Photo courtesy of The Morning
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proposal for an All Party Government (APG) seems to be in some trouble. Not unexpectedly, President Wickremesinghe’s bland, and sometimes combative, appeals have failed to inspire any particular enthusiasm among the opposition parties to join an APG.
He has now sent out a letter to political parties inviting them to form an APG, obviously under presidential tutelage. Restoring political and social normalcy and creating economic stability seem to be the priorities that President Wickremesinghe has assigned to the proposed APG.
He has hinted that implementing a systematic economic programme will need the participation of all political parties represented in parliament, expert groups and civil society. He sent out this appeal on July 30 against a backdrop of apathy and skepticism shown by the opposition political parties and civil society groups to his proposal made earlier for forming an APG under his leadership.
Reactions to APG proposal
The lack of enthusiasm among opposition parties, citizens and civil society groups about President Wickremesinghe’s proposal shows that there is an atmosphere of extreme tension in the country’s political life. Its main source is the failure of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new president to signal a break with the previous Rajapaksa administration or publicly refute the degenerate political culture it promoted for political survival. It was a regime openly hated by most Sri Lankan citizens for its corrupt, arbitrary and unaccountable culture of governance. Unlike President Wickremesinghe, the ordinary citizens are not ready to forget or forgive the Rajapaksa government’s role in causing Sri Lanka’s present crisis and so much human misery.
President Wickremesinghe’s appeal to opposition parties that “we must forget what happened in the past, and unite to move forward” is understood by many citizens not as a gesture of reconciliation with his political opponents but as a signal that he is committed to protecting the Rajapaksas by using his presidential powers. The fact that President Wickremesinghe became the prime minister and then the president with the fullest support of Rajapaksas and their party’s parliamentary group remains a huge barrier to any political accommodation between his presidency and the parliamentary opposition as well as the citizens. The fact that several individual MPs from the opposition parties have been won over to support President Wickremesinghe in parliament at crucial votes has caused serious concern that the old Rajapaksa tactics of bribery, corruption and intimidation will continue to be employed as political weapons under the new leader too. These issues have deprived him of the right to claim any degree of moral authority as a ruler. Moreover, President Wickremesinghe has to deal with the reality that he is a ruler with a narrow and fragile power base and without popular support or legitimacy. Such rulers of countries with unmanageable economic, social and political crises may tend to opt for solutions conceived outside the democratic framework. Sri Lanka’s present crisis is such that its politics is at a crossroads. There is an unresolved conflict between the people’s desire for greater and better democracy and the ruling elite’s preoccupation with political stability with no or less democracy.
There is a wave of arrests of aragalaya activists and the heightened police actions directed against the participants of recent protests against the Rajapaksa government. They are clear indications that state-led intimidation and harassment of dissenting citizens has become a component of the new president’s strategy of restoring political stability. Will the latest proposal for a APG be a cover for a new version of a police state? This is a trend that the opposition parties and the citizens should resist.
President Wickremesinghe’s proposal for an APG is not an outcome of a dialogue between him and all the parties in parliament nor is it an outcome of a consultative process. True to the spirit of executive authoritarianism embedded in the present constitution, it is a unilateral move by the new president. He seems to assume that that it is the duty of the parliamentary opposition and civil society to oblige a presidential wish with due obedience. It is this presidential mindset of the Gaullist type that citizens have challenged through aragalaya since mid-March.
Against such a broad political context, there are no signs at the moment that the Wickremesinghe government and the opposition can easily reconcile their different positions on the idea of an APG. Their contending approaches to what an APG should mean and do are likely to remain non-negotiable as well.
What is holding back the opposition parties from embracing President Wickremesinghe’s proposal for an APG despite the severity of the country’s overall crisis, which is employed as the key rationale for such a government?
Three key explanations can be deduced.
The first is that the proposal for an APG, as vague and as uninspiring as it is, can hardly be seen as conceived by someone who has an adequate grasp of the gravity of the overall crisis that the country is facing. While the foundation of the country’s economy is shattered, the political system is in disarray, due to the erosion of the public trust in the political class, political institutions and the country’s much abused constitution. The unprecedented social crisis caused by the economic collapse erupted peacefully in late March, bringing multitudes of protesting citizens to the streets and eventually many thousands to Colombo. Yet President Wickremesinghe’s approach is to isolate the economic crisis from the equally grave political and social crises and then use the idea of an APG as part of the preparations for negotiations with the IMF and international creditors. In other words, President Wickremesinghe has advanced the idea of an APG for a narrow purpose, ignoring its connectedness with the bigger task of systemic reforms in the political and social domains. Obviously, no government can tackle all the crises at the same time. It is a multi year task. Yet the ruler presiding over the process should demonstrate that he possesses an adequate grasp of the totality of crisis.
The second reason is the severe legitimacy crisis which President Wickremesinghe as president is actually in although he is rather unmindful to it. The controversial manner in which he became the prime minister and soon after the president is no doubt within the terms of the constitution but it has not assured him much political credibility, public acceptance, or moral authority. In other words, it is an instance of legality minus legitimacy. It is because of this legitimacy deficit that many of the critics can assail his APG proposal suggesting that it may well be part of an agenda to consolidate his newly gained, yet fragile, position of being the country’s president.
The third reason is President Wickremesinghe’s stubborn refusal to recognise that the ground conditions for the exercise of presidential powers have dramatically changed after the citizen’s protest movement forced his predecessor to flee the country and resign. The president has vast powers under the 20th Amendment but there are now limits to the exercise of those virtually limitless powers because the citizens have begun to express their sovereign will through direct participation in national politics, which now functions as a societal check on political power. There has also been a parallel process of steadfast erosion of the moral authority, political prestige and public acceptance of the office of the president under the 1978 constitution and its 20th Amendment. The new president has to be mindful of these shifts in the way citizens relate to politics, power and holders of political power.
In the assessment of many citizens, the executive presidency is an illegitimate public office that has been abused by most of its previous holders with horrendous consequences for the country and its citizens. During the past few months a paradigm shift has occurred in state-society relations. No president with only constitutional authority or parliamentary backing obtained through dubious means can command much allegiance among the citizens as well as political opponents.
No president who is oblivious to this new reality can conceivably be a democratic statesman, commanding the support and loyalty of the non-partisan citizens.
Revisiting interim government
There are other reasons for the failure of the president’s APG proposal to generate excitement among opposition parties or the citizens. Lack of clarity about the nature, objectives, duration and possible mandate of the proposed APG is one. The proposal also has a credibility deficit.
It is worth recalling that the idea of an APG emerged a few months ago as an interim measure when President Wickremesinghe himself was in the opposition. It was to be formed for a limited initial period of six months with flexibility for its extension by a few more months. Abolition of the executive presidency at the earliest opportunity and holding of fresh parliamentary elections were to be its political priorities. Those who advocated it gave priority to restoration of democratic government and finding ways to respond to the citizens’ clamour for political reforms. It is wrong to assume that the ground conditions that gave rise to these ideas have changed merely because a new president has replaced the previous officeholder.
That initial idea for an interim government recognised the gravity of the crisis of public trust faced by the then parliament dominated by the SLPP and controlled by the interests of the Rajapaksa family and its business affiliates. This situation has not only not changed. The SLPP’s oligarchic control of parliament has received a new lease of life, despite some splits, under President Wickremesinghe’s guardianship.
There was a suggestion in the initial idea of an interim government to include a certain number of citizens or their representatives in the government. This was to be achieved either by bringing these non-politician citizens to parliament through the national list or by setting up of a unelected Peoples’ Council through parliamentary approval to assist the provisional government in policy making. It is indeed a pity that these innovative proposals for a preliminary first step towards overcoming the political crisis are not highlighted in the current thinking on an APG.
Instead of an interim APG what we now have is a move for an APG for an unspecified period. If it is a national government, it would possibly be one without formal parliamentary opposition. No mention is made of a parliamentary election soon to enable citizens to elect a new parliament so that the legislature can reflect the altered balance political forces in society.
A legitimate question that arises in this regard is whether the economic crisis is being used to inaugurate a democracy without a parliamentary opposition or to facilitate the transition to a new stage of executive authoritarianism backed by one dominant party with a few junior partners. Let us hope that this is not how the new leader of the political class of Sri Lankan elites envisions a way to neutralise the perceived threat from the citizens of the subordinate and non-elite social classes. Perhaps the real intentions of labelling the aragalaya activists as fascists and terrorists are not just impulsive.
Participation in APG?
As a minimum pre-condition to make the participation of opposition parties and civil society in the discussion on APG possible, President Wickremesinghe needs to employ methods and tactics that are conciliatory and devoid of Machiavellian intentions. Similarly, in order to demonstrate that he is sensitive to the citizens’ demand for a change in the way political leaders usually think and act, President Wickremesinghe’s methods of handling the present crisis should have the capacity to be viewed by a skeptical public as politically sincere, democratically open and ethically endorsable. Similarly, instead of his bellicose approach to aragalaya and its activists, he must initiate a dialogue with them.
If at all opposition parties and civil society groups want to join an interim government, they should have clear strategic objectives too. Key among them are preparing the grounds for democratic reforms, halting the present policy to repress the aragalaya movement and witch hunting the aragalaya activists, holding fresh parliamentary elections without undue delay, curtailing the influence of Rajapaksa family and corrupt SLPP MPs on the policies, decisions and directions of the interim government, preventing the passing of the burden of economic recovery on to the poor and middle classes and offering the poor and low income families food, medicine and fuel either free or at subsidised prices instead of cash transfers amidst rising inflation.
Opposition parties and civil society groups should lay down their pre-conditions for an APG without any hesitation or ambiguity. Bringing the 19th Amendment back without transitional provisions and reinforcing its democratic content, ending corrupt practices in determining parliamentary votes, a consultative process with citizens in policy making, denial of cabinet positions to minsters with criminal records and serious allegations of corruption, public disclosure of agreements entered into with the IMF and international creditors and credible mechanisms to include the representatives of aragalaya in the interim government should be some of the priority considerations. Tamil and Muslim parties should bring the theme of enhanced devolution and the protection of minority rights to the agenda of constitutional reforms.
Opposition parties and civil society groups must also insist that the APG should be an interim arrangement with a short lifespan of no more than six months. During the APG’s operation, the opposition should continue to function as the opposition; abdication of that function would be detrimental to parliamentary democracy.
There is another important task for the parliamentary opposition. President Wickremesinghe’s proposal for an APG is based on three flawed assumptions about the citizens’ movement called aragalaya and they need to be challenged. The first flawed assumption is the premise that in charting Sri Lanka’s future political trajectories, the political history between late March and mid-July this year can be forgotten. The second is the belief that the old styles of politics, political habits and political mindsets cultivated by the decadent political class can have a unreformed, secure and stable life in a post-aragalaya future. The third is the intention to use the APG as a platform for unity among the elites to put down the self-assertion of the subordinate and non-elite social classes who have of late dared to demand accountability from, and dictate terms to, their political masters.
This indeed is a tall order for the opposition. It actually demands that opposition parties should also reform themselves in response to the aragalaya’s critique of the existing system, its political class and the dominant political culture it has produced. That is the only way for them to remain relevant to the citizens’ concerns in a post-aragalaya Sri Lanka.