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Friday, February 23, 2024

The anatomy of a regime: Unstoppable in elections, dysfunctional in governance, indefensible against protests

SLFP: Rajapaksha party today

by Rajan Philips
There cannot be much disagreement about how to read the current political situation. On the one hand, the government continues to be unstoppable at elections notwithstanding its discontents. On the other hand, protests are becoming unstoppable regardless of the government winning elections. There is a clear standoff between the Rajapaksa regime and its growing detractors. Missing in action are the once potent political parties.

The United National Party is defanged and is permanently divided. The Old Left, the springboard for protests past is now the dead Left buried inside the UPFA. Despite being the main governing party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is a different family party within the UPFA. The party of the Bandaranaikes and the Pancha Maha Balavegaya is now the party of the Rajapaksas and the enemy of the new manifestations of the old five forces.
The children of 1956 seem to have come home to roost, though not quite the same way and for not quite the same reasons. There is more.

A monster of contradictions

The regime is also a monster of contradictions. There is still more than half the second term to complete and the President has no term limit thanks to 18A, but the regime is already worse than lame duck. It is powerless to govern properly in spite of having all the powers. It is popular at elections but has just about provoked every organized group in society. Never before have professionals and middle classes joined strikes and street protests the way dons, doctors and lawyers have been surging onto the streets now.

The all-powerful regime is dysfunctional in governance. It gets everything wrong and nothing right. Most ministerial files are a mess; those that are not are non-starters. The collapse of the civilian state machinery is utter and complete. The presidential solution has been to delegate virtually all government operations to two commandants in the family: the Secretary of Defense whose ambit stretches from urban development to legal drafting and security enforcement; and the Minister of Economic Development who is now creating a new empire called the Department of Divi Neguma Development.

Defense and Development are the two defining mantras of the regime. The country has had no military coup but the military is in the saddle running much of the country. The regime is militarizing the state without politicizing the military. The development emphasis is creating more grief than good. The development projects are mostly unnecessary and inappropriate and involve huge misallocations of resources. And the projects and policies are designed to benefit cronies and charlatans and not the economy or the people.

With the regime cynically and capriciously calling election after election in one local or provincial corner of the country or other, and defeating the opposition UNP that is more like a zombie than a live party, the electorate and the electoral process have been reduced to irrelevance. The exceptions are the Northern and Eastern Provinces where the TNA and the SLMC have shown tractions for devolution. The JVP has no electoral traction anywhere.

What is also unique about the current situation is that no one yet knows as to how and under what conditions that this regime will eventually end and be replaced. The past certainty of the electoral cycle has gone missing now. In the old electoral cycle, a government was elected and within a prescribed period of time, the elected government dissolved parliament and faced elections. This happened with unbroken regularity from 1947 to 1977. During those thirty years, only one incumbent government was re-elected, in 1952. In every election that followed, in 1956, 1960 March & July, 1965, 1970 and 1977, incumbent governments were defeated, often quite severely. In thirty years, there were eight elections and seven new governments.

The election-government-dissolution cycle ended in 1977. Since then there have been four governments but a plethora of elections – presidential, parliamentary, provincial and local, not to mention the 1982 referendum. The 35 years after 1977 have been ruled in equal parts by political alliances led first by the UNP and then by the SLFP. There are no virtues left in the political system and the Rajapaksa regime, the current successor to the three regimes under JR, Premadasa and Kumaratunga, is the accumulation of all the vices in the political system.

Patriotic Regime Change

As recent as March this year, it was a mark of patriotism to accuse international agencies of orchestrating a ‘Regime Change’ in Sri Lanka by questioning human rights violations of the Rajapaksa regime. Six months later, even patriotic Sinhalese including Venerable Buddhist priests have begun to talk about ‘Regime Change’. A regime change alone will not be enough to repair Sri Lanka’s state and reorder its polity. What is necessary will not be sufficient. What might be necessary is also impossible at least in the short term going by last weekend’s provincial elections in which the regime won clear majorities in two provinces and squeaked to top place finish in the hung result for the third. Where do we go from here?

A dramatic approach to effecting regime change that is being bandied about is to promote Ven. Maduluwewa Sobitha Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara, as a single opposition candidate to challenge President Rajapaksa at the next presidential election on the single issue of abolishing the presidency.
The fact that a respected Buddhist priest is taking cudgels against the regime’s concentrated abuse of power and lack of transparency that characterize the current regime and inspiring people to look up to him as a potential candidate validates the main themes of my article. But whether the venerable prelate can actually deliver on the promise he is helping to generate is a separate question; a related question is even if Sobitha Thero does contest and win, is it enough to bring about a systemic change in the state machinery?

In the country’s first presidential election in 1982, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva ran on the single issue of abolishing the presidency. But he was not a single opposition candidate and fared very poorly in the election. The presidential system was still in its infancy and Dr. de Silva would have been the most accomplished incumbent to bring about its termination. That was not to be. A whole series of disastrous developments were to follow the election of 1982 and most of us have lived through them. In a strictly constitutional perspective, the presidential system and the 1978 Constitution that sustains it have been in place for 34 years – the longest constitutional span in Sri Lanka’s modern history. A whole generation of voters has grown up under this system and while they may relate to the cry for a regime change, they may not be quite as clear about a constitutional overhaul unlike the older generation of commentators familiar with the workings of the parliamentary system.

A fundamental regime change did occur in 1994, after 17 years of UNP rule. The experience of that change, however, was that Chandrika Kumaratunga who led the charge against the UNP regime failed to carry through the momentum of her victory to implement the promises of her campaign. The biggest promise was to abolish the presidency. Both she and her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa have betrayed the SLFP undertaking to abolish the presidential system. Worse, they have consolidated the presidential system in more abominable ways than even JRJ could ever have imagined.

But the experience of Chandrika’s campaign in 1994 offers lessons for a new campaign for regime change at the present juncture. Although she was parachuted to spearhead a broad movement that was already galvanizing against a decadent UNP regime, Chandrika Kumaratunga started her campaign from the bottom of the constitutional hierarchy – the Provincial Councils, before ultimately taking aim at the apex of the system – the presidency.

Chandrika’s campaign and victory in the Southern Provincial Council election in 1994 was a performance of historic proportions. The details of that campaign, its significance as a political game changer and being the launching pad for victories in the parliamentary and presidential elections that same year, are well documented in Wisva Warnapala’s monograph analyzing the 1994 Southern Provincial Council election. In hindsight, it could be argued that Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Alliance moved too fast too soon from the constitutional bottom to the top without administratively consolidating their bases. More importantly, Chandrika Kumaratunga, as Chief Minister, did nothing to revamp the administration of a Provincial Council, and as President she treated Provincial Councils as central government outposts rather than being forums of decentralized democracy.

The Rajapaksa regime has been more cynical and more damaging in dealing with the Provincial Council system and in multiple ways. For instance, President Rajapaksa barefacedly bluffs New Delhi that his government is very serious about the Provincial Councils and about moving towards a so called 13A+, without doing anything to systematically empower the existing Provincial Councils or enabling a Northern Provincial Council to come into existence. At the same time, neither the President nor the government does anything to counter the tedious and ill-informed campaign that the PC system is a white elephant that should be put to death. On the contrary, the government actively supports such campaigns, but cynically uses the PC system to prove its electoral legitimacy by conducting elections to Provincial Councils selected at its whim and convenience.

It is too much to expect this government to take an honest stand as to whether it is against or for the PC system. If it is against, it should honestly move ahead and abolish the system. If it is for, it should sincerely enable the PCs as they are meant to work. If those in the government need advice on what to do to make the PC system achieve its purpose, they could simply ask the members of the Institute for Constitutional Studies, almost all of whom are non-UNP and anti-UNP academics, and who have produced a worthy assessment of the PC system in its 22 years of operation. But this regime is too cynical to be honest or to heed good advice. It wants to have the best of both worlds: attack the PC system as a threat to national sovereignty, but use them to bolster its electoral credibility. The upshot is the worst of both worlds for the country.

Provincial and National

My point in this discussion is to emphasize the geographical significance of the Provinces as a basis for effecting short term and long term changes in the political system. The experience of Chandrika Kumaratunga in using the Southern Provincial Council election as the springboard to mount her challenge against the then regime is an example that could be emulated now. At the same time, what she did as Chief Minister at Provincial Councils and later as President to the PC system are examples that must be avoided.

Recent developments augur well for organizing oppositional politics at two, or even three, levels – national, provincial and local. The emergence of university dons, lawyers and doctors as disaffected detractors of the regime lends itself to such a two or three level organization of politics. The judicial system and the health departments have always had their provincial and local components. University campuses in different provinces are a more recent development and apart from using campuses as incubators for agitation, the participation of university teachers in provincial issues could have far reaching implications. By training and by knowledge they are well positioned to undertake this task and facilitate changes at the national, provincial as well as local levels.

For example, they could disaggregate their 6% GDP demand for education as specific programs for each province and involve school teachers’ associations in the provinces in the furtherance of such programs. They could coordinate with lawyers and doctors to develop similar programs in the areas of law and order and health. In each Province, academics, professionals and trade unions could begin to channel public concerns over corruption and lack of transparency in government to bring pressure on the central government and to formulate provincial programs. At the political level, this programmatic dynamic could lead to the emulation of Chandrika’s1994 electoral experience in the Southern Province, and unlike in the case Chandrika Kumaratunga, the new dynamic would proceed to administratively consolidate electoral gains and revamp the entire PC system.

The specific situation in the Eastern Provinces where last week’s elections produced hung results, lends itself to trying this new dynamic. It would be a positive development with nationwide implications if the elected Councillors of the TNA, the SLMC and the UNP could come together to form the new Provincial government. At long last, there will be a genuine Provincial government that is not a branch outpost of the national party in power. That has been the case so far with almost all Provincial Governments in the country. The national party control over Provincial Councils has been bane of the Provincial Councils and the main reason why the PC system did not take off the way it should have.

In moving up from the provincial to the national level, two developments, in my view, could play a major catalytic role towards regime change. Sri Lanka could do well to have someone like Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) who spearheaded the national agitation against Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule in the 1970s and went on to dislodge the Congress Party from office in Delhi for the first time after independence. For those unfamiliar with Indian politics of the independence era, at the time of independence JP was touted as Nehru’s eventual successor in the Congress but went on a separate path to lead the Congress Socialist Party. After early electoral setback in 1952, JP quit politics and steeped himself in the Sarvodaya movement. In 1976, he roared back into politics, not to contest elections and win power but to inspire a national movement against the regime of Indira Gandhi. JP, more than anyone, else forced Mrs. Gandhi to call a national election and caused her defeat. Jayaprakash Narayan was the manifestation of ‘saintly politics’, ascetically disinterested in office and holding those in office to the high standards that are expected of them.

We do not have a JP in Lanka. But Sri Lankan society shares the general South Asian ethos of respect for ascetic public figures who take up public causes. The question is whether Venerable Maduluwewa Sobitha Thero could play the role of Jayaprakash Narayan in Sri Lanka. It is not a role that can be assigned by others to someone the way a candidate is nominated for office. It is a role that seizes someone who is appropriate to play that role and who can be seen by others as being appropriate for that role. In the present context, someone playing such a role could add an ennobling dimension to any movement for effecting regime change.

The second catalytic development to consider is the role of the SLFP in the present situation. It would be a puzzling phenomenon if there are no sections within the SLFP who are not happy with the direction of the Rajapaksa regime. It took the Maha Nayake of the Malwatte Chapter to point out that the Pancha Maha Balavegaya were on the streets, and it would be a political betrayal of every tradition of the SLFP if the Maha Nayaka’s sharp comment did not find resonance at least among some sections in the SLFP. The question is what will it take to inspire such SLFPers to publicly come out against the misdoings of the regime? Who can be instrumental in fomenting this dissent in the SLFP? The former President Chandrika Kumaratunga should have enough following and clout within the SLFP to encourage critical thinking against the regime. She may not be popular for re-election to office and she is certainly not fit for saintly politics, but she is more than adequate to cause a stir within the SLFP. If nothing else, she owes it to her father and to her mother to cause that stir


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