Wijith DeChickera writes that trends such as geopolitical sabre rattling and the resurgence of COVID-19 could make sociopolitical instability pale

Perhaps the most unprecedented happening of the past month or so was the eviction of a sitting executive president by dint of concerted people’s action. The precedent of taking to the streets in protest was not new although never before had the notion of popular sovereignty taken the form of protracted occupation of public property until the incumbent was ousted.

The organic citizens’ movement known as the aragalaya did more than cause unpopular former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the nation in ignominy. It also prompted the resignation of erstwhile prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cabinet, sending strong signals to entrenched cabals.

That it provoked occasionally brutal responses from the police and security forces highlighted the propensity of governments since 1979 to use emergency provisions heavy-handedly to quell uprisings.

While it was peaceful in the main, the infiltration – or instigation – of the now defunct ‘Occupy Galle Face’ movement by shadowy political actors proves that a deep vein of insurrection still runs in the nation’s veins.

State sanctioned thuggery on 9 May provoked reciprocal violence against parliamentarians and the torching of public property on the same day – a lack of equilibrium that swung the pendulum of power back into citizen hands on 9 July when an estimated one million people ‘voted with their feet’ to say a resounding ‘No!’ to authoritarian (yet, grossly incompetent) ‘government by gazette’ that laid waste to a near ‘upper middle income country.’

Four days later, a beleaguered president left the shores that 6.9 million voters had entrusted to his regime to ‘save’ from national insecurity and the fumbling, bumbling former administration.

One would have expected a badly stung polity to learn its lessons as far as lionising political personages goes. But to judge by the hosannas being sung about the elder statesman who succeeded the only president to be ousted in Sri Lanka’s chequered political history, at least some of the electorate is still kowtowing to personalities rather than relying on principled teamwork and technocratic policy-making.

It remains to be seen whether the ‘popular mandate-less’ government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe will deliver the goods… literally and metaphorically. At least, due democratic process was followed in the constitutionally governed parliamentary election of a caretaker president. Now it is up to the executive and legislature to sail the ship of state through the perils of economic hardship and sociopolitical instability.

DILEMMA However, there is no sign of either challenge being satisfactorily resolved soon.

On the one hand, Sri Lanka’s rabbit hole goes so deep that it is going to take much more than an IMF bailout by dint of debt restructuring to get us back on even keel. For one, asking our debtors to ‘take a haircut’ may come as too little, too late if we don’t get the fundamentals – boosting trade, rationalising tax regimes, curtailing recurrent expenditure so we don’t live beyond our means etc. – right… again.

After all, it’ll be the 17th International Monetary Fund intervention in our isle… to no real avail?

For another, expecting the nation at large to adopt austerity measures in the short to medium terms won’t go down well with an already embattled populace if they don’t see their political ‘masters’ (sorry, that should be ‘servants’ from now on!) adjust their tax brackets accordingly and ‘get legit.’

In fact, failure to do so would only add more fuel to the fire of societal agitation against iniquitous governance.