By Ram Manikkalingam
(The author is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam)
The social and political uprising is currently stuck. President Gotabaya’s appointment of Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister (PM) has enabled the President to continue to stay in office, while shifting responsibility and pressure onto the new PM.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis is intensifying, as Sri Lanka has run out of money to pay for food, fuel and medicines. This economic crisis can either lead to a petering out of the protests – as day-to-day needs take precedence in people’s lives over protests – or it can lead to the rallying of protesters and more pressure on the government.
International financial institutions (IFI) and bilateral lenders have expressed willingness to help the government, but they are holding back. They believe the government is neither stable nor capable.
Indeed, depending on how you count it, this is the third or fourth government we have had in the past couple of months. With only one seat in parliament – his own – it is hard to see how the current Prime Minister can be anything other than a stopgap measure by the party of the President to cling to power.
Even if this government lasts, it would be too weak to carry out the stringent economic reforms that the IFIs are likely to impose on Sri Lanka.
The government will also be unable to offer fresh ideas, or present an alternative course of action, as it struggles to survive politically, rather than reform economically. Caught between the economic pressure of IFIs and lenders, and the political pressure of the protesters, the government is likely to cave into the former rather than the latter. This is because the former will only demand economic changes, while the latter will also demand political ones.
The President and his party have demonstrated that they would rather wield political power over a weak economy, than live without political power in a strong economy. This tactic will, however, only aggravate the crisis, as a government considered corrupt and illegitimate by the people begins to impose austerity measures that lead to hunger, a loss of livelihoods and an increase in inequality.
This not only risks an economic catastrophe, but also a political one, if social unrest erupts and the government resorts to coercion to control it.
There are currently piecemeal efforts at addressing these challenges scattered amongst the protesters, parliament and the president.
Protests continue on a daily basis in Colombo and across the island. These protests call for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to go home. Most are independently organised involving students, professional associations and neighbourhoods. Some are linked to political parties like the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
Meanwhile, the parties in parliament are pursuing a watered down version of constitutional reform, with minimal changes to the current president’s powers.
While the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are pressing for more substantive changes, the President’s party (the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna – SLPP) is using its overwhelming majority in parliament to scupper these efforts.
These political manoeuvres prove the very point of the protests, that the current institutional set-up is stacked against any kind of serious reform effort.
Finally, the President is engaged in negotiations on debt restructuring with the IMF and seeking a moratorium on its payments to other lenders. He has hired legal and financial advisers to help the government deal with it.
The challenge is to link these three disparate processes together, and use the social protests, the economic pressure and the political momentum to enact serious reform.
As long as Sri Lanka has a weak and unstable government, no foreign government is going to assist Sri Lanka. And Sri Lanka will continue to have a weak and unstable government as long as there is no political reform.
The challenges to political and economic reform
There are three challenges to uniting the different efforts for change.
First, the protesters are publicly refusing to talk to parliamentarians on the grounds that all politicians are corrupt. While this is a good rallying cry to generate opposition, the reality is more complex. Moreover, such a position makes it hard to create institutional change, since it is these institutions, whether we like it or not, that enjoy international legitimacy and official recognition. Privately some of the protesters have evinced interest in engaging with political leaders. It is important to find a way for the protesters to enter a dialogue with key parliamentarians. This is critical to bring pressure to bear over parliament to enact serious constitutional reform.
Second, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must resign from office. It is the only way he can salvage any legacy he may have. If he announces a deadline of six months, this will shift the political reform conversation in a positive direction. It will also enable him to fulfil his ambition of not leaving as a failure, but as someone who has put Sri Lanka on the path to reform. Most importantly, from his point of view, it will enable him to play a role in future reform, rather than simply act as an obstacle to such efforts.
Finally, the IFIs – the IMF in particular – are caught in a bind. They are restricted to placing economic conditions on a country. But economic reform cannot be effective in Sri Lanka, without political reform. They can clearly see that Sri Lanka’s travails are directly linked to the political hold one family has had over the country. They will have to address this issue if economic reforms are to stick. To do this they must press for anti-corruption measures, taxation of illicit income, and a reduction of wasteful public expenditure.
The challenge in the coming period will be to combine political pressure from the protesters, institutional pressure from parliament and financial pressure from IFIs to enact political reform.
Form a “Shadow Government” that includes political parties, social movements and professional associations. This shadow government should have leaders from all sectors. It can build on the Westminister tradition of a “shadow cabinet”, but rather than limit this cabinet to parliament, those seeking substantive reform can broaden the base of the “shadow government” by including key social and professional leaders.
The shadow government can put out practical programmes in key areas, such as finance, education, defence, agriculture and health, among others. These programmes should provide constructive criticisms of the government’s plans and where there are no such plans, provide draft plans. The SJB, TNA and the JVP can initiate the formation of such a “Shadow Government”.
Reach a Social and Political Agreement that includes social protesters, political leaders and members of parliament to pressure the government into real political and economic reform. This would include agreeing to work on economic restructuring, ethnic co-existence and political reform. While the social protests and the parliamentary opposition have expressed their views in multiple fora, they have yet to come together to do so in a coherent and cogent position that includes steps that the country as a whole must take.
Leaders in the protest movement and key members of parliament who have the trust of the people, can work together to come with such a social and political agreement.
Form joint committees of citizen’s groups, political groups and MPs to engage the international community, friendly governments, international lenders and the IMF in a discussion on debt restructuring and economic reform. These committees can also come together to form a Standing Committee on the Economic crisis (SCEC) to act as a crisis centre to present plans and ideas in the short, medium and longer to address the economic crisis and ensure humanitarian assistance to Sri Lankans struggling to survive.
The above steps can take place in parallel and converge at a later point. They do not have to be sequential, but can re-enforce each other as they are taken. Membership in these different processes can overlap, but need not be identical. This would permit a broad coalition of activists, political leaders and professionals to come together to provide a more just and decent future for all Sri Lankans.