By Harim Peiris
“October Revolution” is a term that used to gladden the hearts of Communist stalwarts the world over, our own left parties included. It was the occasion, more than a century ago, when of the Russian monarchy and the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for over three hundred years was violently overthrown and succeeded by the Communist Soviet Union, which itself came to an end in more recent times with the finish of the Cold War.
However, Sri Lanka has also, during the last several years, experienced our own momentous October revolutions, defining moments in our national and political life. It was six years ago in September/October of 2014 that the then governing UPFA narrowly won but recorded a significant decrease in its popular vote in the Uva Provincial Council elections and through ensuing political events three months later, the second Rajapaksa Administration was defeated at the presidential election of January 2015.
After a relatively quiet three years, October 2018 witnessed President Maithripala Sirisena sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Earlier in the year, in February, at the local government elections the SLPP won but with about forty percent of the national vote. Perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s greatest political periods was October to December 2018, which demonstrated the resilience of our democratic institutions and the robustness of her processes, when subsequent to Parliament passing several no confidence motions against the usurpation of power by a constitutional coup and based on both Appellate and Supreme Court decisions, the status quo ante was achieved.
Time in politics does not stand still and the complete absence of any political course correction by UNP leader for life, Ranil Wickremesinghe, meant that an year later by October 2019, he had the presidential election nomination wrested from him by the desertion of all the UNP’s political allies to his deputy and current Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. Shortly thereafter, the Rajapaksas regained political power, democratically this time, by winning the presidential election of 2019.
The October 2020 revolution of the 20th Amendment
October 2020 is no exception to the recent patten of momentous October political events and the newly elected SLPP Administration is seeking nothing short of a complete overhaul of the Sri Lankan State, through its proposed 20thAmendment to the Constitution. The 20thAmendment seeks essentially to establish an elected absolute ruler, where the President will appoint everybody to all state positions as he sees fit, including the higher judiciary and the independent commissions, including the Election Commission, which would thereby no longer be independent, as well as autocratically control everything and be beyond the reach of the law. The proposed amendment does not just seek to revert Sri Lanka to a pre-19thAmendment era but rather goes beyond it. It is a considerable political over reach in that it moves beyond the consensus that exists within political society and the governing elites.
It is exactly that over reach that has resulted in both internal dissent within the governing alliance and from staunchly apolitical sections of civil society. Religious leaders ranging from the Sanga Sabawas of both the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas, the Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Christian Council, all came out strongly against the 20thAmendment, calling it a retrograde step that should not be proceeded with. Even some of the more political monks, generally both hawkish and nationalist, who had actively supported the politics and policies of the SLPP and contributed to the Rajapaksa election victory, expressed their disquiet and disagreement with the proposed amendment leading to significant parts of the SLPP Alliance, including the National Freedom Front calling for significant changes, if not the wholesale abandonment of the Administration’s first signature political initiative. Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Vidura Wickramanayake and Wijeydasa Rajapakshe are all staunch Sinhala nationalists and regime stalwarts. Their critique of the 20th Amendment arises not from the 20th Amendment’s rather obvious challenges to an inclusive, tolerance of diversity and pluralistic Sri Lankan state but from a governance standpoint. Their vision of a Sinhala nationalist state is that it be efficient, technocratic and to some extent accountable. Accordingly, the abrogation of the Audit Commission and the exemption of the President’s and Prime Minister’s Office from Independent State audit seems, correctly, absurd to them from an accountability and governance standpoint.
The more recent construct of Sinhala nationalism has been insular, inward looking and anti-Western. It has been an article of faith that the world in general and the West in particular is seeking to dislodge Sri Lanka from its exceptional place in the sun. Accordingly, the provision in the 20th Amendment allowing dual citizens to hold high political office runs against the grain of their ardent beliefs and potentially opens the door for Tamil diaspora activists to engage in politics in Sri Lanka. Hence the internal dissent regarding the amendment. The Government has exactly 150 votes in Parliament, including the casting vote of the Speaker. It is precisely because of the vacillation of a few Government members that overtures, both carrots to Hakeem’s Muslim Congress and the stick to Bathiudeen’s People’s Congress, has been in the works during the past few weeks.
It was a very irate Malcom Cardinal Ranjith who went on record accusing the Government of a deal with Bathiudeen regarding the 20th Amendment – since denied by the Government – subsequent to the release of Bathiudeen’s brother from detention by the CID. As if to buttress the denial, or on the contrary to increase pressure and leverage on the People’s Congress, Rishard Bathiudeen himself was arrested by the CID after the Fort Magistrate refused to issue a warrant for his arrest and while Appellate Court proceedings to prevent his arrest are pending. There is a strong strand of opinion among Muslim political leaders to be not seen as obstructing the Sinhala people if they want to elect an absolute ruler.
Before the end of October 2020 we will know if our own October revolution has succeeded, not like in Russia a hundred years ago in the overthrow of an autocratic absolute ruler and dynasty, but in the establishment of one.