Today, after 69 years, Sri Lanka will hold its second ‘hartal’ or strike or work stoppage with the participation of the working class and ‘small business’ under the theme, ‘the Rajapaksas must go.’
Here, the ‘Rajapaksas’ mean President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother, present Premier and two times President Mahinda Rajapaksa in particular.
The first ‘hartal’ was held on 12 August 1953 after the then Government raised the price of a subsidised measure of rice from 25 cents to 70 cents. That ‘hartal’ was led by the Marxist LSSP, one of the top three political parties of the day. It was quenched after the Police shot and killed nine ‘violent’ demonstrators.
Nonetheless, that first ‘hartal’ sounded the beginning of the end of the then UNP Government which was routed at the Parliamentary Poll held three years later in 1956, winning a mere eight seats. That record was broken 64 years later at the 2020 Parliamentary Poll where the UNP was reduced to just one seat.
What is unique in today’s ‘hartal’ is that it’s not led by any political party, but by trade unions, not necessarily with political affiliations and ‘small’ business. There are three reasons why the masses represented by these two classes, ‘the workers’ and ‘small business,’ want the Rajapaksas to go home.
They are the soaring cost of living, shortages, and queuing for long hours to buy essentials, but more often than not returning home empty-handed, a phenomenon last witnessed 45 years ago from 1970-77. The reason, inadequate US dollars to import essentials, exemplified by the fact that Finance Minister Ali Sabry speaking in Parliament on Monday said the value of the country’s liquid foreign reserves was only US$ 50 million. His statement has to be looked at in the context that Sri Lanka’s monthly import bill is US$ 2 billion led by fuel imports, a virtual monopoly of the State.
The island’s fuel bill in January according to latest official data was US$ 120.5 million and discounting other State-led essential imports such as food and medicines, this US$ 50 million is insufficient to meet even half-a-month of the country’s fuel import bill.
The next Parliamentary poll is due three years later in 2025 and the next Presidential Poll two years later in 2024. As such, the masses cannot wait that long, they want the Government out, now. However, winning a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) filed by the Opposition SJB on Monday against the Government is dim considering the fact that a nominee of the SLFP, a party linked to the SLPP Government was convincingly elected as the Deputy Speaker of the House yesterday, obtaining 148 votes to the SJB nominee’s mere 65 votes in the 225-member Parliament with three abstentions.
If the dollar crisis of 1970-77 was caused by the Government of the day following Marxist policies, the present crisis has been caused due to the misuse and abuse of power by the Rajapaksa regime, beginning after the elder Mahinda’s successful Presidential Election bid at the Presidential Poll held 17 years ago on 17 November 2005.
The SJB, however, filing an NCM against the Government, though chances of them winning such a move is slim, nonetheless was a politically astute move, as it would strengthen the support and confidence of the masses in them.
SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa (55) knows that time favours him. He has to wait only another two years for the next Presidential Poll due in 2024, which he will probably win hands down.
That’s the present political landscape, aided and abetted by the socioeconomic landscape. It’s also a test of patience between the SLPP Government and the Executive on the one hand and the people on the other. Already, splits are appearing within the SLPP Government. The Opposition can wait till the Government collapses, but can the masses also exercise that same patience?
The answer is that they can, they proved it by waiting patiently from 1970-77, discounting the 5 April 1971 JVP Insurgency which took away the lives of 13,000 Sinhala youth, before convincingly overturning an unpopular Government at the 21 July 1977 Parliamentary Poll.