President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been indicating the government’s intention to conduct both presidential and parliamentary elections this year. He is reported to have made this same declaration during his visit to Australia last week. This would be viewed positively by those who are waiting for elections that would ensure a government with a people’s mandate for the difficult road ahead. The most powerful post in the country, the presidency, is devoid of such a mandate though it presides over a most decisive period when the country is mired in international bankruptcy. The two intermediate levels of government, provincial and local, are without elected representation. Governing without a people’s mandate may be empowering to those who are making the decisions, but those at the receiving end are likely to revolt in the longer term.
Under President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership it looks like Sri Lanka is once again punching above its weight. The president took centre stage at the 19th Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the 3rd South Summit of the Group of 77 & China currently taking place in Kampala, Uganda. The president’s media unit stated that at the invitation of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Wickremesinghe not only participated in these critical global gatherings but also addressed both the NAM Summit and the South Summit. During his visit to Kampala, he is reported to have engaged in discussions with counterparts from the Global South, with a special focus on strengthening ties with leaders from the African region.
More Time And Discussion Needed Before Parliamentary Passage Of Onur Law
This week the government will be taking up the ONUR bill for debate after which it will be enacted as law. The bill proposes to establish an Office for National Unity and Reconciliation in order to assure to every citizen equal opportunities in the economic, social, cultural and political spheres. At the same time, the new institution will have the purpose of safeguarding identity and building an inclusive society in which diversity will be respected and all communities will coexist in harmony and unity.
The government is proceeding at speed on its course of legislative activism with regard to economic, reconciliation and security matters. Its ability to do so comes from its majority in parliament. Due to this majority in parliament won at the general elections of 2020, the government is in a position to get its way. However, the government’s legitimacy and moral right to rule and make such reforms has been in question after the economy was brought to its knees in 2021 by the misguided policies of the previous government, and government leaders had to resign from office or flee their homes. In the context of the second world war, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin was said to have asked how many divisions did the Pope have. The reality is that the power of the present government depends on its legal power, not moral power. The present tendencies nearly everywhere in the world is that the sword is mightier than the pen.
The change that the country is looking for lies in the future possibly stretching to 2048 when the country will celebrate its century of independence. The change that the government has brought may have been sufficient unto the day, especially for the upper classes and the international community they fraternize with, but insufficient for the future progress and wellbeing of the masses of people. This past year and a half has been sufficient to stop the breakneck fall down the economic precipice and into social chaos. The reversal of the bizarre fertilizer ban, the imposition of necessary taxes, the law and order crackdown and negotiations with the international community have sufficed to bring the country to the point where it can climb out of the economic hole it fell into. But the country is still not out of the hole. The shrunken economy will take at least another two years to reach the level it was before the government-made crisis slammed it down with full force of corruption and mis-governance.
The government’s greatest success has been to make the two most serious problems facing the country invisible and perhaps irrelevant to those at the top of the economic pyramid, including the international community. The government is able to show statistics that the economy has begun to recover. Growth in the last quarter is positive at 1.6 percent. It is anticipated that this growth will continue into the future. However, there is another set of statistics that tell the story that poverty levels have doubled to 25 percent, a quarter of the population, over this period. The signs of growth are visible in the Christmas décor that the Director of Customs has said is the highest expenditure on imports at present after the embargo on them was lifted. The suffering of hungry and malnourished people remains invisible.
A group of Tamil Diaspora members from western countries have been in Sri Lanka for the past several days. They have been engaging in a series of meetings, with religious clergy in the main, but also with civil and political leaders and with their friends and relatives. The highlight of their meetings has been the one with Buddhist clergy and with President Ranil Wickremesinghe which has received a high level of positive publicity by the presidential media unit. There was a time when those from the Tamil Diaspora would have been viewed with suspicion and possibly even arrested had they visited the country as they would have been identified as supporters of the LTTE and promoters of terrorism. On this occasion they have come under the banner of the Global Tamil Forum which was a banned organization twice, once in 2014 and again in 2021. On both occasions the bans were lifted when President Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the reins of government and defunct peace processes were restarted.
Minorities for the most part live in some apprehension of the power of the majority. At their worst, majorities can inflict violence on minorities, such as in the form of riots. While minorities may resist, they tend to be at the receiving end. In democracies, minorities will invariably face the problem of majority rule, as the majority’s view of what is important will tend to take precedence over what the minority thinks as being important. Therefore, concepts of rule of law and fairness are most important to minorities so that they are treated as equal citizens in practice. The 19th century political theorist John Stuart Mill, who warned against the “tyranny of the majority” also asserted that “The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”
The government is facing an uphill task to rebuild the country which continues to be in a state of economic and moral decline which was evident in parliamentary proceedings last week. The initial hopes of a quick transition from the economic and moral decline that accompanied the pre-Aragalaya period ended with the accession of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to the presidency. The president made skillful use of the security forces in the first instance and the parliamentary majority thereafter to restore the old order, government rule and stabilize the economy, albeit at a much lower level of economic well being. But this won for him and the government the support of those sections of the population who could still live their regular lives and the international community who did not want Sri Lanka to fall prey to rival powers.
At a time when the two elected branches of government have little or no legitimacy the unelected branch is gaining in legitimacy. The government has lost much of its legitimacy on account of being constituted in the main by those who were forced to step down in the face of the Aragalaya mass protests of a year and half ago. The Supreme Court’s verdicts in recent cases have been little short of remarkable. The verdicts in the Online Safety bill case involving control over the social media, De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology-Regulation No. 1 of 2021, which would have permitted the government to send suspects off for compulsory rehabilitation without going through the courts, and the arrest of Mohamed Razik Mohamed Ramzy for hate speech being declared illegal have put the court solidly on the side of the democratic rights of the people.