Sri Lanka is going through its worst economic crisis in 74 years of post-Independence history. The island nation now faces an imminent humanitarian crisis, with shortages in medicines, fuel, and food supplies already causing untold suffering to many. Meanwhile the economic crisis has triggered social and political crises that are threatening to rock the country to its very foundations. Mass protests are routinely organised across the island, demanding relief from the harsh impact of the crisis on living conditions and livelihoods. These mostly peaceful protests are also calling for more political accountability from the ruling elite, whose poor governance and policy decisions are the immediate causes of the present crises.
The political elites’ response — or lack thereof — to these demands reveals a deep disconnect with the masses they claim to represent. What is the state of Sri Lanka’s political class amid this unprecedented upheaval and how might the present crisis enable a re-imagining of the prevailing social contract?
The elite’s grip on power
Sri Lanka’s political class was dominated at independence by upper-class, urban, Anglicised, [mostly] men who, in many ways, sustained the structures of power across class, racial, gender, and religious divides during colonial rule. The reactionary, nationalist politics that gained momentum under the leadership of S W R D Bandaranaike carried the promise of redistribution through social democracy. However, though the markers of national authenticity were realigned with being ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Buddhist’, the foundational structures of elitism remained largely static.
The present political crisis in Sri Lanka reveals a deep democratic deficit. The ruling elite are elected by the public but there is no real way of holding them accountable once in office. The institutional checks and balances, inherent to any democratic system, are subverted in practice by crony capitalism, overconcentration of power within the executive office, and a host of other factors. The prevailing political culture is another contributing factor; personal political favours determine most voters’ choice of candidates at election time, over the candidates’ policies and principles.
Thus, even as the people’s protests demand that the political leadership and government resign, there is no sign of them being responsive to such pressures. How does a society successfully take on the elite’s grip on power which they use chiefly to fortify their position of privilege?
Elite disconnect and the power of knowledge and discourse
In a 2020 podcast episode ’The New Experiments in Elitism’, Venkatesh Rao argues that “the essence of elitism isn’t in these moments of creative destruction of elite power, but in quieter unaccountable workings away from public scrutiny.”
Elite politics thrive on back-door deals and false narratives to hoodwink the masses. Challenging elite politics through dissent and organised protests is invaluable, but so is the unravelling of the everyday workings of elite politics through knowledge and discourse that calls for governance that is transparent and accountable.
The Swiss philosopher Vilfredo Pareto viewed elite politics as cyclical. What appear to be ‘changes’ in elite composition, he argues, are simply processes of amalgamation rather than replacement. These cycles typically involved two types of elite: foxes and lions. Foxes wield power through the pen, attempting to co-opt dissent and critique of its rule. Lions, in contrast, are more conservative and rule through force. Observing Sri Lanka’s elite transitions, especially with the recent replacement of former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa with incumbent PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, confirms such circulation of elite. The system change, as demanded by the people’s protests, remains forever elusive. Incidentally, Mr Wickremesinghe has been referred to as a fox by sections of the media over the years.
Re-imagining elite-mass relations: A new politics of solidarity?
The mass protests against the ruling regime have continued for almost two months now. Many argue that the core reasons for widespread dissent against the regime, which had come to power on an overwhelming popular mandate, are economic. Where was the mass outrage against the state during past violations of human rights, they ask? Why did the majority Sinhala population not lend their weight to the Mothers of the Disappeared who have been demanding answers from the state for years? The past inability of democratic politics to transcend the divides of class, race, and region gives well-founded reasons for doubting that the present moment heralds a new politics of solidarity.
While there is much credence to such sentiment, the present moment arguably also holds potential for being a moment of transition “long in the making”. There is hope that the evolution of the people’s protests will create space for questioning previously held common sense ideas. For example, whose interests do the police and armed forces serve? What does political stability really mean? Whose economic stability is ensured and which groups of society are left out? What would the material outcomes of genuine inter-ethnic reconciliation look like?
Anti-elite politics is on the rise across the world, in response to the rising levels of social inequality. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore the compounding crises of capitalism that could no longer be contained through prevailing modes of state rule. Status quo elite politics are increasingly challenged by citizens and through international solidarity movements that call for police abolition, climate justice, and land rights, among other issues. Through introspection and dialogue, the potential for a new politics of solidarity is certainly present in Sri Lanka, though not inevitable.
Cover Photo: “GotaGoGama Protest Site at Galle Face, Colombo” is copyright (c) 2022 Nazly Ahmed and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license
Rajni Gamage is an editor at Debas.lk. She is an independent researcher in politics based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.