Photo Courtesy of City News
“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” — Ramsay, Game of Thrones
Articles penned on Groundviews recently by Jayadeva Uyangoda, Asanga Welikala and Gehan Gunatilleke as well as elsewhere, by Jayampathy Wickremeratne, flag serious concerns with the 20th Amendment presented to Parliament last week. In this column, I capture the essence of their submissions, provide quick reflections and responses to key points and place for consideration why the President will doggedly pursue authoritarian ends.
Unsurprisingly, all the authors unequivocally warn that the 20th Amendment in form, spirit and substance will be a death knell for the realisation of Sri Lanka’s democratic potential. Gunatilleke notes that what will come about will be a political blunder based on a misreading of electoral mandate. My concern, which I’ve expanded on in a previous column, is that any and all democratic course correction after the 20th Amendment will be near impossible, given how the absolute power it places in the Executive – and this Executive – will amplify pervasive propaganda that eclipses any critical dissent or alternative perspectives. Early pushback through cartoons and memes on Facebook may well turn out to be the only pushback we ever see. Welikala highlights the destructive potential of the 20th Amendment and asks if the mandate enjoyed by President and government is independent of an 80-year-old tradition of constitutional democracy. The assumption made is constitutionalism – as a concept or ideal – is understood by those who vote. Given the quality of discourse and the framing of politics before, during and after consequential elections held over the past year, I remain entirely unconvinced. Populism’s ability to galvanise votes is preceded by sophisticated propaganda that captures and retains attention. It is this fickle attention that is the currency of mainstream politics today, not lofty constitutional principles that find no meaningful appreciation in more prosaic struggles of a hungry, anxious and angry population. This is also why I am deeply sceptical of Jayampathy Wickremeratne’s well-meaning submission that the 20th Amendment is a change so fundamental, that it requires a referendum to approve. The President and government enjoy control of the public imagination and popular discourse that is far beyond the capacity of the political opposition and civil society combined to counter. This control includes all state media, influential private broadcasters, official social media accounts, known proxies and hidden third parties collaboratively producing coordinated partisan content.
Furthermore, Sri Lanka is under a surveillance blanket that, though mostly under-appreciated by civil society, is unprecedented, with significant capabilities provided by foreign entities, including governments. It is unclear how Wickremeratne imagines a simple yes/no question will take on the 20th Amendment in a country invisibly, entirely and at present inescapably hostage to government propaganda and surveillance. Finally, Uyangoda wants the President to “exercise some degree of political sanity and prudence”. Given that the President himself has taken responsibility for the Amendment, it is unclear where Uyangoda’s hope around any late bloom of sanity or prudence springs from.
In sum, in the submissions made by these authors, calls to sanity, logic, legacy, reason or rights to prevail are unlikely to prevent the 20th Amendment from passing. All this makes it entirely counter-intuitive to see the President as fearful and weak. If what these authors flag are insufficient to galvanise meaningful internal resistance or external pushback, we need to question why the 20th Amendment is being pushed and who benefits.
Firstly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has no organic or established constituency. He isn’t his elder brother, and while that is his preferred political brand, it also means the President must construct a new vote base loyal to him and not (only or primarily) his family name. Secondly, the Presidential Election in November 2019 was won by projecting the image of Mahinda Rajapaksa, not SLPP candidate. Billboards, posters, flyers, official party propaganda on the web and social media, coverage of rallies and photographs of official events all focussed on the former President. The candidate was an after-thought and sometimes even entirely out of the frame. Arguably, no presidential candidate was this inconsequential to an official campaign since the creation of this heinous office, and that too by the design of his own party. It is improbable Gotabaya Rajapaksa has forgotten this and the enduring charisma of the person who led the Presidential campaign. Because of a symbolic debt which he may be privately reminded of more than we know, the incumbent President will seek to set himself apart from his brother’s political legacy. Third, the catastrophic failure of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, which culminated in the Easter Sunday terrorism, resulted in widespread anxiety that quickly morphed into anger. The electoral expression of this anger is what propelled the Rajapaksas back into power, in November last year and again in August this year. Read this way, the popular mandate the Rajapaksas presently enjoy is more an expression of disgust or anger against the former government. If the unmet promise of yahapalanaya was about holding the Rajapaksas accountable for illiberal governance and colossal corruption, the tragic inability to do so resulted in an electorate who opted for a known (d)evil that could deliver safety, security and ‘vistas of prosperity’. Aside from the inescapable economic pressures this government will face around sovereign debt, made worse by the pandemic, strategists close to the President – including Basil Rajapaksa – no doubt see the dangers arising from the quicker than expected erosion of public confidence. Late 2014’s great lesson is that the most significant political risk comes from within government and without warning. Fourth and finally, the weaponisation of anxiety to anger as the basis for popular support of a militarised state apparatus requires the constant creation of enemies, distractions and conspiracies. There is a limit to which these can be manufactured when in power. Revisiting the Parliamentary Select Committee report on 2019’s Easter Sunday terrorism is instructive. The report stresses that it is “paramount to question the role of some sections in the intelligence apparatus and their attempts to shape security, the electoral process, political landscape and the future of Sri Lanka.” There is a lot more in the PSC report that raises disturbing concerns around the partisan nature of the country’s intelligence apparatus, and how dark designs culminating in tragic suicide bombings led to conditions ripe for partisan harvest.
The President is the custodian or chief architect of these four inter-related dynamics. The construction of a new electorate is directly or indirectly aided by the deep state, with rampant militarisation and saffronisation as public manifestations of underlying intent. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, clientelism was key. The President as individual and the party-political apex held sway and determined the degree to which anything was advanced – either by currying favour or sowing fear. Under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a technocratic populism is dominant. The President is in control of everything, yet underplays his role and relevance, noting how others are responsible for decisions that he shouldn’t be bothered or is concerned with. Publicly aloof, the President privately oversees everything. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is surrounded by some of the country’s most brilliant political strategists and propagandists, who aren’t to be trifled with. It is not popular support they seek or need. It is a much longer shelf-life of political authority. If this is the end desired, then any means by which it can be established is worth it. Given significant, on-going investments in determining as well as manufacturing public mood swings, this President knows that constitutional entrenchment of power is the only guarantee against the recurrence of what gave rise to Sirisena through the exercise of democratic franchise. The system as it stands is the problem, and it needs to be fixed in a way that retains the cosmetic appeal of a democracy, but in essence, is something very different to even what was present feared and fought against under Mahinda Rajapaksa for a decade. The 20th Amendment is the tip of the spear, and there are a lot of powerful agents behind it. In a charitable reading, the President is the least powerful advocate of it, since others in the shadows stand to gain much more than someone who is at least nominally subject to more public domestic and international scrutiny. In any reading, however, and without prejudice to the Supreme Court’s determinations soon, nothing of what showcased as dangerous in the 20th Amendment holds any currency with President or the wider population. Based on my doctoral research, all the dangers noted by Welikala, Gunatilleke, Uyangoda and Wickremeratne are unerringly projected and perceived on social media as unmissable opportunities for the loyal and patriotic (few) to reshape country, culture and community. Those who oppose the Amendment are dismissed as supporters of the former government, or worse.
There’s one final and counter-intuitive trend supporting the passing of the 20th Amendment in its present form. Compared with the daily tsunami of propaganda generated during the country’s lockdown and leading up to the General Election, there’s nothing of statistical significance framing the 20th Amendment. The most popular Facebook pages and groups in the country don’t even feature it. Many from the government are silent about it. Those who do mention it, unsurprisingly champion the Amendment. This is as revealing as a surfeit of data. Addictive engagement around something openly projected and powerfully promoted is as essential to study as considered, constructed silence or the absence of framing. Tellingly, from November 2019 to September 2020, Sri Lanka’s influential social media propagandists – whom I study very closely – have switched attention and allegiance from party to President, and from older brother to the younger. Whether economics of politics drives this, I cannot say. However, in this significant and unprecedented migration, the electorate – who have served their purpose – now matters less than systemic changes, biased towards the Executive, ensuring disaffected voters don’t bring about an upset like January 2015. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s play is carefully considered and masterfully executed. No one in government can openly critique an Amendment projected as the desire of the people.
The irony of all this is that even with, and indeed, because of an unrivalled popular mandate, we have a deeply insecure President. Gotabaya Rajapaksa fears, in a way Mahinda Rajapaksa never did, the very electorate who brought him into power. The incumbent President alone knows the degree to which personal and party popularity are engineered, and in that sense, inauthentic and unlikely to last. What Gehan Gunatilleke flags as salutary lessons for governments which have taken a popular mandate for granted or seen it as immutable is precisely what drives an urgent desire to change the system at its core.
Even if by some miracle, the 20th Amendment in its present form doesn’t come to pass, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shifted the Overton Window to his advantage. What little resistance is present from some in government is focussed around the least offensive clauses projected as the most contentious or essential for patriots to consider. When amplified by repeated soundbites, performative outrage and shenanigans in Parliament, there appears to be debate and pushback, when in fact there is none. What many fear, and with good reason, is an Executive Presidency running amok after the 20th Amendment. I fear more, based on doctoral research, a concert of cloaked actors who see in the 20th Amendment a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a country that will do all of us in. In a way, I am concerned about the President too. In this and his game of thrones, those in control and those doing the controlling have a way of violently changing, despite the best-laid plans.