The Sri Lankan government of President Gotabhaya Rajapakse holds an unstable and slim majority in parliament as anti-government protests grow, fueled by severe shortages of food, fuel, medicine and electricity. Workers are forced to wait for hours in long queues to obtain the essentials of life. In addition, they have to pay for them at exorbitant prices which are constantly increasing.
Tuesday’s parliamentary session was convened following the resignation of the entire cabinet except Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the president’s brother. On Monday, President Rajapakse appealed to opposition parties to participate in a new cabinet, but the three main opposition parties – Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – categorically refused.
Under the pressure of mass demonstrations demanding the resignation of the president and the government, the ruling coalition is falling apart. Groups of parliamentarians from the government and minor coalition parties announced in parliament on Tuesday their decision to leave the government and sit as “independents”.
They are 12 members of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the party of Rajapakse, 16 members of ten small parties, 14 members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and two members of the Ceylon Workers Congress, a party of plantations. As a result, the government has only 114 seats out of the 225 in Parliament, at least since Tuesday.
President Rajapakse flatly rejected protesters’ demands to resign and offered to swear in the next government to any party that wins a majority in parliament. This offer is a desperate and cynical proposition to the opposition parties. Under the executive presidency, Rajapakse retains enormous powers, including the power to dismiss the government at any time.
The President also understands that despite all their posturing, none of the opposition parties has a solution to the crisis, other than to impose new burdens on the workers since they all defend the capitalist system to the end, which means putting big business profits and the repayment of the huge foreign debt ahead of the basic needs of the majority. The SJB’s criticism of the government is that it should have asked for an IMF bailout sooner: in other words, more austerity, sooner.
The government’s immense political crisis was underscored by the resignations on Tuesday of new finance minister Ali Sabri and finance ministry secretary SR Artygala. Sabri’s resignation came less than 24 hours after he was appointed on Monday, along with three other ministers to form a minimum cabinet.
Sabri, who was the president’s personal lawyer, took over from Basil Rajapakse, who was due to travel to Washington this week for talks on an IMF bailout. The turmoil within the Ministry of Finance and the central bank, whose governor resigned on Monday, bears witness to the deep economic crisis the country is going through.
The country has been hit hard by the pandemic as well as the government’s criminal ‘free to spread’ policy which allowed COVID-19 to spread across the island. The economic crisis has worsened dramatically following the global upheaval caused by the proxy war between the United States and NATO and Russia in Ukraine.
Due to its dwindling foreign exchange reserves, Sri Lanka has run out of money to pay for essential imports. The country is on the verge of default. The country’s stock and bond markets fell as the crisis escalated. On April 4, the “All Share Price” index was down 32.5 percent this year. Bloomberg called the Colombo stock market the second worst performer after Russia.
In parliament on Tuesday, Education Minister and House Leader Dinesh Gunawardane challenged the opposition to demonstrate they have a majority and inform the president they can form a government . Nothing like that has been demonstrated.
In a demagogic speech, the leader of the SJB, Sajith Premadasa, who is also leader of the opposition, called on the president and the entire government to step down. “The time has come to change the executive presidency. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity,” he said. However, neither Premadasa nor the leaders of the other opposition parties explained what they intended to do to resolve the economic and social crisis.
Premadasa’s call to “change the executive presidency” is a ruse to appeal to popular sentiment in favor of an end to autocratic presidential powers. Opposition parties have regularly called for changes to the executive presidency, but when in power they have done little or nothing to change it. If Premadasa did not present a single concrete measure, it was to hide the austerity program that the SJB would introduce if it were in power.
The executive presidency must not simply be changed or modified, it must be abolished. Rajapakse holds wide powers, not only to install or dismiss governments, but also to assume ministries and rule by decree. He is currently Minister of Defence, which allows him to lead not only the huge military apparatus of Sri Lanka, but also the police.
The SJB is the majority breakaway party from the right-wing United National Party, which amended the constitution to institute the executive presidency in 1978. Neither the SJB nor any of the other opposition parties intend to abolish the presidency executive, which has served the ruling class in times of crisis – as it is now – as leverage to mobilize the state apparatus and security forces against the working class.
On Tuesday, Rajapakse ended the state of emergency, which he can reimpose at any time. It still has a battery of undemocratic laws: including the possibility of banning strikes in key public sectors. While proposing to install an opposition government, which he can ignore as he pleases, he is certainly involved in close discussions with senior army officers, with whom he maintains the closest relations.
Defense Secretary Kamal Gunaratna issued a thinly veiled threat to protesters on Tuesday, saying security forces will not hesitate to apply the law against those involved in acts of violence. He accused some protesters “of deliberately participating in violent protests in an organized manner that caused damage to public and private property and disrupted people’s daily lives on main roads and in public places.”
These comments are a warning that the current regime is ready to exploit any pretext to mobilize security forces to quell nationwide protests. Rajapakse, who stood in the 2019 presidential election as the strongman needed to save Sri Lanka, has installed former generals and serving generals in key administrative positions, and has the power to impose dictatorial forms of government.
The central demand of the protests is that Rajapakse must resign. There is no doubt that “Gota” must go! But who and what government should replace him? None of the opposition parties or combinations of parties, all of which have a track record of defending the interests of big business, the super-rich, foreign investors and, above all, international finance capital, cannot be trusted. .
The Socialist Equality Party is intervening in this protest movement and calling on workers to form grassroots action committees, independent of the myriad establishment parties and unions that have betrayed the growing movement of strikes and protests over the past two years. Only on this basis can the working class begin to advance its own class demands and its own solution to the social crisis. In this way, it can provide a pathway out of the social misery faced by the rural masses and the urban poor.
The establishment of action committees in every factory, workplace and working-class suburb provides the basis for advancing the call for a workers’ and peasants’ government that can implement policies of socialist reorganization of society to meet the urgent social needs of the majority, not for the profit of a few wealthy people. The struggle for such a perspective requires turning to workers around the world who face similar pressing needs and who are already being forced into struggle throughout South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. , as well as in advanced capitalist countries, including the United States.