Political and social stability in a time of liberation

Tuesday, 12 April 2022 04:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

This revolution is of the young and by the young, for the whole country and all its citizens. The Gotabaya administration has lost the support of most of the country but it has, most strikingly, completely alienated an entire generation of young people of all backgrounds


“Open Your Eyes, This Is The Revolution.” 

—handwritten slogan (in English) on hand-held poster, Galle Face barricades, 9 April 2022

If the most emblematic image of the Mirihana mobilisation of 31 March was the late-night oration by a young man in motorcycle helmet, the most emblematic symbol of the 9 April protest was the young woman wearing denim dungarees and black T-shirt, her hair in a single plait, stepping from the sidewalk, walking briskly to the barricades, leaning over, giving a red rose to a policeman braced on the other side, and skipping back to rejoin her friends. 

This revolution is of the young and by the young, for the whole country and all its citizens. 

The Gotabaya administration has lost the support of most of the country but it has, most strikingly, completely alienated an entire generation of young people of all backgrounds. It was heartening to see Colombo’s cosmopolitan youth and the students from the state universities represented by of the powerful Inter-University Students Federation (mainly influenced by the FSP) protest enthusiastically, shoulder-to-shoulder, commingling with and cheering each other as they besieged the Presidential Secretariat at the Galle Face protest on 9 April 2022. 

In a late-night oration, FSP Spokesperson Duminda Nagamuwa, a young left personality of authenticity and sincerity, impassioned but not arrogant, told the crowd that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime was now conspiring to play the military card, and therefore the masses needed a new level of organised People’s Power. 

While the grievances behind mass disaffection derive from extreme material hardship, the critique of the younger generation is pre-eminently moral-ethical. The administration has no longer even a foothold on the moral high ground. The moral-ethical high ground is occupied by the protestors, mainly the educated youth. 

The strong participation by the Catholic church, the clarion call by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the significant presence of Muslim clergy and laity—all happening a week before Easter Sunday—proved that the wrong generation wasn’t the only wrong social force that the GR camp f****d with. Speaking of the Easter massacre, the first ‘countdown’ video purportedly by the hacker group Anonymous had some very interesting specific references to that atrocity. 

The current wave of demonstrations is to the Gotabaya administration what the George Floyd demonstrations were to the Trump administration: the mobilisation and the consciousness cutting across race barriers, that spelled the end of the Trump presidency. 


The worst formula for political and social stability is the triad: 

(a) President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continuing in office with or without sharing power with the military

(b) The Rajapaksa clan remaining in charge, and 

(c) Continuing economic depression compounded by the downside of a deep-biting IMF program. 

An IMF program is not the problem. Stiglitz commended the IMF-Argentina agreement. The problem is unclarity about the character of the program and what GoSL’s redlines should be. The received wisdom of removing subsidies from fuel, etc., because the super-rich also enjoy them, and to make a cash transfer to the poor to cushion them from the removal of subsidies, has a large hole in it. Most people are neither super-rich nor classifiable as poor; they are middle class. So, what happens to the middle classes when the “bitter medicine” is administered? At which point does the “bitter medicine” become poison?

Socioeconomic polarisation caused by the economic collapse and compounded by the wrong kind of IMF program, coming on top of the existing sociopolitical polarisation – 90% vs 10% (going by Verite) – caused by the status quo of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa clan as rulers, is a recipe for revolution. Absolutely any kind of IMF program must have the removal of Gotabaya and the Rajapaksas as a trade-off, if political and social stability is to have any chance. 

Stability isn’t the status quo 

The Chambers of Commerce, the economic managers and Government politicians are calling for political and social stability. The citizenry led by the young are calling for change. Which call is correct? Which should have priority? 

It isn’t a zero-sum game. Both sides are correct. Both are interactive and need each other. They are two halves of a whole. 

The bad news is unless it is perceived correctly, the two sides will at best deadlock each other and at worst, clash in a manner that exacerbates the economic, social and political crisis. Right now, there is no clarity about the seemingly contradictory choices.

If the old are to have stability and the young to have change, conceptual confusions have to be cleared up and attitudes refined. 

True, the deep economic crisis requires stability but stability must not be confused with the status quo or the restoration of the status quo ante. 

There are times in which stability does not mean the restoration of what went before but a stability achieved precisely by changing what existed before, because what existed before created the instability in the first place. 

Plainly put, at a time of crisis, stability can often be achieved only through change. This change can be one of economic paradigm or political leadership or both. 

The USA exited from the Great Depression through the interventionist-welfarist reforms of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the extreme situation that existed in Sri Lanka in 1988-’89, stability was arrived at by a shift from the patrician J.R. Jayewardene to the populist Ranasinghe Premadasa and from the Open economy of 1977 to a populist-welfarist developmentalism of 1989-93. 

If stability is misunderstood as freezing what exists or returning to the pre-existing version of the same thing, there will be more instability because people will just keep protesting and resisting and enough people will keep on even rebelling.

In a time of crisis, that which is static cannot hold back that which is dynamic. Stability means to arrive at a different equilibrium; an equilibrium which is dynamic and yet sustainable.

It is important to know what is worth saving, what can be saved and what must be dispensed with. It is vital to distinguish the baby from the bathwater. 

Crisis management, conflict prevention

Economic crises turn into social crises, and generate political crises. That much is well-known. But how to manage the crisis? 

The dose of change must be adequate to address the condition, or the supply must match the demand. There is no solution short of the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that will end the ungovernability that is a crucial dimension of instability.

For stability to be achieved, so must governability. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa just doesn’t have a narrative with enough credibility, a story with enough appeal, to secure the consent of the majority of the citizenry to stay in office. So long as he stays the discontent will deepen and widen. Therefore, President Rajapaksa is the primary cause of instability; his exit is a precondition for stability.

Anyone who thinks that his continued incumbency is a solution rather than a problem, only furthers instability by keeping its causes in place and in play. 

Things won’t change with an IMF program – though I am not against a program—so long as GR is President, because its downside will generate far more problems than an administration with a clean slate would. Indeed, a change in the country’s leadership is the prerequisite for the restoration of confidence and stability.  One may of course argue that his term runs for another 2½ years, but that argument confuses legality with legitimacy. Can anyone seriously imagine the protests and more fundamentally, the rejection, resistance and rebellion, in the collective mind –the consciousness—of the citizenry, especially the youth, to evaporate to the extent that Gotabaya can govern for the next two years? If he tries to do so in a country that rejects him, that asymmetry between ruler and ruled will generate tremendous instability. 

In the eyes of the majority of the citizenry, he and the Rajapaksa clan have run-out of popularity and more crucially, legitimacy. How can one continue to govern without the consent of the governed? How long can one do so? How much instability is one willing to risk being the cause of at a time of economic crisis, by sticking to Presidential office?

No formula for stability is viable if it doesn’t have the quality of sustainability. The Gotabaya presidency is no longer sustainable. It is certainly not rendered any more sustainable by a Cabinet reshuffle or an Interim Administration under the Gotabaya presidency, or as I shall go on to argue, under the Gotabaya presidency as is. It was laughable to hear impassioned calls for this or that Opposition MP to be factored in as Finance Minister or ‘interim President’ while GR remained in office. Evidently those who loudly voiced the idea during the parliamentary debate on the crisis misheard the people’s slogan of “Gota Go Home!” as “Gota Go To the IMF!”.

Any public personality or consortium of business interests and economic managers that argues for the suspension of ongoing protests for the sake of stability is simply not being realistic, let alone helpful. 

Any realistic formula for stability including by the business houses should include a call for the transitioning out of a president who is so unpopular, his continued incumbency will generate sufficient volatility to impair any economic recovery package and will eventually collapse the system. If the ship of state with its frame—the economy—is to survive the storm without sinking, the ballast will have to go overboard. 

How is this to be achieved? Given the mass and velocity of the Movement, one cannot rule out that with the descent of the added burdens and unequal pain of IMF austerity, the sovereign citizens will overrun and repossess their state, as has happened in many countries during the past half-century. That would not serve the cause of stability, but is unavoidable unless an alternative method is found and implemented before a social explosion.

There is such a method, and it entails a front-end loaded, time-specific transition, as well as a drastic slimming down while remaining in office for a short period. The President must be presented a departure date which can be announced to the public. Legislative tweaking necessary for an early election or post-resignation transition should be undertaken. In the meantime, the 20th amendment should be abolished and the 19th amendment suitably rectified to avert dysfunctionality that would cause instability.

All this might seem a tall order, but my point is simply this. I find it amusing those economic managers and corporate bosses rollout specific ideas for economic policies which would involve drastic adjustment, while at the same time expecting the political plane to remain static or recompose to an earlier situation. It just ain’t gonna happen because that’s not the way things work. All those economists who think they are hard-nosed realists, are quite utopian when they assume political stability without the same kind of drastic economic policy reforms they expect the people to accept. 

Political stability is certainly a prerequisite for economic reform but that stability must come through and with the kind of political change that is acceptable to the people and can thereby get society to a stable state. 


Abolish 20A, not executive presidency

Political change is imperative but must have its limits, if it is not to exacerbate instability and result in anarchy. Anarchy can result not so much from the legitimate protests of the people, but from the irresponsible proposals for the change of the political system especially at a time of economic depression. Change is urgently necessary but change of what kind? Radical change that leads to systemic stability, the stability of the state, is desirable. Change that breaks or dismantle the system and destabilises the economy and society is not.

That is the lesson of the tragedy of Russia in the 1990s, when economic reform (‘shock therapy’) hand-in-hand with the dismantling of the political system under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, led to collapse.

This is why, while strongly advocating the resignation or peaceful removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the structural reform of the executive Presidency by repealing the 20th amendment and replacing it with a re-tooled 19th amendment, I am totally opposed to the abolition of the executive presidency, most especially at a time of economic crisis and impending policy reform.  J.R. Jayewardene was right when he argued that in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, the transition to an open economy and the management of that transition required an executive presidency relatively autonomous of the parliament which tends to be the cockpit of sectoral and sectarian interests and social passions. Ranasinghe Premadasa was right when he strongly held the view that his ambitious pro-people development agenda required the instrumentality of the executive presidency. The Supreme Court was right when it opined in 1987 that the system of Provincial Councils remained within the parameters of the (centripetal) unitary state solely because of the executive presidency (via the governor). 

The fall of Imran Khan and the communicative performance of Zelensky prove the superiority of the elected presidency over the parliamentary model as a system. 

Lanka’s economic collapse requires decisive policy measures as well as compensatory welfare measures. Neither can be left to the parliament alone and requires an executive presidency, though not the top-heavy 20th amendment version but the American or French model. 

Economic recovery needs political and social stability, but social stability cannot be achieved by socially insensitive economic policies deemed necessary “harsh measures” or “bitter medicine”. The harsher the economic measures the deeper the social crisis and the sharper the social snapback manifested in convulsive political upheaval. In case the economists haven’t noticed, Sri Lanka now has a powerful left movement, divided into two competing streams, and leading large swathes of society. Thus, economic ‘experts’ imposing austerity on people who have undergone unprecedented hardship are only setting themselves up for a fall. 

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa project, the Sinhala equivalent of the far-right Trump-Netanyahu phenomenon, was born within the womb of Sinhala Buddhist ultranationalism. That was the ethos of the state and society in the early phase of the Gotabaya Presidency. The civic uprising has broken through it and changed that ethos. Any political or policy proposal if it is to take root, must reflect and accommodate the new ethos. 

The GR regime acts as if its control of the military gives it a monopoly of the ultimate material force, which will enable it to prevail over the people’s movement. If the academic advisors to the Ministry of Defence had widened their political literacy, their political masters would feel much less secure. Karl Marx said that while only material force can overthrow a material force, ideas once seized by the masses, become a material force. The idea that has seized the masses of Sri Lanka and become a powerful material force is “Gota Go Home!” It is the idea of the overthrow of the autocratic ruler; an idea at least as old as the American and French Revolutions. That idea cannot be eradicated, and will only spread. 



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