By Siri Gamage –April 20, 2017
In a recent article on Separation of powers – the fourth pillar of State – namely people power (PP) under the Trump administration, Kumar David states that ‘Trump’s America is an example of how mass demonstrations, social media, town-hall meetings, local councils, court action by rights groups and mass pressure can make Congress, courts, media, the White House and security agencies bow to public concerns’ (Colombo Telegraph (16.04.2017). He points to the lack of such PP in Sri Lanka (by implication) as the government brought to power with PP in 2015 has disappointed many who supported it. In any country, when people power gets systematically organized against ineffective and corrupt governments, such events inspire others facing similar situations. Analysing the situation in Sri Lanka in relation to people power configurations in the future is important in order to identify the conditions, players, strategies including communication strategy and necessary discourses. Such analysis is important especially when some political propagandists argue that the choice is between Basil or Gotabaya, Ranil or Dinesh, Sirisena or Ranil or whoever depending on the day of the week in order to confuse the audience and prevent PP from emerging from unexpected quarters. Such propagandists seem to subscribe to the view that the choices people in Sri Lanka have are limited to rotate power within the existing power group or the ruling class periodically. They theorise and project future scenarios led by certain personalities in order to create a self-fulfilling prophecy serving the interests of the ruling class/ power group or its factions.
This article analyses as to whether conditions for PP to emerge outside the ruling class or power group exists in Sri Lanka, in what form, who can lead it, and associated matters. The analysis in this article is based on the assumption that social and political change do not have to come necessarily from the existing ruling class or power group but outside it with the active strategizing by civil society organisations and their leaders coming out of their safety zones and treating politics as part of their struggles for justice for the deprived segments of society. Trade unions, academic unions, student associations, clergy, human rights organisations, temple associations, farmer organisations, cooperative societies and other grass roots organisations not affiliated with the mainstream political parties can be part of this trajectory.
The disaffected groups and communities due to globalization, so-called free trade (not fair trade) and do nothing governments brought Trump into power. Being a popular television personality and an unconventional politician, some segments of the population disenfranchised by the existing political system and exercise of power usually for the big end of the town, voted him into power thinking that he will implement America First policies including in immigration, economic development, manufacturing, health care and foreign policy. When his actions in the immigration field do not match with the core values and norms of a decent society, activist organisations use the judiciary and other bodies to challenge them. Large protests on the streets by activists including those complaining about gender discrimination reflected the frustrations of those who felt the election of Trump hindered their interests.
In Sri Lanka also there are many who are not happy about the way the political and economic systems operate. This has been the case for many decades but the situation today has become severe due to the ineffectual and top heavy governance that goes without checking corruption by politicians in a credible sense, increasing gap between the rich and the poor, stagnant quality of life, foreign aid dependent development policy and the increasing foreign debt levels. Instead of small government, the country is endowed with big and expensive government layered between national and provincial levels. Maintaining such a big government and the ruling class with their lavish lifestyles is not an easy task for the population. Along with the grant of power to rule, voters are also giving a license to elected representatives to legitimize their upper class lifestyles and legitimize the very dominance of the ruling class/power group. If they make policies in favor of the many who are deprived and act in the national interest there is some justification for their lavish lifestyles and dominant behaviour. When this is not so, the spotlight should be on policy failures as well as lifestyles of those who fail the nation. A single event like the recent Meetotamulla disaster has shown the ugly side of this conundrum between the powerful and the powerless.
Anti systemic movements –though based on the frustrations of sections of the community- failed at several critical points in Sri Lanka’s post independent history due to the lack of strategy, people oriented politics or sound organizational capacity. Securing power from the people has to be a stage-wise and inclusionary process rooted in the culture of the society and communicated via culturally specific language and discourse. In 2015 people fed up with the ruling style and the effects on day to day life relied on the then opposition and a few vocal politicians to change the Rajapakse government which they thought was showing signs of a semi dictatorship with concentrated power in the family. Those who voted to change government believed that the previous government used anti people, anti democratic measures to rule the country with an iron fist and personality worship amply demonstrated by large cut outs of the dear leader in all corners and streets of the island. These are not distant events. The question is where and how the next people power movement can emerge if people are frustrated with the national government established by the ruling class to control the country’s half empty coffers?
The general tendency is for the disaffected to go to the opposition parties as voters or political activists (in some cases as propagandists). This method is called as Kotta Maruwa or changing pillows. This has been the trend in post independent Sri Lanka but the cross over politics and coalition governments change this style somewhat though they were justified during the war as a necessity. There is a core group of party supporters in the two main parties, the UNP and SLFP at the grass roots level who keep their party allegiances no matter what. However, during the Rajapakse era many of those who were supporters of the UNP did not show their allegiance publicly particularly in rural areas due to potential reprisals. The core group of JVP supporters remained intact in the last elections with the party but it was not able to garner higher voter support as expected even though it’s political discourse was more articulate and forward looking.