dictator and puppet, Acting President Bondscam Ranil Wickramasinghe (ha, ha, haa!) must go!
    RW is holding the country to Ransom now that US citizen Goat Rajapakse is gone to a US base in Singapore, Saudi or UAE!
    He has called the Protestors “Fascists” although he is a shameless dictator who is despised and lost his seat! US citizen Basil who rushed off to America must be arrested.
    Why this legal fetishism? That corrupt Ranil must become President?! US backed military dictator of SL must go??! The only reason that RW hangs on despite his house being torched and being universally hated and having lost the last election is because he is America’s Manchurian Candidate to deliver Lanka into IMF clutches for asset stripping after the Staged Default!

    • 2

      Wow, another OLD US puppet Karu has been name for President?
      Time for the younger generation to take over and the Araglaya and prevent the Ranil, Karu and other old foggies taking over.

      The US DOD “Sea Vision” operation under the guise of training Sri lanka Navy that has embargod fuel from Russia and Iran reaching Sri Lanka must lifted or the UN Humanitarian Disaster Capitalists will take over Sri Lanka like they did Haiti and destroy it!

    • 0

      Siri G and Damma Disanayake appears to be in the same Wavelength:


    • 0

      According to Nagananda Ranil’s nomination to be a National list MP came too late. Therefore his place as a list MP is invalid. There are some time limnits for nomination by a political party after it received notification from the Election Commision. He lodged a case about this but not heard. Now he has filed another case along with Dhammika Perera’s appointment. If what he says is true, then the secretary of Parliament shjould not accept Ranil’s nomination to be the next President. In any case, Ranil is the darling of the West and now East e.g. China. Remember it was during his term that Hambantota was given to China in exchange of 1.5 billion dollars. How many more national assets he will give to anyone willing to give dollars? Will he suppress aragalaya by using security forces? If he is elected, he will claim he is constitutionally appointed. I am sure there will be constitutional challenges afterwards. Podu Jana Peramuna MPs need to think carefully what they are about to do in electing the next President. They will be held accountable for the consequences including any human and civic rights violations by a new President and a government dominated by PJP. World is watching. Sri Lanka’s politicians cannot do whatever they like on the day as they used to in the past because the sufferings of people have crossed the red line. They have to come up with solutions not more problems(political). Itr would be interesting to see what the Mahanayakas say about Ranil as President?

      • 0

        “Remember it was during his term that Hambantota was given to China in exchange of 1.5 billion dollars. How many more national assets he will give to anyone willing to give dollars? “
        An asset is something that earns money. Under Sri Lankan management, Hambantota lost money, and therefore was a liability. Under efficient Chinese management, it is profitable. Just like Srilankan airlines, which people think is a “national asset” but loses 20 billion a year.
        The bottom line here is that Sri Lankan management cannot operate effectively due to politics.
        Isn’t it better to get money to hand than keep losing it?

  • 1

    “In essence, what we have to understand is that there are those elements in the country who like the system to continue”

    This is what is going to happen now even after the former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the country or resigned from the executive President without using his power to use military to control the Aragalaya and people. When the President and Prime Minister resigned accepting that it is they who were responsible for the bankruptcy of the economy then the whole government including those members of parliament have to loose their power or resign from the parliament membership. The v 20th amendment to the constitution which gave the extra powers to the President becomes invalid with the resignation of President and PM who accepted and resigned that they and government misused their power. So, the appointment of PM by a failed President to govern this country is immoral and against to democracy. If he is not a failed President, why he asked to resign his former Prime Minister? It is not good for the country and people to use the same system that failed the country and people.
    The country and People should be the priority instead of a constitution which was misused by the government. What is the purpose having an all party government where the President has the powers to do the same again for next years? The people asking for change now, not in two years time.

  • 1

    Why not nominate Eran Wickremaratne for President and Shanakkian Rasamanickam for PM
    That will be the best choice

    • 1

      Very good proposal. But you aren’t considering the Mahanayakas. What do you think these fake Buddhist bastions of blind racism will say about an Evangelical Christian and a Tamil Hindu in these positions? Even a murderous ignoramus like Gota is preferable, as long as he is a Sinhala Buddhist.

  • 1

    You are right in saying Sinhala Buddhists do not want Christians or Hindus in the coridors of power. They don’t like them in the national Cricket team. When a Tamil lady wins some international sports award, GoSL and media ignores it completely. The Racist country never come right

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.