Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president who is facing mass protests demanding his and his government’s resignation, yesterday appointed a new Cabinet, showing scant regard for public mood. That 17-member new Cabinet is a sham, devoid of legitimacy, and would be a source of further political instability.
With the elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa remaining as the prime minister, and Gotabaya hanging onto the presidency against the mounting calls, the Rajapaksas appear as the usurpers of political office, rather than the elected representatives of the public. So would be the members of the new Cabinet. The rest of the world should view them as such, and deal with them accordingly.
The new Cabinet is yet another sign that the Rajapaksas are not letting the country go out of their grip. It is meant to be a rubber stamp of this familial hold of unhinged power in the absence of public approval. Yet, that feigned sense of control over the nation is misleading and hollow. In reality, though, the extended family of Rajapaksas are so loathed and discredited to the extent that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been forced to vacate his Mirihana residency.
The Rajapaksas’ game plan, one last gimmick before the crash, though was anticipated.
First, Gotabaya expects the new Cabinet to provide a semblance of legitimacy and coherence to the government, which previously saw the mass resignations of Cabinet ministers. That could also soothe the concerns of many government MPs who are on the fence and are contemplating jumping the sinking ship. (However, this can play out the other way with many members, who no longer have the perks of Cabinet Ministers being incentivized to pole-vault).
Second, the president and the government’s interlocutors are on a mission to coax several so-called renegade government MPs and those of SLFP, who claim themselves as acting independently, back into the government fold. The swearing-in of SLFP MP Santha Bandara as a deputy minister is the first of many such buy-ins to come. The goal is to acquire enough MPs to secure the simple majority (113) in Parliament.
The third, is the state-orchestrated pro-government protests. Such initiatives were so far poorly attended, however, with a semblance of political stability and deep pockets, the Rajapaksas should be able to get their MPs to bring in some number of captive voters to the streets. Prepare for racist dog-whistling against the minorities and pitting communities against each other, which is already on display on the state television, and some of the electronic media owned by the regime’s acolytes.
Fourth is the potential crackdown on peaceful protests. The early signs of that strategy were already on display when a convoy of police trucks was parked in the vicinity of the Galle face protest site, ‘Go, Gota Gama’, only to be withdrawn after a social media outcry.
With the police planning to obtain a court order to remove the protesters who have camped In front of the presidential secretariat, there is the likelihood of a violent flare-up and countervailing state violence.
While the military has so far been kept away from menacing the protesters, the narrative of a feigned political stability courtesy of the new Cabinet would embolden the President, as well as the Defence Secretary and Commander of Army, both are erstwhile Gotabaya supporters. The duo nonetheless seemed to harbour reservations over the pushback of a military crackdown so far. Such concerns may evaporate if they sense a position of strength.
Playing with fire
However, as much as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s calculations are sinisterly rational, they are tantamount to playing with fire. His appointment of the new Cabinet is both provocative and insulting. He is instigating millions of Sri Lankan public who have already taken to the streets and gathered at many dozens of protest sites dotting the country. Protests would further intensify and could lead to violent flare-ups.
By appointing a new Cabinet, the president did not create political stability, he made things worse. Out of his self-serving calculations, he just threw a firecracker into the tinderbox of Sri Lankan politics.
If he proceeds on this path, the country awaits a potential explosion of pent-up public anger. Probably that is what he is courting to cement power through the use of the military. That is a dangerous gamble that is bound to fail and, even a short-term success would lead to global pariah status and eventual prosecution of crimes against humanity- against peaceful protesters.
Political instability and economic instability are mutually reinforcing. Sri Lanka is beset with both. Political instability aggravated by President Rajapaksa’s new move would further complicate Sri Lanka’s planned talks with the IMF for debt restructuring and a bailout.
The government that is making representations to the IMF is dismissed by its people as illegitimate and is hence lacking legitimacy to represent the nation. It would be a tall order for IMF or any international financial agency to overlook these local concerns.
As a result, the country’s negotiations for the economic relief package would be harder and more time-consuming than they would have been under normal circumstances. Sri Lanka’s economic misery would drag on, needlessly due to yet another self-made crisis by the president.
His mismanagement of the economy due to ego, fuelled ignorance and sinister political calculations turned a manageable debit crisis into an epic national catastrophe. Now another bout of his personal calculations is preventing the nation from dragging itself out of the economic rot, at the earliest possible opportunity.
The president has shown yet again, that he would not go down, without dragging the country with him. That is a tragedy. A curse upon the nation!