Sri Lanka’s Current Political Impasse

Some additional thoughts

by Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, ‘Groundviews,’ Colombo, July 4, 2017

Editors note: Read in conjunction with Sri Lanka’s deepening political crisis: Not losing an opportunity to lose another opportunity by the same author.

Sri Lanka has entered another phase of political crisis. It is a three-fold crisis. The first is at the level of the regime. The second is a crisis of governance. The third level of crisis is visible in relation to the broad political process of transformation.

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UNP’s anniversary celebrations in Campbell Park 2016

In the first, the yahapalanaya regime is finding itself unable to move forward as a government. Its major initiatives for corruption free governance, political reform through constitutional change, and rebuilding ethnic relations through minority rights are now halted.  The government seems to be happy with achieving minor gains, here and there. While the regime’s popular support has base significantly eroded, its leaders have no strategy to maintain the backing and loyalty of its own support constituencies. With increasing public disenchantment, and progressive isolation from the electorate, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe regime’s political survival at future elections — local, provincial and national — is likely to be at serious risk.

Governance Crisis

The crisis of governance – the second level – is manifested at a variety of levels. Its everyday manifestation is the collapse of the municipal governance. The inability to resolve the garbage problem, along with the rapid spread of flu epidemics leading to citizens’ lives at grave risk – exposes the ineptness of the central government, the provincial councils and local authorities in carrying out even most elementary functions of a government.

The incompetence of the government is manifested by its inability to carry out another major function expected from a democratic government – managing and resolving competing demands and aspirations of different social classes/groups though dialogue, debate, negotiations and creative compromise. The unresolved and worsening problem associated with the SAITM issue is the worst example of how the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration mishandled a problem the creation of which is not its responsibility at all.   SAITM is a problem created by the previous regime. Yet, showing its undiluted loyalty to the private entrepreneurs involved in the business of education, the government ignored one its fundamental duties to society – management of social conflict and tension through creative compromise and policy innovation.

Now the SAITM conflict seems to have entered a stage beyond a peaceful settlement within the framework of rule of law and democratic accountability. A regime that allows social contradictions to sharpen and move into the level of violent confrontations can only regret its prevarications, sooner than later.

Process Crisis

The third level of the crisis is processual. It entails the present government’s continuing failure to consolidate and institutionalize the gains of the process of democratic transition that began with the electoral defeat of the Rajapaksa regime in early 2015. Usually, the replacement of an authoritarian rule is only the beginning of a democratization process. The fulfillment of the agenda of democratization becomes the responsibility of two political actors – (a) the new democratic regime which has access to the control of state, its institutions and resources, and, (b) the social forces that are involved in defending and resuscitating the democratic process.

The government’s record of consolidating the democratization process is poor.  Its democratic victories have been largely negative gains, in the sense of refraining from everyday repressive practices through state agencies. As indicated in the recent handling of clashes with anti-SAITM protesters, even that face of government behavior is now coming to an end.

The real crisis dimension of this democratic failure of the government is being felt at a different level. It entails the real political risk of relapsing to authoritarianism either by this regime itself, or by the next government of the Joint Opposition. In the case of JO, returning to authoritarianism will have some popular support as well. Return to authoritarian and illiberal governance with popular backing would mark a very negative phase of Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics.

Was it avoidable?

Now, the question is, would this triple crisis with their negative political consequences have been avoided? What preventive action would the President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe have taken?  Is it too late now to take any remedial action that can reverse the crisis path?

To answer the first question, yes, the crises could have been avoided and their consequences could have been managed, subjected to one condition. The yahapalanaya coalition should have prepared itself for governance, that is, to make a transition from being an oppositionist entity to a political body charged with the primary function of running and managing a state in a volatile society.   The record of most of the ministries, from the President and the PM downwards, show that we have a regime which is least prepared for governance.

To answer the second question, the government should have avoided its over-emphasis on the agenda of regime survival through the coalition with a section of the SLFP. It is this UNP-SLFP coalition that has politically and administratively paralyzed the capacity of the government in both its everyday governance functions as well as in fulfilling its reform agenda.  The President and PM could have maintained a balance between regime survival and regime stability. Similarly, the paralysis in governance could have been avoided if the expansion of the ruling coalition, that took place after January 2015, led to a policy dialogue and consensus between the UNP and the Sirisena faction of the SLFP. Being a pragmatic and opportunistic coalition, this alliance could only ensure regime survival at a nominal level, and not regime stability at a political level. Such a pragmatic coalition would have been politically successful only if the leadership was as autocratic as the previous President, who was, incidentally, a master in the art of forging and maintaining opportunistic coalitions for survival.

Early Warnings

None of these are actually new ideas. Government’s civil society supporters from the very first month of its formation have been suggesting similar ideas to President Sirisena Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, both directly and indirectly, even warning the possible policy and governance paralysis.  Maduluwae Sobhitha Thero was in the forefront of the civil society campaign to rescue the new government from the onset of an early process of political decay. But the new leaders had no time, or inclination, to listen to its sympathetic critics. The problem then is not the lack of good will and critical inputs available, but the government’s lack of seriousness about its own political and policy commitments.

At its mid-term turning point, the government’s challenge is to extricate itself from the present state of paralysis.  It is not easy though. There are no potential sources of democratic political energy in the Sri Lanka society at present for the government to re-invent itself.  Thanks to the yahapalanaya paralysis, the new political energies developing in Sri Lanka are favourable mainly for another phase of retreating from democracy. Neither are there impulses from within the regime to take any new and innovative initiatives that can turn the political tide in its favour. Bare survival as a regime with a combination of political manipulation and repression is likely to be the easiest path available to the government.

What a sad story of a transformative potential that the regime change of January 2015 opened up for Sri Lanka!

A way out?

Is there a tenable way out from this impasse? Actually, it is not easy to think about one at the momentum because Sri Lanka’s politics seems to be in a flux. While the political balance for forces is no longer in favour of the government, it is not yet clear whether the electorate will opt for an overwhelming shift in favour of the Rajapaksa leadership. The local or provincial elections, if held soon, will indicate the general lines of electoral trends.

Even though a way out is not clearly discernible, let me think about a distant possibility that can be explored by the government, subjected to a few conditions. The JO, despite its apparent abundance of resources and rhetoric, suffers from a serious setback. It is the fact that the JO is pretty hollow in terms of a political programme of reform and transformation that can ignite the political imagination of the Sri Lankan voters across ethnic boundaries. Its only appeal is the former President’s authoritarian personality and his type of clientelist rule.

It is in the JO’s lack of a political programme of democracy and the unrepentant commitment to autocratic and majoritarian politics that the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe coalition can potentially exploit to reverse the current trend and improve its electoral chances. But, if the government leadership were to succeed, it has to undertake four immediate tasks:

  1. Re-build and re-consolidate the present coalition with a push for a re-invented democratic reform agenda, with a few possible goals to achieve, to be implemented within the coming one year;
  2. Take immediate steps to overcome the present crisis of governance thorough a new and genuine cabinet reshuffle, making it small, effective and governance-capable.  This step should be immediately followed up by a shake up of the bureaucracy;
  3. Manage the increasing levels of social tension through dialogue, compromise, and policy innovations, affecting a clear break from the UNP’s neo-liberal policy arrogance;
  4. Articulate a body of political ideas that can effectively counter the emerging arguments for illiberal, authoritarian political alternatives. That body of political ideas should also be rich enough to cement the ruling coalition ideologically and ally Sri Lanka’s diverse communities with a modernizing vision of change.

This is probably too idealistic a proposal for our President and Prime Minister even to have a serious look at. Yet, there is no harm in telling them that this is what they should actually be doing, while engaging in everyday fire fighting.

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