Image via Maithripala Sirisena
A change of guard
The future of Sri Lanka’s democracy has reached a pivotal point. On the 9th of January, it awoke after decades of paralytic slumber. The nepotism, corruption and excesses of the Rajapakse regime were not unknown or unsuspected; but Mahinda himself was seen as a strong leader – especially based on his credentials as the leader of an unprecedented military success that defeated a 30-year brutal separatist movement. Their successful execution of the war effort earned his ‘family-led’ government its popular perception as the more stable and secure choice as opposed to the opposition which for 29 consecutive elections, had failed to win the confidence of a majority of the electorate.
However, the events of January 9th give as much reason for celebration as for continued vigilance and concern. The breakdown of the rule of law, broad impunity with which those close to the regime were able to abuse power and public wealth as well as the widespread nepotism and cronyism that characterised the Rajapakse regime were social cancers that had to be removed. The only democratic option for doing so was through the electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse; on whom the political capital and legitimacy of the regime largely rested. The president and his cronies had everything to lose with the looming electoral defeat and therefore had every incentive to subvert the will of the people if it threatened to change the regime. There are allegations that they planned to do precisely that. The outcome of investigations into their alleged attempts halt or annul the results of the election and remain in power with the support of elements of the armed forces are expected reveal the full extent of the threat they posed to Sri Lanka’s democratic framework and culture. It is the highest form of treason and anyone found guilty must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The other extraordinary – though not unexpected – development on the 9th of January was the swearing in of Ranil Wickremasinghe – leader of the longstanding and virtually unelectable opposition – as prime-minister. The Sirisena manifesto also made it explicit that Mr Wickremasinghe would be appointed as prime minister under his presidency. The appointment was accepted by the electorate based on the perception that Mr. Wickramasinghe would discharge the responsibilities of a prime minister more competently and honourably than the incumbent at the time. Yet, the change of government and the appointment of prime minister was done through a political manoeuvre; while Mr. Wickramasinghe’s party was still a minority in parliament; and thus lacked an explicit mandate from the electorate to govern. The process sets a precedent that is concerning and does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s democracy. Therefore, the future of Sri Lanka’s democracy and shape of the nation state it cohabits remain open to be negotiated by the political forces that this reflection intends to identify and analyse.
Politics and political movements in Sri Lanka still have a tendency to crystallize around a cultural memory of feudalism and class that is woven into the historical identity of the modern nation state. A strong democratic outcry and social conscience combined to drive the Rajapakse regime out of office. The political actors and movements that made up the broad coalition will be a main focus of this reflection. Their existence, organisation and increased political relevance needs to be celebrated and nurtured. However, it must also be acknowledged that – by all accounts – the future and very existence of Sri Lanka’s democracy hung by a thread in the early hours of the 9th of January. It was left in the hands of a few individuals to rescue and reclaim. Those events highlight the need for stronger and more independent democratic institutions that are accessible to all citizens equitably. Such reforms require political leadership – not only to design and implement structural reforms to the state and its architecture, but also to broad-base the social political conscience and its underlying sense of justice. In my analysis of the political leadership, stakeholder and elites, I will aim to highlight the opportunities and threats that the present political moment holds for the integrity of the state as well as its democratic framework.
The feudal and class-based political conscience of the island’s society manifests even today in the political aspirations and vocabulary of the ‘common man’ who is yet evolving into a ‘citizen’ in thought and action. The majority of Sri Lanka’s electorate has a rural base that has been conditioned by culture and history to cooperate with the intentions of political elites – if not be subservient to them. The presidential election of 2015 was contested on a platform which was conducive to – perhaps for the first time – shifting that political conscience away from its feudal underpinnings in a more liberal direction.
Sri Lanka – throughout its history – has been ruled by exclusive classes of political elites. From Kings whose right to the throne was based on their caste and clan and whose legitimacy to govern was based on having custody of a sacred relic, and colonial governments that were led by the white colonisers, to the handful of families that have dominated the two major political parties since independence; the common man has not been afforded access to national-level political power. The only exceptions were the Presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa from 1989 – 1993 and that of Mahinda Rajapakse from 2005 – 2015. Ranil Wickremasinghe is the nephew of President J. R. Jayawardena, and Ranil’s nephew Ruwan Wijewardene who is now the state minister of defence is the great grandson of Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D. S. Senanayake. It is clear therefore, that political power in post independent Sri Lanka has shifted between the UNP dominated by the Senanayake-Jayawardena-Wickramasinghe clan and the SLFP dominated by the Bandaranaike clan.
Cultural memory and the political conscience of a society cannot be fixed of course – they evolve and transform with time and changes in the political environment of a country and of the world. The biblical account of the birth of the Jewish nation – in the book of Exodus – recounts how the liberated slaves of Egypt had to wonder the dessert for forty four years before they were ready to build a new nation and state. History often suggests that it takes at least two generation to significantly transform the political conscience of a society. Just over two generations after independence, the people of Sri Lanka was also ready to break-away from the established political dynasties and elect a ‘common man as our President – in Ranasinghe Premadasa. It is unthinkable that such a political figure from an ‘ordinary’ background, could have emerged democratically in colonial Ceylon before independence or soon afterwards. Indeed, it was in the late 80s that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty also began its steady decline and loss of the monopoly it held on political power in India – which it has not reclaimed convincingly since Rajiv Gandhi. Yet, in Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga would reclaim the stake of the political elites yet again in the 1990s. In the absence of a viable successor from the Bandaranaike clan to succeed her – in Mahinda Rajapaksa, someone who came from outside the Bandaranaike clan was able to become leader of the SLFP for the first time. Notably in that time, the electability and political viability of the Ranil Wickramasinghe led and middle-class dominated UNP declined dramatically to unprecedented electoral lows.
I have in the past, reflected on the demographic constitution and political relevance of the middle class of Sri Lanka, and will therefore not revisit that analysis here. It suffices to note however, that the present make-up of the UNP and its cabinet members in the current government is disproportionately weighted towards the middle-class. Perhaps there is a correlation between the repeated electoral losses of the UNP in the previous two decades and the erosion of its popular base among the masses – which Dr Dayan Jayatilake and others have characterised as the popular nationalist base of the Sinhalese – under the leadership of Ranil Wickramasinghe.
It is from such an unelectable proposition that Ranil Wickremasinghe has been able to expertly manoeuvre himself and his party back to government – bypassing the need to win a general election and thus without a clear mandate to govern that can only come with such a victory. The risks and opportunities that such a subversion of the electoral mandate poses for the democratic framework of the country requires closer scrutiny. Firstly, it must be conceded that the current government has a clear mandate to implement the series of democratic reforms that won broad support of the electorate at the presidential election – including the intelligentsia, civil society movements and even the opposition. It must therefore be held accountable for implementing those reforms within the promised time-frame. Secondly, it must be made clear that the electorate has not had a fair opportunity to evaluate and vote on the domestic and foreign policy frameworks of the present government. Instead what they actually voted for was the ouster of the Rajapakse regime. Therefore the government does not have a clear mandate to make wholesale changes to the domestic and foreign policy frameworks of the country apart from administrative reforms and course-corrections to re-align with accepted and long-held norms where necessary in the national interest. The new government’s West-leaning foreign policy that risks weakening or damaging ties with China and Russia as well as the potential neglect of countries of the global south is a matter of serious concern – not only for its potential implications which will be explored separately, but also because it lacks a clear mandate from the people, and thus any legitimacy to make serious changes of course and direction on such matters.
In electing Maithripala Sirisena as president, the the electorate has yet again opted for a leader who understands the aspirations of the common man and who is able to represent their interests in policies and structure of the political machine. Yet, in the re-emergence of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickramasinghe, the old political elites have regained their grip on the two main political parties that are also the power centres of the country. The emergence of the JVP as a serious third contender in the Sri Lankan political sphere under the leadership of Anura Kumara Dissanayake is perhaps the most progressive outcome in the Sri Lankan democratic process. His role, and the role of the JVP and other movements in creating the present political will be analysed in subsequent reflections. It remains unlikely at this stage however, that the JVP would emerge as a serious contender to become the leading party in opposition. Yet the possibility that they will challenge the dominance of the SLFP and UNP remains – unless credible reforms are made to the structure and representative makeup of those two main political parties. Whether the threat of being overtaken by the JVP proves sufficient motivation for the SLFP and UNP to undertake such a serious reform agenda remains to be seen.
In the course of post independent Sri Lankan politics, there is much to be said in defence of times when the middle and upper-classes were over-represented in the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Yet, the promise of true democracy is the equitable distribution of power in society and the political empowerment of the economically and socially marginalised masses so that they too may have guaranteed, equal and independent access to justice and opportunity. Mr Wickramasinghe and Mrs Bandaranaike Kumaratunga may yet be the last of the elite political dynasties that dominated the first two generations of post independent Sri Lankan politics. They may also represent the last of the upper-class, pro-western, neoliberal interests in Sri Lanka’s governing ideology and foreign policy framework. On the other hand, their reclamation of the two – still dominant – power centres of Sri Lankan politics may represent a resurgence of elite interests and thinking in the country’s governance. Wickramasinghe’s stubborn hold on the UNP leadership and the re-entry of Mrs. Bandaranaike Kumaratunge into the higher echelons of the SLFP are significant events that requires more attention and scrutiny by public intellectuals and political analysts alike.
Arguably, every country, organisation and team needs elites to lead and carry them to greater heights, and Sri Lanka would not be an exception. However, those elites must be chosen based on their capabilities and performance. A culture that celebrates elite performance will inevitably grow, but one that fosters ‘elitism’ that is not based on talent and high-achievement, but purely on lineage and affiliations will be doomed to fail in a competitive world order. A highly disproportionate majority of political leaders in post-independence Sri Lanka had achieved that status through their affiliations to political families or a few prominent ‘elitist’ institutions.
Perhaps the single most significant liability of the Rajapakse regime were its brazen embrace of nepotism and cronyism and the broad social resentment that built up against it. In that light, the make-up of the new Cabinet and occupants of the higher echelons of political power in the country at present also represent a narrow and disproportionately privileged slither of Sri Lankan society who have little defence against similar allegations that could be made against them.
Yet it remains that the result of the presidential election on 9th January – allegations of a failed coup notwithstanding – not only bodes well for both the state and its democracy. There were legitimate fears – though perhaps never to be known for sure – that democracy itself would have retreated into the Rajapakse’s iron grip, in the aftermath of the alternative result. Indeed the Rajapakse campaign strategy was nothing but an attempt to securitise every conceivable political issue that the country was facing. Their projection of the opposition itself as a threat to national security, left little to the imagination about how they would have acted to ‘mop-up’ their political opponents if they has managed to retain their grip on power – and the security apparatus in particular. However, subsequent developments also raise substantial concerns that purging one burgeoning political dynasty should not pave way for two more to replace it with. It is clear that 9th January represents a change of guard in Sri Lankan politics. What is not so clear is whether the old guard was replaced with the new, or whether the new was replaced with the old.