For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
Op-Ed / Asia

For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits

Originally published in The Hindustan Times.

With the swearing in of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Sri Lanka’s new president, the country briefly caught its breath after weeks of crisis, generated by public anger at the accelerating economic collapse and the severe hardship it is causing. The extraordinary events of July 9-15, when massive crowds occupied the presidential residence and offices and forced then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign and flee the country, were the culmination of months of island-wide protests under the banner of #GotaGoHome. The tremendous and unprecedented victory of a genuine people’s struggle – janatha aragalaya in Sinhala – paved the way for this week’s selection of Wickremesinghe by parliament. 

With Wickremesinghe relying on pro-Rajapaksa parliamentarians for his victory, and denounced by protesters for working with the Rajapaksas and for being the kind of deal-making politician seen responsible for Lanka’s troubles, doubts linger about the new president’s ability to be an agent of democratic change. Wickremesinghe’s use of the army and police commandos to violently clear out Colombo’s main protest camp and his appointment of several Rajapaksa loyalists to the cabinet have confirmed those doubts, raised tensions and appear to have quashed hopes of political reforms and accountability. 

Many hoped Wickremesinghe’s election would usher in the political stability essential to addressing the economic and humanitarian crises. With only a trickle of hard currency to import fuel, food and medicines, the country has ground to a virtual halt, even as inflation puts many essential items out of the reach of all but the wealthy. An estimated 80% of the population is already reducing their food intake; a quarter is in need of emergency assistance. 

[Sri] Lankan officials are desperately hoping for enough bilateral support … to buy fuel, food and medicines and prevent a full economic collapse.

At the top of Wickremesinghe’s agenda will be to finalise ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a package of economic reforms to address the chronic budget, trade and current account deficits. IMF endorsement will provide the assurances essential for Sri Lanka’s international creditors to accept reduced payouts on their bonds and loans. Only when that debt “restructuring” is agreed upon will the requested $3 billion in IMF funds be unlocked. With no IMF relief expected until early 2023, Lankan officials are desperately hoping for enough bilateral support from India, Japan, China, and western countries to buy fuel, food and medicines and prevent a full economic collapse – and the political chaos this could bring.  

The reforms that most expect – higher taxes, reduction of the number of government employees, selling off State-owned corporations, cuts in military spending and State subsidies – are certain to hit a range of constituencies hard. Significant public protest and resistance are highly likely, and a government headed by Wickremesinghe – supported by the Rajapaksa family’s political vehicle, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – acutely lacks the credibility needed to win public support. Wickremesinghe’s decision to attack the protestors’ main campsite will be read by many as a warning that a tough line will be taken against future protests and as apparent revenge for the July 9 arson on Wickremesinghe’s private residence. 

The confrontation threatens to destroy the two most remarkable and encouraging elements of the past six months: the emergence of an overwhelmingly non-violent, creative, broad-based and pluralist popular movement for political reform and accountability; and the fact that Sri Lanka’s security forces, with a few notable exceptions, have been relatively restrained in their use of force, and the military, accused of terrible abuses during the civil war, has largely stayed out of politics. Both these achievements are under intense pressure now.

If Wickremesinghe is serious about helping Sri Lanka escape from its chronic political and economic dysfunctions ... he would be wise to pull back from his confrontational approach.

If Wickremesinghe is serious about helping Sri Lanka escape from its chronic political and economic dysfunctions – rather than consolidating his power with the support of Rajapaksas and the military – he would be wise to pull back from his confrontational approach and instead take steps designed to increase his popular legitimacy. Three moves the president could take to ease tensions would be to: Commit to holding early elections once deals with IMF and creditors have been agreed upon; agree to abolish the executive presidency and return to a parliamentary system; and restart cooperation with the UN and World Bank’s StAR anti-corruption programme, which made significant progress when he was PM from 2015-19.

Unfortunately, Wickremesinghe is unlikely to take such steps, given that his government depends on SLPP parliamentarians, who are eager to avoid elections and corruption investigations, and given his own decades-long quest to reach the presidency. Nonetheless, the international institutions and foreign governments whose money the Wickremesinghe administration needs to restart Sri Lanka’s desperately weak economy should press hard for all these moves, and for an end to a militarised attack on dissent.

The principal job of maintaining and deepening the movement for democratic reform, then, falls back on the aragalaya. Its first and foremost challenge is to resist falling into the trap of escalation. The protest movement must move beyond strategies of physical confrontation and the occupation of public buildings, which seem almost certain to provoke violent repression. The larger challenge is to find ways to move from saying “no” and forcing leaders’ resignations to helping create new and better ways of doing politics. 

The aragalaya has already achieved more along these lines than most ever imagined. It has not only brought down a political dynasty so feared and so powerful many thought it was invincible, but it did so with extraordinary creativity and with a democratic and pluralist spirit and approach that is radically new for Sri Lanka. It has used social media in impressive and creative ways: To organise protests, witness abuses, hold the government, police and mainstream media to account – effectively delegitimising the Rajapaksas and undermining the appearance of invincibility of the former ruling family and their powerful support network. The aragalaya has opened up a radical new space for speaking about and doing politics. 

To face the latest stage of Sri Lanka’s multiple crises, the protest movement will have to continue to reinvent itself. Protesters have been constrained from the start due to their lacking a vehicle to take forward their demands within formal politics. Sceptical, for good reasons, of the main Opposition party and critical of parliament as a whole, the aragalaya has kept away from institutionalised politics and drawn strength from its multiple currents and lack of a single or centralised leadership. Without abandoning this approach entirely, the movement would do well to pursue its ongoing discussions on forming a new political party. Such a party should be organised around clear procedures to ensure internal democracy and focused on taking forward a clear set of political demands in the next parliamentary election, whenever that takes place. 

The aragalaya must also start working to build much deeper connections to, and draw on the energies of, the long-running protest movements led by Tamil activists in the north and east of the island. To do so will require addressing the toxic legacy of Sinhala and Buddhist nationalism, which has formed the ideological core for, and offered political cover to, generations of violent and corrupt politicians. Sri Lanka will have a genuine chance to escape its chronic democratic deficits – of corruption, economic mismanagement, authoritarianism, militarisation, and abuse of State power – only when that legacy is seriously challenged by citizens throughout the island.