All-party Govt. between the devil and the deep blue sea?

Saturday, 6 August 2022 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The polity, the political Opposition and the people’s movement of protest are caught between the rock of an implacable regime that won’t rest until it has its pound of flesh and the hard pace of possibly worsening hardships if the IMF hatches aren’t battened down by ensuring political stability    – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


There are those who think Ranil Wickremesinghe is the cat’s whiskers. A recent tweet by some representative of Colombo’s liberal elite certainly suggests that the tweep feels a new President is bringing home the bacon. 

That tweet reads: “10 days into @RW_UNP presidency and I get 20 litres of fuel with the QR code. Gas (after 4 months). Violence subsided. WB funded gas for the next four months. IMF staff level agreement expected soon. Invite to all parties to form a government. Not a miracle but progress nevertheless.”

The responses – Twitter can be swift and vicious – suggested some interlocutors begged to disagree. One respondent tweeted: “Did you kinda miss the bodies washing ashore, the drive-by shooting or the cops surrounding the houses of activists?” Yet another challenged the original tweet with this cheerful rejoinder: “wdym violence has subsided? so much intimidation /false arrests going on [smiley face icon].”

If, as a related post on Facebook suggested: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, then the new kid on the Executive block – though hardly a tyro in the corridors of power – is making something of a hash and a pig’s breakfast to boot of restoring law and order?

As well as reintroducing a semblance of democracy, albeit one driven by legalism, in a republic only lately under a right-royal Rajapaksa jackboot... some would say it still is, in a sense.

Old hand at cards

 In reality, the oldest hand in this game of cards that he has been playing for almost half a century is doing what he’s arguably best at; finessing the trumps out of the opponent's decks. 

For example, labelling the Aragalaya a ‘fascist’ movement – when, au contraire, it is the selective legalism under his regime, which promised equal application of the law to all, that reeks of State fascism.

On the one hand, the eighth Executive President of our Democratic Socialist Republic has ridden to power on the backs of a sweeping political movement that he championed in no uncertain terms not time out of mind yet on social media. 

On 9 May, the then-Prime Minister-to-be tweeted – in response to the violence at GotaGoGama (GGG) that ‘not only the Prime Minister [MR] but the entire Government [GR’s]’ must resign – in recognition, no doubt, of the State-sanctioned violence against peaceful protestors, which RW condemned unequivocally then.

Can this be the same handle @RW_UNP who only recently seemed to have undergone a sea-change into something rich and strange – unleashing the military on a largely peaceful, even artistic and certainly iconic protest at the dead of night; rounding up protesting clergy and trade unionists defending civil liberties in the same breath?

In similar vein, the then-Prime Minister – when asked in a television interview what he would expect foreigners to do if and when they visited an island beleaguered by protests, fuel queues, crippled public transport, and sundry essentials shortages – said: “Those who want to have an exciting time can come here, and maybe they could even take part in the demonstrations. They can hold placards asking the President of Sri Lanka to go home...” 

It was a tongue-in-cheek quip, which on the face of it could be taken in at least one of two ways. Either the premier was serious – and seriously out of touch with the pulse of the people on the street (for at its best, GGG was hardly a tourist attraction). 

Or the mandarin in him was even then plotting the deposition of the very Chief Executive who had appointed him ‘primus inter pares’ in the Cabinet. 

Yet it is under the same incumbent President now that a foreigner who stood in solidarity with the struggle of the Sri Lankan people has had her passport impounded and a squad of plug-uglies visit her to poke around her ‘true motivations’ in being here with us in our resplendent isle... 

Talk about double standards, two-facedness and wearing a mask that not even the most Machiavellian of volte-faces could countenance.

MO of the solo jumbo

This is the modus operandi that a leader with a lone-elephant mentality has carried with him down the decades and into the plushest corridors of power today. 

It is an MO that has characterised the career of an astute yet aloof politician who has aimed for much and achieved some. 

For one, being the architect of more national projects – peace treaty, Port City, plenty of hard infrastructure such as highways for which later administrations hogged the hallelujahs – than either prissy electorate or political enemies give him credit for. 

For another, adroitly manoeuvring (some would say, ‘manipulating’) the nation-State between the Sycllas of the Sirisenas and the Charybidises of the CBKs – it takes chutzpah to ostensibly play second fiddle while paying the fiddler to string the country along to Nero’s Napoleonic ambitions.   

And it is threatening to transform the people’s resistance into an entrenched and deeply resentful rebellion tomorrow that simmers and smoulders most alarmingly today, despite depletion in the ranks of its visible leadership. 

And that – like his predecessor before him – Ranil remains apathetic to their cause now, as well as deaf to their pleas and tone-deaf to their protestations against his high- and heavy-handedness, is cause for concern.

But the cherry on the cake is the putative ‘all-party Government’ (APG) that our redoubtable chief is now bent on assembling. And if it is largely a cabal of ‘same-olds’ promising the ‘same-old new things’, so be it as far as the most cynical and authoritarian administration to date – the previous regime may prove to be a close second as time goes by – goes... or as far as truly representative democracy is concerned – or not.

It is of some concern to even the most insensitive of commentators that the State of the nation continues to be a rich mix of irony and hypocrisy militating towards governance being the business of politics as usual. On top of three ‘centres of power’ today – the Presidential Secretariat (mainly UNP loyalists), the Cabinet (largely a Rajapaksa remnant) and Parliament (SLPP-heavy) – lacking the demonstrable endorsement of the people.

Legalism amidst illegitimacy

Other concerns prevail also...

For one, protestors at the Aragalaya that swept our august Olympian into his lofty throne continue to be identified, targeted and prosecuted for crimes as petty as pilfering the former President’s beer stein – when those who drank criminally long and deep at State and taxpayers’ expense continue to roam free with immunity, or be lionised with high political office in Cabinet and sundry ministries.

For another, the ability of the long arm of the law to reach out and collar offenders for violations as banal as sitting in the Presidential chair must amaze citizens – in a dispensation where far more offensive occupants of that venerated seat strut about the commonwealth, immune from persecution for State sanctioned thuggery at worst or bringing an entire nation to its knees with their aggravated egoism at best... and at least one of them is still on the sitting President’s radar, as to what constitutes the most suitable time for his ‘triumphal return’ – not to face a litany of charges; but rather, to be ensconced in clover at the pleasure of a regime that hasn’t changed its spots. 

Let’s not even mention that other miscreant Johnny-come-lately-now-gone-home who thought it not beneath Parliamentary etiquette to heave a chair at the constabulary in our ‘august assembly’ (ahem) in the dark times of the abortive coup... which, by the way, is another unsavoury episode that the redoubtable RW appears to have forgotten. 

At least in terms of the popular support he enjoyed then, courtesy Colombo liberals and assorted republicans – who lined the same streets they fear to tread now, to reinstate him to his rightful place as the lawfully elected and constitutionally safeguarded Prime Minister at the time when he was illegally deposed.  

Last but by no means least, there is all this mockery of democratic norms in swelling the ranks of Cabinet with representatives of the gerontocratic, still militarised, tried and failed, tired very old guard – and then poaching a few rogue MPs to fill a few seats in a putative ‘all-party Government’... 

 Horns of a dilemma

Would it not have been more convincing to set a transparent national agenda first? Share with the polity a comprehensive economic recovery plan next? And then and only then recruit the minimum number of the most eminently qualified (hopefully young and happily expert) parliamentarians to drive the nation-State along that vector? 

Rather than this crowding the benches with the usual suspects and adding a few stray arrows to the quiver as a sop to Cerberus or a nod to cynical watchers in and outside the commonwealth who are keener on legality than legitimacy? 

So, the putative all-party Government is caught between the ‘devil’ of an old regime in a new emperor’s clothes and the ‘deep blue sea’ of penury if our embattled island-nation doesn’t fish a bailout out of the murky waters of instability. 

In fact, the political Opposition is once again on the horns of a dilemma as to whether to clasp the velvet glove that hardly conceals the iron fist of a crackdown on dissent and reinstatement of an expired mandate. 

So, for the SJB, SLFP et al. as political parties per se – and not simply in terms of a few stragglers and crafty opportunists joining hands with an oppressive regime – it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. 

In the limit: the polity, the political Opposition and the people’s movement of protest are caught between the rock of an implacable regime that won’t rest until it has its pound of flesh and the hard pace of possibly worsening hardships if the IMF hatches aren’t battened down by ensuring political stability – even if it is a temporary peace without justice. 

Thus, the lull at Galle Face today and yesterday after the Police – note, not the courts as such – enjoined the illegal occupants of the iconic protest site to vacate the premises may prove only a brief respite for a Government under pressure. 

Grants of dedicated protest sites to provoke a gasp of admiration at this ostensibly democratic move to facilitate citizen protests won’t cut it for long in the face of a recalcitrant movement that won’t back down. And hopefully, for the sake of the republic at large, won’t go rogue or go underground. 

At least not until law enforcement demonstrates the same vim, vigour and vitality at apprehending the thugs who trashed GGG on 9 May, as the peaceful protestors who spoke truth to power by voting with their feet on 9 July. Or arrests the hooligans who vandalised the House in 2018 as enthusiastically as they located and prosecuted the arsonists of another august stately home in 2022. Both deserve equal and fair treatment ahead of an APG with clarity, credibility and at least a facsimile of the people’s mandate it neither deserves nor demonstrates.    

(The writer is Editor-at-large of LMD)  


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