South Asia

The Electoral Consequences of Sri Lanka’s Crisis

The campaigns of the two frontrunners represent a system in crisis. Gotabaya Rajapaksa offers a hard authoritarian solution to popular frustrations while Sajith Premadasa offers a defence of weak democracy.

Although 35 candidates are running for Sri Lanka’s presidential election – scheduled for November 16, the race is essentially between two. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), appears to be the frontrunner in a head-to-head battle with Sajith Premadasa, of the United National Party (UNP).

Although Gotabaya presents himself as an ex-military man and a political outsider, he is from a family entrenched in politics. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, ruled Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015. Like Gotabaya, Sajith was a less visible member of the now-defunct coalition government that ruled from 2015 to 2018. He also comes from a political family. His father was Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was president from 1988 to 1994 and was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during his re-election campaign.

Gotabaya and Sajith, however, are not only avatars of a battle between two dynasties. Their campaigns also represent a system in crisis. Gotabaya offers a hard authoritarian solution to popular frustrations in the daily struggle to survive. Sajith, on the other hand, offers a defence of weak democracy. Gotabaya appears to be the frontrunner because he offers a more vindictive capitalism as the solution, promising to make the country secure for private investment. Sajith lacks an alternative vision of equally compelling breadth. Sajith’s defensive struggle on behalf of a weak democracy is a response to the breakdown of an authoritarian populist hegemony that legitimised the initial transition to neoliberalism in Sri Lanka over 40 years ago.

Neoliberalism in crisis

Sri Lanka’s neoliberal experiment was relatively advanced in the South Asian context when it began in 1977. It adapted to the outline of similar victories in Western countries around the same time. J.R. Jayewardene, who first won power as prime minister in 1977, established the executive presidency in 1978 to implement neoliberal economic policy, or the “Open Economy” as it was known locally.

The process included slashing welfare, especially the rice subsidy, and creating export processing zones to attract investment from abroad. Jayewardene’s hegemonic project was an economic programme manifest in the transformation of Sri Lanka’s political institutions. It depended on both creating a domestic constituency for competitive individualism and canvassing for international support. That included increasing the role of multilateral institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank in the island nation.

The project also had an important coercive aspect. Jayewardene tacitly endorsed racist mobs that terrorised the Tamil community. These attacks culminated in the biggest riots in 1983, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Jayewardene also crushed a general strike in 1980, dismissing over 40,000 public sector workers, in what was a significant blow to the trade union movement. Still, it was the hegemony of authoritarian populism, as the late theorist Stuart Hall would put it, that legitimised the system. In the balance, consent outweighed coercion in making neoliberalism a politically feasible project in Sri Lanka.

Despite, or perhaps because of its success in redistributing wealth upwards, however, decades later, the system in Sri Lanka, as in the rest of the world, is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy. The political response to growing popular frustration appears to be the choice between a more vindictive capitalism or anti-austerity politics. In the absence of a viable competitor who could shift the debate to the latter, Gotabaya has taken the lead. In the event of his victory, Gotabaya’s government could consolidate a family oligarchy tied to the fortunes of its proto-fascist social bases. These have been responsible most recently for attacks on Muslims. The government could become a praetorian regime that guards the interests of global capital. Even if Sajith wins, however, Sri Lanka faces the similar possibility of a hard authoritarian solution to crisis, although it will have bought itself more time.

Resistance around the world shows the ubiquity of protest opposing authoritarianism and inequality. In the absence of an organised alternative, however, there is a very real danger that even Sri Lankan protests opposing authoritarian consolidation could face the limitations of similar movements in terms of their fortitude in the face of both intense repression and the return of the old guard. To confront this potential challenge, opposition rooted in progressive forces must prepare for struggle after the election by developing an economic alternative to justify not only the defence, but also the deepening of democracy.

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Having the necessary tools at our disposal – being prepared for the hard authoritarian outcome – may help the left specifically move beyond the “horizontalism” that shapes both the impressive breadth and the organisational weakness of recent global protest. Thinking ahead could help prepare a more sustainable resistance. The question remains which actors can shoulder the burden of opposing the potential consolidation of an authoritarian regime in Sri Lanka, regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential election. To provide an answer requires understanding why neoliberalism emerged, what sustained it, and why it is reaching its breaking point in Sri Lanka.

Neoliberalism’s evolution

Before Jayewardene won power, Sri Lanka was governed by a coalition government from 1970 to 1977, which included left parties. The latter, however, encountered difficulty transitioning from social democracy to socialism. Hall, writing in Britain in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal victory in 1979, argued that the contradiction was a product of social democratic governments of the time lacking the mobilising power to sustain what was popularly known as the battle “in and against the state.” The absence of a mass movement to pressure the left parties in coalition government created an opening for J.R. Jayewardene to claim the mantle of economic freedom when the government struggled to deal with the effects of global economic crisis in the 1970s.

This process follows what Hall described about Thatcher’s role in polarising people between the politics of a closed economy/authoritarianism/ and the politics of competitive individualism/consumerism. In Sri Lanka, the authoritarian populist project also took advantage of growing tension between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. Jayewardene’s government invited minority partners, such as Sauviamoorthy Thondaman’s Ceylon Workers’ Congress, while patronising Sinhala chauvinists. In addition to attacks on the Tamil community, Jayewardene wielded this power to suppress trade unions and red-bait mass forces that could claim popular appeal.

The resulting decades involved “shock therapy,” including civil war in the North and East from 1983 to 2009 and an insurgency led by the Janatha Viumkthi Peramuna (JVP) from 1987 to 1989. Both these events decimated dissidents in the North and South. The extra-parliamentary left in the South was split on the ethnic question. The JVP now participates in parliamentary politics and is running a not-insignificant third-party campaign for the presidency. Its candidate criticises the discourse of national security. But during its insurrection in the late 1980s, the party embraced Sinhala chauvinism. It gained the upper hand militarily against anti-racist forces on the left. Eventually, however, it too was defeated at great social cost by the government.

In the meantime, governments from Premadasa’s onwards balanced the privatisation of public resources, such as telecommunications, with targeted welfare programs. This was the hegemonic framework of accommodation of the 1990s as it became clear that new, poorly paid jobs in tourism, migrant work and the export sector could not sustain people’s livelihoods.

Jayewardene’s nephew, Ranil Wickremesinghe, became prime minister in 2000. He initially worked in coalition with Chandrika Kumaratunga from the SLFP, who was president from 1994 to 2005. Ranil represented the shift in the global order from free market neoliberalism to liberal humanitarian interventionism. A peace process with the LTTE was initiated in 2002 and collapsed in 2006. Although its failure was attributed to Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms – politically in the South and militarily by the LTTE in the North – the outcome can be better seen as a consequence of an expert-driven constitutional reform process that ignored neoliberalism’s undermining of the majority of people’s livelihoods.

Ranil Wickremesinghe. Credit: Reuters

The tremendous gap between the promise of attracting foreign investment and actual inflows was later partially resolved in the global boom in emerging market debt after the recession of 2008. China was the most visible actor in development after the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the LTTE in 2009. It became the poster child for infrastructure-driven investment. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s aura as defender of the public sector against further neoliberal assault was maintained thanks to massive loans taken to build mega infrastructure under his government. Although fiscal consolidation ran in parallel, activists and researchers found it difficult to highlight the creeping austerity imposed by his government.

In terms of opposition, liberal civil society opponents to Mahinda never proposed an effective program to appeal to a mass constituency. At best, they assumed the political solution to the ethnic question came before discussion about economic reform. At worst they adopted the same neoliberal assumptions of the reigning order. Political scientists especially struggled to describe the politically-motivated, upward distribution of wealth. They used the category of crony capitalism to explain the features of Mahinda’s government in a way that ignored the core features of capitalism. Instead, they attributed the government’s failings to extrinsic forces such as “corruption.”

The same framing persisted during the tenure of the coalition government that won power in 2015. Activists chided the government for not fulfilling its promises to prosecute previous members of the administration for various crimes, in addition to indulging in its own forms of corruption. Still, we must acknowledge that the current battle between Sajith and Gotabaya is in fact the necessary outcome of neoliberalism, which has hardened into austerity. The state is increasingly obligated to private creditors in financial markets. It is also indebted to the usual suspects: “development partners” such as China and the IMF. The popular dimension of this crisis has been a growing frustration with politicians who are seen to be growing fat on public misery. This reflects what policy analysts David Dunham and Sisira Jayasuriya once referred to as the reciprocal dynamic between liberalisation and political decay.

The hard authoritarian option

The resulting choice in the upcoming presidential election is between a xenophobic, vindictive capitalism and a defense of weak democracy in rural populist guise. In terms of the former, Gotabaya Rajapaksa offers what seems to be the stereotypical mode of authoritarian engagement: cutthroat urban development at home, transactional “business-style” politics abroad. The problem though is that the contradictions in the global economy undermine Gotabaya’s potential position as a guarantor of material benefits for the Sri Lankan masses. The previous Rajapaksa government led by Mahinda initiated mega infrastructure projects. The build-up of loan obligations led to a period of aggressive fiscal consolidation under Mahinda himself that continued under the coalition government. It could very well reach a breaking point under the next government.

Gotabaya makes the Trumpian claim that he will make things easier for the little guy by cutting taxes. It is likely, however, that pursuing tax cuts will increase the vast gap between rich and poor. Gotabaya’s platform includes concessions for farmers among other constituencies. The question is whether he can offer these if he lowers corporate and income taxes as well. The latter would further undermine government revenue collection, which stands at a measly 12.5% of GDP, according to the World Bank website. Although thinkers on the left are often critical of arguments that fall back on “balanced budgets,” left spending programs are predicated on generating revenue by redistributing wealth from rich to poor in the form of direct taxation. It is impossible to imagine Gotabaya doing the same to fund his election promises. More likely than not, he will embrace austerity instead when pressured by international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

On the surface, Gotabaya’s election manifesto and rhetoric seems opposed to most of the recommendations of the IMF, including those its staff made before the latest country loan review in November of this year. He is opposed to cutting para tariffs, silent on privatisation, has not raised a word about labour law reform, claims to want to increase fuel subsidies, and so on. But, according to his manifesto, Gotabaya also wishes to lower rates on corporations and the highest earners to astoundingly low rates, 18% and 15% respectively. The consequence under his administration would likely be decreased allocations for social services such as health and education. This drastic reduction of revenue would intensify the process of quasi-privatisation that led to conflicts with students and public sector workers, like the opposition his brother faced during his tenure.

Still, Gotabaya intends to “decisively” implement policy. That means opposition will be contained by repression, and investment will be backed by extra-legal guarantees. Gotabaya’s manifesto puts an emphasis on authoritarian protection of the nation. He claims in the SLPP’s manifesto, for example, that under the current government “foreigners” are “able to buy lands without any hindrance”. The macroeconomic context of fiscal consolidation, however, will require increased repression. The solution could lead Gotabaya to condemn resistance to his economic reform as “traitorous.” Coupled with Gotabaya’s likely penchant for outsourcing fear-mongering to proto-fascist mobs, this would entail a regime that could very well shut down electoral space for future solutions. The alternative would be mass protest, such as a general strike.

Whether protests remain fragmented across diverse sectional groups, or whether they coalesce into opposition to the regime as such depends on Gotabaya’s skills as a politician, particularly the combination of inducements and threats at which his older brother was so deft. Still, in addition to the history of his repressive governing style and the much more fragile global situation, it seems more likely that resistance to Gotabaya will become generalised upheaval. In the absence of an organised political alternative, however, this resistance could fail to defeat repression. The old guard could take advantage of crisis by reasserting itself.

Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Photo: Reuters

Defending weak democracy

One could argue that vindictive capitalism represented by the SLPP means that the UNP has been forced to take up the mantle of defending weak democracy against hard authoritarian assault. Although the UNP embraces a neoliberal program, Sajith’s opposition to Gotabaya requires framing his defence of the existing order in the guise of weak tea rural populism. Sajith’s camp, however, lacks a general enthusiasm for broader economic change.

His rural populist program, which appeals to “small entrepreneurs,” lacks the deeply held convictions predicated on acknowledging the vast upward distribution of wealth. More recently, he has taken up issues put on the agenda by women’s groups, such as providing free sanitary pads. This type of lobbying has encouraged Sajith to adopt more progressive stances on these and other issues. Sajith’s rhetoric, however, obscures the relationship between increasingly financialised economy driven by speculation and ordinary people’s plight. Consequently, most people’s economic suffering will not be solved by narrow measures such as “skills training” or targeted concessions.

The danger is that because of his lack of economic appeal, Sajith tries to occupy the space of nationalist politics, dominated by Gotabaya, to shore up support among his Southern constituency. He has put out contradictory statements about ethnic reconciliation, while claiming to back the national security state. That includes maintaining the controversial appointment of military staff accused of war crimes.

Sajith is also constrained by the dynamic within his own party, the UNP, which means working with the incumbent prime minister, Ranil. Sajith’s government would likely be defined by the balance of relations in the party especially Sajith’s relationship with Ranil. The question is whether they could work out a strategic framework that balances the interests of its constituencies. The UNP under Ranil has followed an agenda broadly in line with the IMF’s recommendations. It has openly attempted to pursue labour law reform, trade liberalisation, financial liberalisation, privatisation and so on.

But in the absence of a mass basis, the UNP struggled to “get things done” under the previous coalition government, including passing bills that could advance its agenda. The question is the extent to which a potential government led by Sajith could make Ranil’s agenda more appealing by offering targeted concessions. The gap between the figure of the small entrepreneur and the daily reality of people who must survive on loans threatens to defeat any such attempt. Promising more foreign investment also would not likely solve the issue.

The question for progressives under Sajith’s government then ends up being roughly the same as under a Gotabaya government, but perhaps crucially the timeline of authoritarian consolidation would be more uncertain. The issue remains whether the left could leverage popular discontent with economic policy to push an altogether different framing of the question of political, especially constitutional reform, from the angle of economic democratisation.

The alternative would be the ever-present possibility of a turn to authoritarianism to contain popular unrest, if not by a Sajith-led government itself, then the continuing threat of the Rajapaksas and the SLPP waiting in the wings. Continuing dysfunction expressed in popular frustration with corrupt institutions could reinforce the belief that political institutions are no longer representative, which could create more space for a far-right solution to the problem.

Economic redistribution and political democratisation 

Neoliberalism became hegemonic because Jayewardene used his economic agenda to concentrate decision-making power in the executive presidency. Similarly, the political changes progressives would like to see, including long-awaited devolution to provincial councils, require identifying their economic component. To transform political institutions requires making principled arguments for universal services, along with developing a policy to confront global challenges such as climate change. That includes new global proposals for public investment in green infrastructure. Adopting this approach to democratisation could also help construct the popular majority that could win, by building a multi-ethnic working class movement.

At the same time, popular pressure requires political representation. It is imperative that the Sri Lankan left give direction to potential protests after the election. It must identify the shared interests of workers across the public and private sector, farmers and fishers, estate and agricultural workers, and so on. That requires a common program for popular struggles. Even in the absence of political party to translate this into policy and leadership to execute it, the battle of ideas could at the very least shape progressive common sense and thus the way in which opposition to the persistent threat of hard authoritarianism is framed: whether immediately in the event of a Gotabaya victory or at an indefinite point in the future, depending on the balance of forces between Sajith and Ranil.

In this regard, what should give us hope, even in the face of a potential hard authoritarian turn in Sri Lanka, is the possibility of protest turning into a much bigger challenge to the system. To initiate this transition will require going beyond sectional demands and identifying their manifold content: protests against political repression, but also the system it is designed to protect. In the case of future opposition, whether to a government led by Gotabaya or Sajith, the left must lead a progressive coalition by asking: what is the point of transforming political institutions? How will this process help ordinary people survive, by defeating austerity and combating wealth inequality?

Only by asking the right questions will we be able to offer popular frustration an effective form of expression in a potential party and movement that can challenge the system. If the left wants to defeat neoliberalism and its “morbid symptoms” in Sri Lanka, it must propose a new hegemony of economic redistribution that is manifest in the demand for political democratisation. It is a task we may face soon after the election of a new government and the formation of its opposition. We must prepare ourselves beforehand, by taking the lead in how the potential opposition to hard authoritarianism understands its purpose.

Devaka Gunawardena has a PhD in cultural anthropology from UCLA and is the Sri Lanka Coordinator of the South Asia Office of the IndustriALL Global Union.