Nov 2022

Stretching moral legitimacy

Neville de Silva follows the twists and turns of Sri Lanka’s rolling crisis, drawing parallels with the current political landscape in Britain

They may be thousands of kilometres apart, but there is a common thread that binds Britain’s first ever prime minister of Indian origin and of the Hindu faith, and Sri Lanka’s Buddhist president installed in office less than three months ago.

Both leadcountries wedded to parliamentary democracy where leaders are chosen by public consent. Yet neither of them has been elected to the high office they now hold by the people at a general election. They have been elected by parliament in one case and selected by the party in power in the other, raising questions of legitimacy.

Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe slipped into office by fortuitous circumstances. He and his United National Party (UNP) had been completely swept away in ignominious defeat at the 2020 general election, losing every single seat it contested, including his own,thus dislodging him as prime minister in the then coalition government.

But quirks in the electoral system not only allowed UNP leader Wickremesinghe to enter parliament because his party’s total vote at that election entitled the UNP to a single seat. Having entered the legislature as the lone UNP-er, he ended upas prime minister, acting president and ultimately executive president, unbelievably with the support of a government dominated by the opposition Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), led by his arch political rivals, the Rajapaksa family.

Constitutionally the president, the country’s head of state, is elected at a separate national election.But this strange and rapid rise to the pinnacle of power, fork-lifted as it were into place by political rivals, took him only two months.

Naturally it made history, for where has one heard of political rivals, who only two years ago tore each other apart on public platforms, banding together to protect their own class, throwing to the winds any principles they might claim to have and denying the sovereign people the right to choose their rulers.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe (l) and Rishi Sunak
NO MANDATE? Neither President Wickremesinghe (l) nor PM Rishi Sunak has been elected by the people at a general election

Britain, which has seen three prime ministers in an equally short period as in Sri Lanka, is now led by Rishi Sunak,who vied for the leadership of the Conservative Party, which has a clear majority in the Commons and would automatically have made him prime minister, according to the party’s guiding procedures.

But after the resignation of Boris Johnson less than three months back, Sunak threw his hat into the ring to become the next premier but lost to a party colleague, Liz Truss, who withered quicker than a salad lettuce, as one British newspaper that tested their longevity pointed out.

Her dysfunctional premiership lasted less than 50 days – the shortest in the last 200 years – and she wisely threw in the towel before a mounting rebellion by Conservative Party MPs, dislodged her from No.10.

All these twists and turns of parliamentary politics might well be within constitutional requirements and practices and both President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have satisfied those norms.

But there is a wide gap between legality and legitimacy. What is legal is not necessarily legitimate. And in these two cases they surely lack moral legitimacy, and therein lies the rub.

If President Wickremesinghe, and now Prime Minister Sunak, were to justify their rise to power by promising to seek public affirmation through recognised democratic means such as national elections at some early point of time, that would provide some legitimacy to the high office both now hold.

But when publicly avowed commitments to democracy are being stretched to their fullest elasticity and more, and at a time when the people of both countries are facing increasingly hard times with sharply rising living costs and mounting poverty, postponing popular assent in favour of self-preservation is like taking a wrecking ball to democracy.

Postponing popular assent in favour of self-preservation is like taking a wrecking ball to democracy

Even before Sri Lanka’s Ranil Wickremesinghe – who was not even a member of parliament until mid-2021, when he secured a National List seat –public discontent was rife against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime, and indeed the whole Rajapaksa family, who had brought the country’s economy to its knees. People were calling for the dissolution of parliament and new elections.

That cry, first heard during the initial stages of what came to be known as the ‘aragalaya’ (struggle), reached its crescendo in the final stages of the unprecedented anti-President Rajapaksa masspeople’s protest. But it was crushed by a Ranil Wickremesinghe catapulted into power as a besieged president made him prime minister last May.

However, the demand for elections has hardly died down in Sri Lanka as the country’s political opposition and civil society believe President Wickremesinghe is trying to postpone island-wide local government elections. Which have already been postponed and are now due by March next year.

As for Rishi Sunak, he too appears to have no intention of holding general elections as his first speech outside No. 10 after assuming office indicated. He seems to argue that the Conservative Party won a mandate at the 2019 general election and that is good enough for him.

police using tear gas at public protests in Sri Lanka
BOILING POINT: It should come as no surpriseif the mass protest movement is revived, despite government repression of dissent

In Sri Lanka, the people recall President Wickremesinghe’s uncle, Junius Richard Jayewardene, popularly known as ‘JR’(later the country’s first executive president), saying after his massive election victory in 1977 (he won five-sixths of the seats in parliament) that he would ‘roll up the electoral map’ for ten years, suggesting that the citizens could forget about elections for some time.

Opponents of the Wickremesinghe administration argue that he is trying to follow his uncle by denying the people their democratic right to elections in the guise of electoral reforms.

Admittedly, both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Rishi Sunak face economic and political problems. But in a toss-up, Wickremesinghe’s troubles far outweigh those of the British prime minister.

In his first speech outside No. 10, Sunak spoke of the ‘profound economic crisis’ he must deal with, and the hard times ahead. His political problem is to unite a fractured Conservative Party and rebuild it to face the next general election.

Wickremesinghe’s problems, both economic and political, are more dire and decidedly more complex. Unlike Sunak, whose party has a respectable majority in parliament, Wickremesinghe’s UNP has only one unelected member in the legislature.

So, he must work in tandem with the Rajapaksa-dominated parliament to ensure the passage of any legislation, which makes him liable to compromise until he attracts others to join him and strengthen his hand.

Politicians and others sentenced to death for murder have been pardoned and given state appointments

Sunak told the British people that his government ‘will have integrity, professionalism and accountability’. Those are characteristics Sri Lankan governments have long lacked, including Wickremesinghe’s own,cobbled together with bits and pieces enticed or somehow induced from other parties, ever ready to sacrifice principles for personal gain.

At a recent webinar, organised by the London-based Democracy Forum, on Sri Lanka and its lessons for South Asia, academic participants from Sri Lanka, the US, UK and Pakistan pointed to fault-lines in the island nation’s political makeup and governance, which have plummeted the country to its present state, where damage seems almost irreversible and repair a near impossible task. It is certainly one that Rishi Sunak, for all the difficulties ahead, does not face.

The politisation of Sri Lankan institutions that should normally act independently and impartially, widespread corruption in political and official circles, nepotism, mediocracy in place of meritocracy, and unmitigated cronyism have reduced the Sri Lankan people to a nightmarish existence.

A look at the recent past of MPs presents a sorry picture. A cabinet minister and the chief government whip was not long ago convicted by a court and sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment for extortion during his earlier role as chief minister. Sadly, he was granted a suspended sentence. He was a cabinet minister under Gotabaya Rajapaksa and reappointed by Ranil Wickremesinghe as minister of security, with the police department under him.

Right now there are MPs facing trial for corruption and other offences. Politicians and others sentenced to death for murder have been pardoned by President Rajapaksa and given state appointments.

Amid this atmosphere of gross moral turpitude and grave political impunity,Sri Lanka has naturally attracted international condemnation, including from the UN Human Rights Council, which last month passed the toughest resolution against the country for human rights abuses and violations of international law, and called for accountability including economic crimes.

While a struggling populace calls for a cleansing of present-day politics and deeper changes to the political system, later this month more burdens will be heaped upon them as Wickremesinghe announces IMF dictated economic changes, including new taxes and higher prices, which will further suffocate the people.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, if the mass protest movement is revived, despite the predictable use of tear gas, water cannon and other force to crush spreading dissent.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London