Threats to peaceful co-existence between diverse communities undermine the current Government’s attempt to project the image of stability – Pic by Chamila Karunarathne
By Devaka Gunawardena
The current government is going on a charm offensive in the run up to the Parliamentary Elections. Despite the anxieties of minorities and dissidents, among others, many seem to be convinced by the Government’s ability to get things done. The President’s visits to public institutions and media-friendly gestures downplaying pomp and circumstance supposedly contrast with the previous Government’s inaction. The media narrative emphasises the difference with the previous Government’s incompetence. Overcoming apathy, youth recruited to paint art on walls is just one example of the many ways in which the new government has apparently re-instilled a sense of national pride.
Yet the Government has also made its political goal clear: the concentration of executive power. In addition to the high-profile arrests of opposition MPs, among others, the Government has made it explicit that in order to get things done and protect Sri Lanka, the President needs more executive power and a Parliament willing to back his agenda. Many voters may be reluctant given their experience with the previous Rajapaksa administration.
Several factors, however, may help the President win wider support, even among an otherwise doubtful constituency. These include: a four-year intermission that did not appear to provide recognisable results in terms of economic development; persistent complaints about corruption; security threats framed as fear of ethnic and religious others; and the President’s own ability to distinguish himself from his former Prime Minister brother, while still benefiting from a constellation of politically diverse actors that support his Government.
The new Government’s success in solving problems supposedly requires the concentration of executive power, in conjunction with nationalist mobilisation. Around the world, faith in democratic institutions has been declining for a long time, because people have been locked out of the policy making process. Political abandonment is often reflected in popular frustrations with corrupt officials and politicians. In addition, more recent extra-parliamentary mobilisation by xenophobic actors makes people feel that they are participating in a collective project to improve their societies, even while they exclude marginalised groups.
Still, although many voters in the south in Sri Lanka, for example, are fed up with what they see as an unresponsive Parliament, the answer should not be to demand the concentration of power framed in terms of national security. Instead, a democratic opposition is required to defend ordinary people’s ability to bargain collectively; their leverage to demand more from the government. Co-existence between diverse communities follows from the strength of this power.
Collective bargaining and its implications for co-existence
Why does the current Government, like any other, feel the need to offer concessions and economic relief to ordinary people in the run up to the Parliamentary Elections? Simply put, because democracy expresses the principle of collective bargaining. People’s ability to protest and to vote means that politicians must at the very least pretend to respond to their concerns, even if the political system in capitalist society is designed to prevent a structural transformation of the economy.
There have been few if any social movements in Sri Lanka in recent memory that have demanded the redistribution of wealth. What neoliberal experts refer to as ‘handouts’, though, are piecemeal solutions to broad working class demands. Yet the current Government’s manoeuvring to concentrate executive power threatens even this minimal democratic space.
While ordinary people are rarely heard, rich investors and speculators have the ear of political power. Powerful global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank can demand that Sri Lanka follow ‘fiscal discipline’, and capitalists can themselves threaten to go on strike by withholding investment. Parliamentary democracy ultimately constrains dissent. Like trade unions, though, it is a necessary vehicle for ordinary people to articulate their demands in the capitalist system.
One of the biggest frustrations with the previous Government was its inability to build on the mass desire for democratic change, in addition to its wrong-headed attitudes toward the economy. Still, the spirit of the moment of 2015 is not lost. The existing political opposition flounders in its messaging; whether by presenting itself, in nationalist terms, as a pale carbon copy of the current Government, or by lacking a comprehensive framing of issues surrounding the law and constitution. Nevertheless, it is critical to point out that there is a constituency of voters driven by democratic values, who are not willing to sacrifice freedom for any politician’s promises, but who have yet to find political representation in a party or among a political leadership
The authoritarian project to concentrate executive power is, by definition, biased toward capital, which can lobby the highest levels of the state, regardless of the political context. While capitalists may appreciate a strong hand, however, they may also get more than they bargained for when social conflicts erupt.
Threats to peaceful co-existence between diverse communities undermine the current Government’s attempt to project the image of stability. The Government’s focus on providing a secure environment for investors is complemented by nationalist mobilisation to win popular consent. The problem is that the social forces emboldened by Gotabaya’s victory in the Presidential Election demand a high price for conformity. This includes the potential for mob violence, in addition to more subtle and pervasive forms of racism toward minorities. Capitalists may think they’re getting stability, but ultimately, as many have observed in recent backlash, from Trump’s US to Modi’s India, racial and religious supremacists prioritise exclusivist nationalism above all else; even if that means attempting to push divisive measures that ignite conflict between communities.
The values voter
In Sri Lanka, the current Government’s project has many contradictions, any one of which could sharpen in the long run. In the short-term, in the run up to the Parliamentary Elections, however, its strategy of presenting a benign image of technocratic reforms seems likely to pay dividends among most voters. The question is whether dissenting writers and activists can nevertheless point out the potential dangers in a system that concentrates executive power by relying on nationalist mobilisation.
One of the biggest frustrations with the previous Government was its inability to build on the mass desire for democratic change, in addition to its wrong-headed attitudes toward the economy. Still, the spirit of the moment of 2015 is not lost. The existing political opposition flounders in its messaging; whether by presenting itself, in nationalist terms, as a pale carbon copy of the current Government, or by lacking a comprehensive framing of issues surrounding the law and constitution. Nevertheless, it is critical to point out that there is a constituency of voters driven by democratic values, who are not willing to sacrifice freedom for any politician’s promises, but who have yet to find political representation in a party or among a political leadership. Just like protests opposing authoritarian nationalist encroachment on basic democratic values have suddenly emerged in India, so the seeds of dissent remain just beneath the surface in Sri Lanka. The question is whether an ideology for this opposition can at the very least be articulated, even if it cannot yet find its voice in a political leadership willing to put democratic demands on the agenda in the upcoming Parliamentary Elections. The current Government may very well secure its two-thirds majority in Parliament if this happens. The potential consequences for the poor and marginalised are worrying, to say the least. Ideological struggle continues, however, until a working class movement emerges that can successfully demand political democratisation as part of a project to build an economy that works for all.