To laugh or cry?

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” was the first reaction I heard last Sunday evening when the news spread that President Sirisena had sworn in 26 ex-UPFA ministers in various ministerial capacities of his yahapalanaya government. The second response was also similar: ‘Is this what we voted Maithripala Sirisena in to power for?”

Disbelief, shock, and disappointment were at the core of these reactions to what many people now consider as an event that marked a clear deviation by the new government from its own paradigm of good governance. This act by the ruling Troika – President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and former President Kumaratunge – obviously secured much needed regime stability, but at a cost. It seriously damaged the claims made by the new government to upholding its own principles of political morality. It indeed smacks political corruption, because it exchanges political office with parliamentary voting.

Voting Against

The shock and disbelief expressed by the supporters and well-wishers of the present government emanate from another issue. When people voted for Mr. Sirisena, they also voted against the previous regime as well as many of its individual politicians who had been associated with corruption, abuse of power, and even political indecency. Many of them possessed unbelievably foul mouths. For example, as I know personally, some strong Rajapaksa supporters in the university system voted against Mr. Rajapaksa at the last presidential election because of their absolute disgust with the then Minister of Higher Education, his outrageous conduct and disgraceful public utterances. Now he is a member of the new yahapalanaya cabinet!

To be fair by President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and former President Kumaratunga, they have decided to re-embrace, and work together with, some politicians who subjected them — the three leaders — to such incredible public insults, violating all norms of civility and public decency. Willingness to forget under conditions of political expediency is perhaps one super-human quality that distinguishes professional politicians from the ordinary people! Politicians of both sides of the ethical divide seem to share this unusual human quality!!

Survival or Ethics

Thus, as it is clear now, political survival and regime stability on one hand and the commitment to ethical governance on the other hand have become two competing agendas of the government. Balancing this contradiction as it appears now is no easy task, given the unfavourable balance of power that exists in parliament. Justifying any such balancing acts before an electorate whose political expectations were shaped by the ideal of ethical governance is no easy task either.

In fact, the ordinary people have already begun to express scepticism about the government’s promises of political ethics. It is indeed sad that the idea of yahapalanaya which aroused political imagination of the masses of this country, just three months ago, has now become a but end of jokes, and even a source of embarrassment.

From the point of view of voters who supported President Sirisena at the last election, the induction of 26 ex-SLFP ministers to the new government’s ranks of power points to the paradoxical nature of the current political reform moment. It is constituted by at least three inter-connected dilemmas:

(i) Should political continuity and stability of the present regime be ensured at the expense of ethical politics? Should the voters ‘understand’ and ‘ignore’ the deviations from the good governance promise to prevent a worst political outcome such as the old regime returning to power?

(ii) Should voters disregard ethical politics for the moment while tolerating pragmatic political decisions of the government, which they might even find reprehensible?

(iii) Should ends justify the means? Or, should both the means and the ends be just, to be in line with the yahapalanaya paradigm of governance?

Meanwhile, the dilemma of not exactly knowing whether to laugh or cry over the event on last Sunday encapsulates the difficult choices available to reformist governments as well as reform-seeking voters who bring such governments into power. Within less than even three months in power, the government began to face two major ‘promise failures,’ – non-fulfillment of the hundred-day reform package and the inability to carry through the constitutional reform proposal.

To compound the situation, the government found itself at the mercy of the opposition, led by the SLFP parliamentary majority, which, for quite normal political reasons, tried effectively to checkmate the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s agenda. This has also caused the fairly serious problem of regime survival and stability. This is the immediate political context in which 26 ex-SLFP ministers were given ministerial posts of various grades.

‘Normal Government’

The real political danger now, after ensuring to some measure the continuity of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime, is the possibility of transforming this ‘reformist regime’ into a ‘normal government.’ Normal governments are ones that practice corruption and abuse of power, ignore people’s expectations and justify them, and eventually degenerate into the opposite of their initial promise. Becoming ‘normal’ governments has been the fate many reformist regimes all over the world have faced in trying to bargain with hostile political realities.

If we take a few examples from Asia, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines in 1986, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan in 1993, the People’s Alliance of Sri Lanka in 1994, the Maoist Party of Nepal in 2009, all these were reformist regimes that came into power, marking significant political turning points in their countries. All of them were supported by mass movements and civil society mobilization for political-social reforms for democratization, social justice, and economic welfare of the masses. Sooner than later, all became ‘normal governments.’ Similarly, idealist and reformist political leaders became ‘normal politicians.’

Thus, the risk of reformist regimes and their leaders becoming ‘normal’ is connected with the political phenomenon which we may describe the ‘fragility of the reform moment.’ Reform regimes usually come to power in situations of crisis, and therefore carrying with them both promises and popular expectations for rapid, tangible and decisive changes in many spheres – political, constitutional, economic, social justice, and governance.

If we build a simple theoretical model of the fate and failure of reformist regimes, its basic outlines would be as follows: While in opposition and in their electoral mobilizations, leaders of these regimes have already raised popular expectations for rapid change to unrealistic levels. As the experience shows, soon after the government is formed following the electoral victory, the task of managing popular expectations and promises begins to take a back seat. Managing the political transition then becomes the task of managing a corrupt political order, with a few adjustments here and there. Managing a corrupt political order in turn transforms reformist politicians into ‘normal’ politicians, and reformist regimes into ‘normal governments.’ Once normalized, such a regime’s chances of recovering its reform impulses would be limited.

Balancing Acts

Perhaps, Sri Lanka’s new reformist regime has not yet lost its reform impulses as yet. In other words, the reform moment has not lost. The regime is struggling with balancing its reform goals and political survival. This challenge can be located in a fundamental contradiction in which the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime is caught: the composition of the legislature does not reflect at all the popular mandate, which President Sirisena obtained on January 08. One option that can restore the credibility of the government as well as re-build its reform promise is to obtain a fresh mandate to the legislature through early parliamentary elections. However, there seems to be sharp differences of opinion within the government on the question of calling for fresh parliamentary elections. The government seems to have chosen the option that carries minimal political risks, that is, opening its doors to SLFPer’s along with ministerial positions.

Can this move be understood as rebuilding the ruling coalition? Yes, it can. However, it is not rebuilding the reform coalition, but rebuilding the ruling coalition. The label ‘national government’ does not suit it at all. What we have before us is not the formation of a national government, but a widening of the ruling coalition – many people seem to have now forgotten that it was called National Democratic Front, only two moths ago – with new elements from the SLFP cajoled to join it.

It also appears that the old coalition is destined to lose its original shape as well. The JHU is likely to leave it, or be a reluctant and nagging partner, even if it decides to remain with the government. The civil society groups, thoroughly embarrassed with the new developments, are likely to maintain some distance from the government, although they may not want the government to be defeated or replaced. Civil society groups are quite aware that the return of the old regime would inaugurate a new process of re-authoritarianization of the Sri Lankan state and governance. Meanwhile, the JVP’s ‘critical support’ to the NDF coalition has now been turned into critical opposition.

Normative vs. Pragmatic

All these developments also tell us a lot about the new trends, complexities and directions of Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics. Key among them are the following two:

• Political reforms in the direction of authoritarian rule are much easier to fulfill than democratic reforms, simply because the process of democratic reforms is messy. It invites plurality of perspectives, facilitates open clash of ideas and projects, benefits from the playing out of power struggles in the public, and marked by multiple directions of political change.

• The clash as well as the gulf between normative politics and pragmatic politics is unavoidable. What needs to be avoided however is the privileging of pragmatic politics at the cost of normative politics.

Courtesy: The Island