Power To The People

Sri Lankan People and the Parliament

Maya John

Apowerful Sri Lankan people’s movement, Janatha Aragalaya, has shattered the legitimacy of the ruling establishment of the country and has come to pose a serious challenge to the imperialist powers that have been backing the corrupt regime. Functioning from the Colombo’s Galle Face and numerous other centres which have surfaced across towns and villages, the movement amply reveals that the Sri Lankan people are questioning the misuse of the popular mandate by the country’s ruling elites. One can easily glean that the people’s aspirations go beyond the simply dethroning a few powerful politicians.

Significantly, the people’s movement is at a crucial crossroad, and the current conjuncture in Sri Lanka bears a close resemblance to the condition of dual power that emerged in the Russian empire in 1917 wherein the bankrupt political system—embodied in the provisional government comprising of disparate political forces—vied for legitimacy and authority with the soviets, i.e., people’s assemblies which had mushroomed across the war-torn empire. Importantly, the Russian people threw in their lot with the soviets, paving the way for a new form of society, economy, and polity.

As history would have it, the Sri Lankan regime and state apparatus is up against a similar legitimacy crisis as demands for power to the people resonate in many quarters of the ongoing people’s movement. Two centres of competing power have emerged in the country: the legal, though illegitimate, power of the ruling elites, and the legitimate power of the people which resonates from the streets. At one level, having lost their legitimacy, the ruling elites are in the persistent effort to delegitimise the people’s movement. To better comprehend the present conjuncture and situation of deadlock, it is important to trace how the country has arrived at such circumstances.

The extraordinary situation is one that has been traced to a multitude of economic problems plaguing the country; many of which have been building up for a decade or more under successive corrupt regimes. Protests first erupted in rural areas in 2021 as the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government failed to stem the tide of falling foreign currency reserves, leading to a much-criticised ban on the imports of chemical fertilisers. The ban has affected the incomes of small farmers and overall agricultural output. In more recent months, the country has been confronted by a deepening crisis in the supply of fuel, cooking gas, electricity, medicines, food, and other staple items. Media reports of the past few months are replete with worrying images of people queuing up for gas cylinders. A desperate situation has expectedly triggered mass discontent and regular protests since March 2022.

As conditions of everyday life moved from bad to worse, the question of large-scale corruption and concentration of power in the office of the President has repeatedly surfaced. People have also come to question the complicity of Parliament. On April 28, workers across the public and private sectors launched a general strike, the first of its kind in 40 years. Another general strike followed on May 6. These marked a crucial development in a country that has witnessed the organised trade union movement peter out following a spate of brutal government crackdowns in the early 1980s. Workers, as part of the general strikes, demanded an increase in wages in the light of rising inflation, as well as the stepping down of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for mismanaging the escalating economic plight of the country.

Agitations have repeatedly erupted this year in waves, and have even mobilised the support of the urban middle classes. This is not surprising, given the skyrocketing inflation. Annual inflation reached 54.6 percent while food inflation touched 80 percent in June 2022. Further, the value of the Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by roughly 80 percent, which has drastically eaten into people’s purchasing power. An acute shortage of foreign currency and defaulting on loans extended by foreign lending agencies has ensured that the country is incapable of purchasing many staple items from the world market. In the face of these acute economic hardships and the soaring cost of living, students are reportedly dropping out of schools and universities.

Importantly, the distrust of the people is not simply with respect to individual politicians and ruling cliques whose moral right to govern is being openly challenged but is a latent distrust for the system itself. This is evident in the movement’s successful occupation of the seat of power in Colombo, and more so in its demands. Within a short period of time, the aragalaya has transitioned from initially demanding for the resignation of the President, “Gota Gedera Yanu,” to demanding for the resignation of all 225 parliamentarians, “225 Ma Gedera Yanu”.In the consciousness of the majority of people, the current Parliament has lost its mandate due to the sheer fact that it has not prevented the use of draconic measures by the executive presidency and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.At this conjuncture, the public rightfully views all established parties with deep suspicion and hostility.

As the people deliberate on the new phase of the movement, the corrupt means and underhand dealings of the ruling elites continue to unfold. The recent months are filled with political intrigue. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fearing arrest, fled the country on July 12, and only subsequently proceeded to email his resignation as earlier announced. While in exile, he can be expected to try and call the shots through his party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).Similarly, the rot in the given political system was revealed in May 2022 when a new Prime Minister took charge. The groundswell of people’s protests propelled the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is, notably, also the brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. At this juncture, the ruling clique hand-picked a new Prime Minister not from within the ranks of the ruling coalition but an opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has a long history in Sri Lankan politics and is the blue-eyed boy of the imperialist funding agency, the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This so-called change of guard was a strategic move of the Rajapaksa clan and their dubious partners in the ruling alliance to assuage the public anger whilst keeping intact their political clout. Being the sole member in the Parliament from the now washed away political party, the United National Party (UNP), Wickremesinghe has expectedly had no backing except that of the ruling clique which installed him as the new Prime Minister.

Currently, the nefarious dealings of politicians and their corruption are laid bare for all to see. Leaders of opposition parties and of the ruling alliance are hectically navigating their rivalries in the desperate bid to install an interim all-party government which can slowly steer the situation back to the status quo. Their opaque negotiations on the candidature for President openly clash with the people’s questioning of the authoritarian executive presidency system. Indeed, the manoeuvres of the existing parliamentarians to vote in a new President through a ‘secret’ ballot on July 19 marks the persistent rendering of the people as inert, and is an act of dismissal of the people’s aspirations. Can the fact be overlooked that it is the first time in the country’s history that a President has fled, and the Parliament votes for a new President?

Clearly, the current political system has been completely shaken, yet it illegitimately still maintains itself in order to represent not the interest and aspirations of the people but to espouse the entrenched interest of domestic and foreign capitalists. Here, of course, arises the question as to what is the legitimacy of a Parliament that has been constituted as per a Constitution which has itself been used against the people. When people arose to raise their voice and wanted to be heard, all measures were taken against them under the current Constitution. Without a doubt, the aragalaya has emerged in spite of the Constitution, rendering the latter as obsolescent. In this light, any parliamentary alignment only enhances the dis-reputation of established political parties and leads to further erosion and disintegration of whatever little prestige they have left in the eyes of some sections of society.

 What the political parties and media establishment conveniently project as ‘anarchy’ is the people’s questioning of an authoritarian political structure like the executive presidency, the constructive effort of the people to go beyond the status quo by denying corrupt politicians the right to decide the fate of the country, and the resilient endeavour to build anew. Contrary to the assessment of the forces of status quo, this is perhaps the most productive and meaningful phase of Sri Lankan history as its people destabilise an edifice that has been nefariously built on corruption; pro-capitalist economic policies dictated by imperialist forces and indigenous corporate houses; and divisive politics along ethnic and religious lines.

The hollowness of the ruling elites’ promises of stability, and their toxic labelling of the people’s movement as ‘anarchy’ can hardly conceal the fact that whatever its composition, an interim government if formed, will be intrinsically unstable from its inception and unacceptable to the people. Deeply divided and fractured, Rajapaksa's party, the SLPP, holds the largest number of seats in the 225-member Parliament. Given this, and the fact that opposition parties themselves are highly divided and tainted, a shallow exercise of introducing cosmetic political reforms and the gradual return to the status quo under an interim government looms large.

The status quo, embodied in the incumbent representative system, has intrinsically undermined the will of the people and their concrete interests while simultaneously allowing the ruling elites to concentrate power in their hands. In effect, routine elections and representative constitutional political institutions built on them are accompanied by the disempowerment of people and denial of real self-rule. To elucidate, Sri Lanka shed its dominion status and transitioned into a republic in 1972. The country has seen a constitutional political order take root; first around a parliamentary system and later around an executive presidency system. As per the 1978 Constitution, people elect a President and members to 196 seats out of the 225 seats in the Parliament. The President, as head of the state, acts as the chief executive of the union government, and has essentially come to enjoy extensive executive powers as well as veto powers. The Sri Lankan Parliament, meanwhile, exercises legislative authority. The elections to the 196 seats are based on 22 to 25 electoral districts. The exact number of electoral districts and apportionment of share of different electoral districts is decided by the Election Commission from time to time. Apportion of the remaining 29 parliamentary seats is distributed among the recognised political parties and independent groups contesting the elections, depending on their cumulative national vote shares, i.e., following the proportionate representation formula.

The country’s past is rife with the repeated silencing of the people’s will and crushing of their aspirations. Soon after attaining formal ‘independence’ from the British colonists in 1948, the UNP government abolished the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Indian-origin plantation workers at the behest of foreign plantation owners, in the bid to divide the labouring masses along ethnic lines, and thereby, bolster the economic might of capitalists. When the labouring masses, fighting various austerity measures of the government, organised the famous 1953 “hartal”, the mass movement was brutally suppressed, with opposition parties using the ripples created simply for parliamentary manoeuvrings and for pushing for fresh elections. The pathetic conditions faced by workers and the rural poor since then, including decades of anti-Tamil communalism and civil war, are the result of this historic betrayal. Colombo’s political life may no longer be dominated by the UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), like it was till recent times, for both parties have now dwindled to vestiges. Yet, their place has been taken by new equally problematic political parties that prey on Sinhala nationalism, ethnic differences, religion, and breed majoritarianism.

Further, the present conjuncture demands an alternative which completely replaces the way in which the political system exists to keep the common people, the labouring masses, voiceless. The alternative, imperatively, manifests itself in the evolution of a new democratic system and the institutionalisation of the people’s will through establishment of people’s assemblies across the country. The people’s assemblies in the cities, towns and villages should be empowered to decide upon the most pressing issues in the country. Moreover, their power should be supreme, and the Parliament should only be a representative body to manage the affairs of the country in consultation with the people’s assemblies. Such a restructured democratic framework would empower the people’s assemblies to summon and suspend their representatives in Parliament. Also, these assemblies should have legislative power to make or repeal laws for the country by the criterion that the majority of such bodies decide to do so.

Maya John teaches at the University of Delhi, India. She has been part of the Left movement for around two decades. Email:]

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 5, Jul 31 - Aug 6, 2022