It is a month after Sri Lanka learnt of a new Prime Minister over SMS. In the catastrophic, chaotic four ensuing weeks, some of us maintain that Mr. Wickremesinghe is the sole, legitimate Prime Minister. This is widely perceived to be a position that is a consequence of either being partial to or voting for the UNP, or a fan of the individual. Both, it is argued, gloss over the significant failure of the individual and the party, as well as the government the PM led, to bring about what they were elected to do. This, in turn, becomes the circular logic that goes on to justify the President’s actions and the support for Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The conversation is a difficult one to have forthright, because every single thing the President and the Rajapaksas have done, since the evening of October 26, was intentionally and strategically done to curtail, censor, contain and control the flow of information. Legitimate, constitutional appointments need not fear scrutiny or debate. And yet, the first frames of the coup d’etat was of violent mobs invading and occupying state media. This doesn’t help set a foundation for any reasonable argument around the validity of the appointments by the President. But some continue to support him. It becomes important then to make clear where we stand and in public because it is precisely at times like these that what we say, stand for and do, recorded in history, judge us.
My unequivocal support of Mr Wickremesinghe as the legitimate Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, commanding the majority in Parliament, is becoming easier to justify because the only majority Mahinda Rajapaksa claims he has is by way of empty chairs in Parliament. Having lost not one but two No Confidence Motions in Parliament, recorded for posterity in the Hansard, unable to show how he commands a majority, joining the President in governing by press release and statements, Rajapaksa is now ridiculous and risible as a spent politician.
He is unable to continue in office and he is too proud to step down. Over 225 statements since the 27th of October by every single government, bilateral, multilateral agency, the UN, Commonwealth, IMF, World Bank included, have sought a restoration of constitutional rule and refused to recognize Rajapaksa as PM. To date, only Pakistan and China, geopolitically joined at the hip since Imran Khan’s election, as well as Burundi, have congratulated Rajapaksa.
Never in Sri Lanka’s history has a purported Prime Minister and former President been so roundly snubbed by the international community, for four weeks and counting. It’s actually much worse. So incensed were local diplomats at Namal Rajapaksa’s enfilade of criticism against the international community, the German Ambassador took the extraordinary step of publicly supporting his Canadian colleague, who had issued a sharp response to Namal Rajapaksa previously, in noting that the SLPP had confidentially sought the audience western diplomats. That this request and meeting was placed in the public domain captures the degree to which the diplomatic community in Sri Lanka has entirely lost patience with the Rajapaksas and the President.
But it is before all this and more that some of us registered our support for the constitutional position Mr Wickremesinghe continues to enjoy, and the outrageous illegality of the President’s action to depose him. Our support of Wickremesinghe as PM is anchored to the belief that the constitution matters and that arbitrary fiat, undermining the letter and spirit of the law, takes us back to the dark ages. The President’s actions set a disturbing, distressing and downright dangerous precedent. A few years hence, those rejoicing today may suffer the brunt of another Executive’s wrath, who for equally petty, unprincipled reasons, decides to do the same thing to the sitting PM, or worse.
If we cannot respect constitutional rule, we forfeit citizenship and become serfs, subject to the whim and fancy of whoever who claims to hold political authority. It just all falls apart very quickly, no matter who you vote for – because franchise is about democracy, not contending with a degenerate’s fiat. It is also the case that some of us who unequivocally support Mr Wickremesinghe are also amongst his most vocal critics in public – dismayed, disgusted or deeply disappointed at how a government with almost unbridled potential to change our destiny, instead did the minimum necessary to trundle its way through to the next election.
It seems our tribe is growing. The vote base galvanized in early January 2015 was no pro-UNP. It was anti-Rajapaksa. The mandate given to Sirisena was not to him as an individual. It was to a custodian of promises, one of which included the dismantling of the office he held. In the intervening years, this vote base grew angry, anxious and apart from what they voted in. October 26th changed that, and also changed the minds of those who were gravitating towards the known evil of the Rajapaksas. Even those partial to him, and opposed to the UNP, realize the mess we are in.
My doctoral research on social media underscores this is astonishing ways. Tracking close to 1,000 Facebook pages, and about the same about of Twitter accounts, I see conversational trends and patterns at scale. It’s like looking at the Milky Way – you see the way galaxies are shaped, which isn’t obvious to those who look at a smaller scale. And it is here the SLPP has much to worry about. Till late October, the Rajapaksas dominated conversations on Facebook and Twitter.
Over November, two things have happened with such a ferocity forcing me to double and triple check my data. One, the SLPP is losing traction. Possibly because of internal family tussles over succession and resulting problems within the party, the digital propaganda – of a sophistication and volume far beyond anything anyone else in Sri Lanka is even capable of – is failing to take root and grow.
Combined with this dramatic decline is an equally astounding increase in the engagement the UNP enjoys. This is emphatically not because they are doing anything dramatically different to the monumental incoherence and incompetence that defines their public and political communications for years. It is because for whatever reason, the content the UNP has put out over November – around the constitution, the economy, the illegitimacy of the President’s actions, the demonstrable majority enjoyed by the PM – has hit a chord. This content is liked, commented on and shared by order of magnitude more than what the SLPP has put out. I have worked with social media since 2006, every day. I have at a very large scale captured data since March this year. Nothing has prepared me for what I’ve seen over November.
Social media is neither inherently pro or anti-democratic. But what over November we see is the clear propensity of Twitter and Facebook users, in their millions, to gravitate towards content that holds the President, Rajapaksas and the SLPP in a very critical light. Extrapolating from this electoral consequences is both premature and frankly, impossible. However, the significance of the unprecedented shift cannot be overstated. Fuelling it is clearly a growing disquiet, that even if it doesn’t result in open expression is manifest in the increasing disconnect with SLPP’s framing of contemporary politics. While some may say the UNP’s increase in engagement is fuelled by opposition to the PM and anger towards the party (which factually isn’t the case) it still doesn’t explain the dramatic decline in the SLPP engagement, around content that has always worked for them and the production of which, unsurprisingly, increased over the month.
A coup, essentially, needs to quickly demonstrate a sense of inevitability – that whatever was done, had to be done and that once done, everything would be fine. Stability is key, and towards this, the Rajapaksas occupied ministries and violently took over the media. But even with all this, it’s all spectacularly fallen apart. As the coup d’etat enters its fifth week, a single man’s hate and inconsistency of moral fibre, latched on to by a former President’s overriding paternal instincts plunges us into a chasm from which there is no easy escape.