A revolt that could turn into a revolution

Without a new social contract, there could be unrestrained conflict with the working people in Sri Lanka

Updated - July 19, 2022 12:25 pm IST

Published - July 19, 2022 12:15 am IST

File photo of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

File photo of Ranil Wickremesinghe. | Photo Credit: Moorthy R.V.

The great revolt of the masses has overthrown an authoritarian president in Sri Lanka, but it has not abolished the executive presidency. Indeed, on July 18, within days of assuming office as acting President, Ranil Wickremesinghe declared an Emergency, to supposedly ensure the safety of parliamentarians who are to vote for a President on July 20.

A new social contract

Such executive overreach has been the bane of problems in Sri Lanka. There has been no moment in the last four decades more opportune than this to rid the country of this undemocratic institution. Then why are the liberal reformers and lawmakers so reluctant to move on abolishing the executive presidency? It is because the office of the executive president is being projected as the custodian of law, order and property in these tumultuous times. Sri Lanka is in a great moment of revolt, but it is far from a revolution, for a revolution would entail changing our fundamental social relations including property relations. Nevertheless, a radical consciousness is emerging among the masses, who are protesting on the streets and occupying the highest offices of the state.

Such power of the people has unnerved the liberal quarters and international actors who are quick to warn of anarchy, lawlessness and destruction of property. Indeed, the people’s struggle could escalate to occupying private property and demands for redistribution. However, through the many months of the crisis, the government and the Opposition in Parliament have avoided discussing redistribution. They cannot even stomach higher direct taxes, let alone a wealth tax. Instead, their energies go into begging international donors for funds and pushing the country into further debt.

It is these dynamics that are at play when the entrenched liberal political establishment, determined to preserve the neoliberal economic status quo, begins retreating into the constitutionality of the political process. Haven’t the very foundations of our political system been shaken by the greatest protests in Sri Lankan history? This is a moment when the social contract between state and society must be reconstructed. Without a new social contract, there is likely to be a no-holds-barred conflict with the working people.

Factors for political survival

At every moment in the last four months, parliamentary manoeuvres have undermined the protests and attempted to deflect people’s opposition. But those manoeuvres — whether it was the resignation of Cabinet Ministers in April, the appointment of Mr. Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister in May, or the attempts to pass a watered-down Amendment on the Executive Presidency in June — have eventually been confronted by the people’s movement. Similar dynamics are going to be at play when Parliament seeks to elect a President to complete the term of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This time around, it is Mr. Wickremesinghe who has come to symbolise order and preservation of the status quo. His self-interest and the interests of some powerful political and global actors coincide in making him the front-runner for the post of interim President, who will be elected by Parliament. After all, it is clear that in a presidential election requiring the support of a popular majority, he would not stand a chance. He could not even win his seat in Parliament in the last election and only came into Parliament on the sole seat of his United National Party that suffered a terrible defeat.

Mr. Wickremesinghe lacks the social and political base to lead the country. He has no political credibility to speak of, or moral authority, after openly backing the country’s most discredited regime. However, his political survival depends on the support of three significant constituencies. First, the Rajapaksas and their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), whose social base has been wiped out with mass opposition to their rule. The party is now in desperate need of someone at the helm of state power to protect it. Second, the top brass of the military, whose commander-in-chief and so-called war hero has fled the country, while international sanctions unnerve some in the military leadership. Third, international actors who would like to see their geopolitical interests served in Sri Lanka. Therein lies the great danger for the country.

What was considered a ‘political deal’ between the Rajapaksas and Mr. Wickremesinghe when he was appointed Prime Minister has now come into the open with the SLPP supporting his candidacy. Mr. Wickremesinghe will defend the Rajapaksas and further their interests, as he is dependent on their political base, corrupting politics to the hilt.

Next, he needs the military to suppress the protests as much as the military needs him to protect them. This quid pro quo creates the danger of authoritarian rule through further militarisation. As acting President last week, Mr. Wickremesinghe issued a gazette notification to include more subjects under the purview of the Ministry of Defence, including the Board of Investment, necessary for his authoritarian neoliberal project. Such militarisation will mount under his presidency, in addition to neoliberal policies of dispossession.

And as for international actors, a Wickremesinghe presidency with authoritarian stability will converge with their interests. A leader without a social and political base dependent on them will not just sing but also dance to their tunes, and sell the strategic assets of the country for a song.

First as tragedy, then as farce

In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx wrote these opening lines about the failed French revolution of 1848: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Marx was referring to the tragedy of Napoleon’s adventurous capture of state power and then the farce of his nephew Louis Bonaparte’s claim to be a similar leader many decades later. In Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayewardene’s ascendance to power in 1977, the creation of the executive presidency, the initiation of neoliberal policies, his alignment with the U.S. amidst the Cold War, and the repression of organised labour and the Tamil minority culminating in the civil war, was a devastating tragedy. Now, Mr. Wickremesinghe , Jayewardene’s nephew, has grand ambitions of capturing the presidency, repressing the people’s movement and taking forward the neoliberal project. It is a farce from every angle. Mr. Wickremesinghe has neither the social nor political base of Jayewardene. The people’s movement has become far more politically conscious with the nationwide protests. And the global neoliberal project itself is in crisis now.

Even if Mr. Wickremesinghe were to be elected, his tenure will remain contested, and may last only till the next wave of protests. But it would polarise society, generate a xenophobic backlash against the external actors who back him and ravage the economic lives of people.

Through the manoeuvres of those in power, the people are being pushed to continue on the path from revolt to revolution. If state power is brought to serve a class project in the figure of Mr. Wickremesinghe, the political crisis will aggravate. Who is ready for this wager?

Ahilan Kadirgamar is a political economist and Senior Lecturer, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

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