Written by Jayadeva Uyangoda
Sri Lanka’s ‘unity government’ of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has been in a serious crisis of unity for the past several weeks. Although Sri Lanka’s constitution, after its 19th Amendment passed in 2015, does not have provisions for the government’s replacement till the end of 2019, deep divisions between the President and the Prime Minister have pushed the entire government into a state of paralysis.
The recent anti-Muslim violence mounted by a few Sinhalese-Buddhist racist groups two weeks ago also occurred in the context of this crisis of governance. The apathy and disinterest initially shown by the police, the military, the bureaucracy, and even the political leadership to immediately act in order to bring violence under control can also be seen as reflective of this unusual crisis.
The most disquieting outcome of this deepening crisis of Sri Lanka’s unity government is the fact that its promising reform agenda has become its first victim. Post-war peace building, corruption-free governance, and constitutional reform have been the three central components of the government’s reform promise since it came into power in 2015. All are now stuck, unable to move forward, because they are at present bereft of leadership or political direction from either of the two leaders.
Amidst political uncertainty and diminishing popular support for the government, the prospect of the new party of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former strongman, returning to power has also become real. A Rajapaksa-led government is certain to rollback the reform agenda that Sri Lankan voters opted for just three years ago. Because of constitutional limitations, Rajapaksa will not contest the Presidential election. But there is no barrier for him to become an all-powerful Prime Minister, as Valdimir Putin did a few years ago in Russia. The Rajapaksa-Putin parallel is not just superficial, as will be seen later in this article.
Reformism’s Dead End
One serious political question that emerges from Sri Lanka’s current political impasse is the following: why has a reformist democratic regime, with domestic popular support as well as international backing, begun to run out of its political energies so early and is facing disintegration half away?
In Sri Lanka’s on-going political debate, two explanations are key. First, the government’s shaky commitment to the electoral mandate, and second, the ruptured nature of the coalition between the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Sirisena, and United National Party (UNP) led by Wickremasinghe.
It is important, however, to look deeper at two additional themes. These are, the unreformability of the ethnocratic state, and the irreversibility of corruption due to its peculiar political economy.
A great puzzle in the failure of peace building and constitutional reform in Sri Lanka since 2015 has been its lacklustre attitude to these two fundamental commitments. The new regime in October 2015 had the audacity to co-sponsor the UNHRC resolution on peace building, along with the USA, only to slowly de-emphasize and de-prioritize it in its core commitments. These commitments included reconciliation, justice, greater devolution and political reform.
The government initially demonstrated an appreciable measure of passion for these four goals. Despite a parliamentary majority, the President and Prime Minister showed remarkable courage to get the 19th Amendment passed by parliament with the required two-thirds majority. If a modern, democratic constitution is a bundle of compromises, Sri Lanka’s 19th Amendment is no exception. Although the government had earlier promised to abolish Sri Lanka’s presidential system, reducing the powers of the president and enhancing the powers of the prime minister and parliament are gains of no mean significance.
However, the government’s reform project failed to move beyond the 19th Amendment. President Sirisena’s lack of interest in constitutional reform beyond electoral reforms and Wickremasinghe’s overcautious approach to state reform, point to a political reality.
National Security State
These negative political forces are embedded in two crucial dimensions as evolved during and after the ethnic civil war — the ethnocratization of the state, and a mindset of national security orientation.
Ethnocratization reflects the capture of the state by the majority community. It entails the primacy accorded to national security considerations over democracy and human rights, as well as the emergence of the country’s defence establishment as a competitive stakeholder in state policy. Bother these processes had crystalized after the end of civil war in May 2009, under the previous administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
But even when they took power, neither Sirisena not Wickeramasinghe resisted these processes. As a result, the peace building, reconciliation, and constitutional reform agenda paid the ultimate price.
Question of Corruption
Meanwhile, the abandonment of the corruption-free, good governance agenda is blamed on the Prime Minister who assigned to himself the task of managing the economy which is caught up in a debt trap. Once the elections were over, the promise of corruption free and transparent economic governance did not go beyond electoral rhetoric. Why?
Certainly, in the wake of liberalization, Sri Lanka’s new class of capitalists also captured the political class, the bureaucracy and other institutions of governance The recent judicial inquiry into the Central Bank bond scam, allegedly carried out by a group of businessmen connected to the ruling UNP, has offered a rare glimpse of the extent to which the new business class, politicians and the bureaucracy are in networks of informal and hugely profitable alliances.
The prime minister initially gave the impression that he could discipline this new class of capitalists. But investigations into public sector and business corruption has stalled. There is also ample evidence to suggest that Wickremasinghe and his party made unbelievable compromises with new and predatory businessmen who flourished during Rajapaksa’s regime as well as after the war.
Amidst the unfolding crisis, many Sri Lankan citizens are waiting for the strong man to come back. Certainly, Sri Lanka is not alone in this kind of political development; several other South Asian nations are undergoing similar political processes. Perhaps, these call for a fundamental re-thinking of the politics of democratic reform in the sub-continent.