⦁ How honest Ranil in a ‘APG’?, is he sensitive to citizens’ demand for a change
⦁ Will he be able to end old Rajapaksa tactics of bribery, corruption, and intimidation using as political weapons
⦁ President with Executive powers controlled by ‘pohottuwa’ with parliamentary majority!
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proposed All Party Government (APG) appears to be in jeopardy. Not surprisingly, President Wickremesinghe’s bland, and sometimes combative, appeals have failed to pique the opposition parties’ interest in joining an APG.
He has now sent a letter to political parties inviting them to form an APG under presidential supervision. President Wickremesinghe appears to have prioritised restoring political and social normalcy and creating economic stability with the proposed APG.
He has suggested that implementing a systematic economic programme will necessitate the involvement of all political parties represented in parliament, expert groups, and civil society. He issued this appeal on July 30 against the backdrop of opposition political parties and civil society groups’ apathy and skepticism toward his earlier proposal to form an APG under his leadership.
Reactions to APG proposal
The lack of enthusiasm for President Wickremesinghe’s proposal among opposition parties, citizens, and civil society groups demonstrates that the country’s political life is fraught with tension. Its main source is Ranil Wickremesinghe’s failure to signal a break with the previous Rajapaksa administration or publicly refute the degenerate political culture it promoted for political survival as the new president.
Most Sri Lankans openly despised the regime for its corrupt, arbitrary, and unaccountable governance culture. Ordinary citizens, unlike President Wickremesinghe, are unwilling to forget or forgive the Rajapaksa government’s role in causing Sri Lanka’s current crisis and so much human misery.
Many citizens interpret President Wickremesinghe’s appeal to opposition parties to “forget what happened in the past and unite to move forward” as a signal that he is committed to protecting the Rajapaksas by using his presidential powers, rather than as a gesture of reconciliation with his political opponents.
The fact that President Wickremesinghe became prime minister and then president with the full support of Rajapaksa and their party’s parliamentary group continues to be a huge impediment to any political accommodation between his presidency and the parliamentary opposition as well as the citizens.
Opposition Support ?
The fact that several opposition MPs have been persuaded to support President Wickremesinghe in parliament during crucial votes has raised serious concerns that the old Rajapaksa tactics of bribery, corruption, and intimidation will be used as political weapons by the new leader as well. These issues have stripped him of the right to claim moral authority as a ruler.
Furthermore, President Wickremesinghe must confront the reality that he is a ruler with a limited and fragile power base, as well as no popular support or legitimacy. Such rulers of countries experiencing unmanageable economic, social, and political crises may prefer solutions devised outside of the democratic framework. Sri Lanka’s current crisis has brought its politics to a halt.
There is an unresolved conflict between the people’s desire for greater and better democracy and the ruling elite’s obsession with political stability at the expense of no or less democracy.
There has been a wave of arrests of aragalaya activists, as well as increased police action against participants in recent anti-Rajapaksa protests. They are clear indications that the new president’s strategy of restoring political stability includes state-led intimidation and harassment of dissenting citizens.
Changes to APG?
Will the latest APG proposal be a front for a new version of a police state? This is a trend that should be opposed by both opposition parties and citizens. outside of the democratic framework Sri Lanka’s current crisis has brought its politics to a halt. There is an unresolved conflict between the people’s desire for greater and better democracy and the ruling elite’s obsession with political stability at the expense of no or less democracy.
President Wickremesinghe’s proposal for an APG is not the result of a dialogue with all parties in parliament, nor is it the result of a consultative process. It is a unilateral move by the new president, in keeping with the spirit of executive authoritarianism embedded in the current constitution.
He appears to believe that it is the duty of the parliamentary opposition and civil society to obey a presidential wish. Since mid-March, citizens have been challenging the Gaullist presidential mindset, as well as the ruling elite’s preoccupation with political stability with little or no democracy.
In such a broad political context, there are no indications that the Wickremesinghe government and the opposition can easily reconcile their opposing views on the concept of an APG. Their opposing views on what an APG should mean and do are also unlikely to be negotiable.
What is preventing the opposition parties from supporting President Wickremesinghe’s proposal for an APG, despite the severity of the country’s overall crisis, which is used as the primary justification for such a government?
Three key explanations can be deduced.
The first is that the proposal for an APG, as vague and uninspiring as it is, is unlikely to have been conceived by someone who understands the gravity of the country’s overall crisis. While the country’s economic foundation is shattered, the political system is in disarray as a result of public distrust in the political class, political institutions, and the country’s much-abused constitution.
The unprecedented social crisis caused by the economic collapse erupted peacefully in late March, bringing tens of thousands of protesting citizens to the streets and, eventually, to Colombo
However, President Wickremesinghe’s strategy is to separate the economic crisis from the equally serious political and social crises, and then use the concept of an APG as part of the preparations for negotiations with the IMF and international creditors.
In other words, President Wickremesinghe has advanced the concept of an APG for a specific purpose while ignoring its connection to the larger task of systemic reforms in the political and social domains. Obviously, no government can address all crises simultaneously. It is a multi-year project. However, the ruler presiding over the process must demonstrate that he has a thorough understanding of the entire crisis.
The second reason is President Wickremesinghe’s severe legitimacy crisis, which he is currently experiencing, albeit unconsciously. The contentious manner in which he became prime minister, and then president, is without a doubt constitutional, but it has not given him much political credibility, public acceptance, or moral authority.
In other words, it is an example of legality but not legitimacy. Many critics can attack his APG proposal because of this legitimacy deficit, implying that it is part of an agenda to consolidate his newly won, but precarious, position as the country’s president.
The third reason is President Wickremesinghe’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge that the conditions for the exercise of presidential powers have changed dramatically since the citizen’s protest movement forced his predecessor to flee the country and resign.
Limit less powers be limited ?
The president has vast powers under the 20th Amendment, but those virtually limitless powers are now subject to limits because citizens have begun to express their sovereign will through direct participation in national politics, which now serves as a societal check on political power. Parallel to this has been a steady erosion of the moral authority, political prestige, and public acceptance of the presidency under the 1978 constitution and its 20th Amendment. The new president must be aware of these shifts in how citizens perceive politics, power, and political power holders.
Many citizens believe that the executive presidency is an illegitimate public office that has been abused by the majority of its previous holders, with disastrous consequences for the country and its citizens. A paradigm shift in state-society relations has occurred in recent months. No president with only constitutional authority or parliamentary support obtained through dubious means can command widespread support from citizens and political opponents.
No president who is blind to this new reality can be considered a democratic statesman, commanding the support and loyalty of nonpartisan citizens.
Revisiting interim government
There are other reasons why the president’s APG proposal failed to pique the interest of opposition parties or citizens. One example is a lack of clarity about the proposed APG’s nature, objectives, duration, and possible mandate. The proposal also lacks credibility.
It is worth recalling that the idea of an APG first surfaced a few months ago as a stopgap measure when President Wickremesinghe was in opposition. It was to be formed for a limited initial period of six months, with the option of extending it for a few more months. Its political priorities were to abolish the executive presidency as soon as possible and to hold new parliamentary elections.
Those who supported it prioritised the restoration of democratic government and the development of strategies to respond to citizens’ demands for political reforms. It is incorrect to assume that the circumstances that gave rise to these ideas have changed simply because a new president has taken over the presidency.
That initial idea for an interim government recognised the gravity of the crisis of public trust confronting the then-SLPP-dominated parliament, which was controlled by the Rajapaksa family and its business affiliates. This situation has not only remained constant. Despite some splits, President Wickremesinghe’s guardianship has given the SLPP’s oligarchic control of parliament new life.
The initial concept of an interim government included a suggestion to include a certain number of citizens or their representatives in the government. This was to be accomplished by either bringing these non-politician citizens to parliament via the national list or by establishing a non-elected Peoples’ Council with parliamentary approval to assist the provisional government in policymaking.
It is unfortunate that these innovative proposals for a preliminary first step toward resolving the political crisis are not highlighted in current APG thinking.
Instead of an interim APG, we now have a proposal for an APG for an unspecified period of time. If it is a national government, it may not have formal parliamentary opposition. There is no mention of a parliamentary election soon to allow citizens to elect a new parliament to reflect the altered balance of political forces in society.
A legitimate question in this regard is whether the economic crisis is being used to inaugurate a democracy without parliamentary opposition or to facilitate the transition to a new stage of executive authoritarianism supported by one dominant party and a few junior partners.
Let us hope that this is not how the new political leader of Sri Lanka’s elites envisions dealing with the perceived threat posed by citizens from the subordinate and non-elite social classes. Perhaps the true intentions of labelling ‘aragalaya’ activists as fascists and terrorists are more than rash.
Participation in APG?
President Wickremesinghe must use conciliatory methods and tactics devoid of Machiavellian intentions as a minimum precondition for opposition parties and civil society to participate in the APG debate.
Similarly, President Wickremesinghe’s methods of dealing with the current crisis should be able to be viewed as politically sincere, democratically open, and ethically endorsable by a skeptical public in order to demonstrate that he is sensitive to citizens’ demand for a change in the way political leaders usually think and act. Similarly, instead of taking a bellicose stance toward aragalaya and its activists, he should engage in dialogue with them.
If all opposition parties and civil society organisations want to join an interim government, they must have clear strategic goals. Among them are laying the groundwork for democratic reforms, halting the current policy of repressing the aragalaya movement and witch-hunting aragalaya activists, holding fresh parliamentary elections without delay, limiting the influence of the Rajapaksa family and corrupt SLPP MPs on the interim government’s policies, decisions, and directions, preventing the burden of economic recovery from being passed on to the poor and middle classes, and offering the poor.
Opposition parties and civil society organisations should lay out their requirements for an APG without hesitation or ambiguity. Bringing back the 19th Amendment without transitional provisions and reinforcing its democratic content, ending corrupt practices in determining parliamentary votes, a consultative process with citizens in policy making, denying cabinet positions to ministers with criminal records and serious allegations of corruption, public disclosure of agreements entered into with the IMF and international creditors, and credible mechanisms to include aragalaya representatives
Tamil and Muslim parties should bring the issue of increased devolution and minority rights to the forefront of constitutional reform discussions.
Opposition parties and civil society organisations must also insist that the APG be a temporary arrangement with a maximum lifespan of six months. The opposition should continue to function as the opposition during the APG’s operation; abdicating that function would be detrimental to parliamentary democracy.
Another important task awaits the parliamentary opposition. President Wickremesinghe’s proposal for an APG is based on three flawed assumptions about the aragalaya citizens’ movement, which must be challenged. The first flawed assumption is that the political history between late March and mid-July this year can be ignored in charting Sri Lanka’s future political trajectories.
The second is the belief that the decadent political class’s old political styles, political habits, and political mindsets can live unreformed, secure, and stable lives in a post-Aragalaya future. The third intention is to use the APG as a platform for elite unity in order to quell the self-assertion of the subordinate and non-elite social classes, who have recently dared to demand accountability from, and dictate terms to, their political masters.
This is a difficult task for the opposition. In response to the aragalaya’s critique of the existing system, its political class, and the dominant political culture it has produced, it actually demands that opposition parties reform themselves. That is the only way they can remain relevant to the concerns of citizens in post-Aragalaya Sri Lanka.
(Recasted based on Ground view article)