15 July 2022

The People in the Palace

A mother carrying a young infant, a university student sporting a black bandana which reads ‘GotaGoHome’, an elderly couple, a group of young schoolgirls and a father pushing a wheelchair with his son caught my eye on July 9 at the Aragalaya (roughly translated as the struggle) in Sri Lanka. At some point, I pass around packets of biscuits a home bound elder had sent through us, to distribute at the protest. I hand them out and they are accepted, not with mere gratitude but with a sense of solidarity.

For more than two weeks Sri Lanka has had an acute shortage of fuel, but it is estimated that more than 500 000 people flocked to Colombo to peacefully compel their President and Prime Minister to step down. Ironically this President was elected with 52% votes in 2019. People walked, rode trucks, carpooled, cycled, boarded tightly packed trains and buses to be there. I came back home that night confronted by what I had experienced that day and with more questions than answers about Sri Lanka’s democracy and what that means for constitutional governance. That day, the President promised to resign by July 13 and the Prime Minister also promised to resign. After much uncertainty, the death of a protestor and much more struggle and pain, the resignation of the President was officially announced today (July 15). The hitherto impenetrable Executive Presidency has now, fallen. We can finally hope that this office will be abolished from our constitution and from our political imagination.

From Protest to Imagined Community

This is Sri Lanka’s moment of re-democratization. In 1931, Sri Lanka was the first to receive universal franchise in Asia but it is in 2022 that the People are coming to the foreground as a democratic force. Before this, it was the minorities and workers who were on the streets, making normative demands of the state. When the rural youth made such demands collectively, they did so with violence. But these movements remained in the fringes of a society which suffered from many ailments, including dynastic politics, corruption and ethnonationalism. In 2022, island-wide peaceful protests have built up. The Aragala is now a real and an imagined community, demanding accountable governance and a better future. Questions about representation within and by the Aragalaya come up frequently. The recent occupation of the Presidential Secretariat, the official residences of the President and the Premier, and of the Prime Minister’s office have raised concern among the public, particularly among the middle-class. As of yesterday, the protestors have vacated these buildings, except the Presidential Secretariat.


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Through these disruptions and chaos, Sri Lanka is experiencing something new and unexpected. The multitude is speaking and they can be and are being heard. They (we) are exposing the crisis of representation in Sri Lanka and offer a compelling critique of the status quo, including of constitutional governance as we have experienced it thus far. At some point the normative demands made by the public ought to be translated into a reform agenda. The proposed 21st Amendment of the Opposition captures some of that. But for a more complete realisation of these demands we require a democratic process which involves some measure of expertise as well. But in my view, in Sri Lanka, we are still at the stage where we are seeking to understand the implications of our re-democratization. I outline four such implications below.

The People are critiquing the national security discourse. Sri Lanka has a history of militarization of law and order as well as an ethnonationalist security discourse. As a result, national security was often interpreted to mean the security of the Government. Today, that is being challenged by the People. At public protests, people openly invite the police and the Army to join the Aragalaya. Arbitrary arrests and police/army brutality against protestors are being challenged by lawyers acting in public interest and is being condemned by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). When the Inspector General of Police declared police curfew the day before the planned protest on July 9, the pushback was immediate. The BASL issued a statement declaring it to be illegal.

The People are reviving the discourse on economic inequality. Since July 9 up to July 14 protestors occupied the President and the Prime Minister’s official residences. Powerful images and videos are being shared via social media by people who visit these premises. Average citizens using the plush furniture, marvelling at the swimming pool and using the gym. Memes are being made and shared about the inequalities between the representative and the represented.

The inclusion and representation of women is another striking feature of the People’s movement. Sri Lanka’s political sphere has been male dominated and patriarchal despite the granting of universal suffrage in 1931. Women’s representation in Parliament has never been beyond 12%. In the protests however, women are in the forefront and are an integral part of it. Women have been extremely vocal and taken initiative as politicians in the Opposition, as journalists, as activists.

It is clear then that the demands of the Aragalaya are for ‘a system change.’ One that involves but is not limited to structural change. The demand is for a new political order based on values of accountability, transparency and responsiveness. The need for such a call is made obvious by an Executive President, who is now on the run, who held an entire nation to ransom, until his personal safety was secured.

Yet, I cannot help but notice the limits or blind spots of the Aragalaya. To date, it has fallen short of bringing within its discourses the question of self-determination of Sri Lankan Tamils or the discrimination experienced by Muslims. However, at least on the fringes of the Aragalaya, the discourse about discrimination of minorities is alive and abound. Moreover, even if the Aragalaya is a moment of re-democratization, it is a precarious moment. It is a leaderless, spontaneous and nebulous mass of people. That has been its strength, but it is also its risk. Only time will tell.

Challenging the Constitution

What does this mean for constitutional governance and rule of law? It is most clearly a critique and rejection of the concentration of executive power and of the Executive Presidency. The repeated wilful refusal to repeal the Executive Presidency by numerous governments is now coming back to haunt the political class. Beyond that, it is also a critique of electoral representation. People have had enough of the abuse of power by elected representatives, they have had enough of political parties that fail to channel and modulate people’s needs into government policy making and resource allocation. The Aragalaya is a powerful critique of the rule of law that fails to punish corruption, reclaim stolen wealth and to prevent the kind of crisis that Sri Lanka is faced with. It is also a critique of political leaders, public institutions, professionals and experts that fail to recognise human suffering, empathise and respond appropriately.


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What insights can comparatists gain from this story? It is a given that all these developments affirm the limits and risks of court centric scholarship. This is not to say by any means that it is not useful, but rather, to point to the need to meaningfully bracket its significance. It reveals the need to modulate electoral representation with other forms of representation, such as representation of democratic norms through a guarantor branch (fourth branch/integrity branch). As I have noted on this blog previously , one of the progressive developments that has emerged from Sri Lanka’s current crisis is the consolidation of the support for a guarantor branch among a range of political actors.

The Sri Lankan story also points to the risks associated with a presidential system and illustrates its potential to undermine democracy from within. In Sri Lanka’s past, the Executive President maintained legitimacy despite the internal armed conflict, despite targeted discrimination of Muslims and even despite allegations of corruption and family rule. Only a minority of voices called for the office to be abolished. What has changed now is that the economic crisis is catastrophic, it has spared no one and it is material. This critical and new event has created a new moment in Sri Lanka’s political discourse. It made the unimaginable possible: the deconstruction of the narrative of charismatic political leadership for Sinhala-Buddhists, delivering Singapore type economic development. This is an encouraging but also cautionary tale, one which tells us that in an era of catastrophic events, including the climate crisis , the unimaginable might be possible in other parts of the world too.

The most challenging insight to emerge from this story is the critique of the current Constitution and even the very idea of constitutional governance. Sri Lanka’s current constitution is problematic: it concentrates power in the executive president, prohibits judicial review of legislation even provides for means to pass laws that are unconstitutional. Many perceive this Constitution to be not only part of the problem but increasingly also a root cause. Therefore, many question its capacity and legitimacy to guide Sri Lanka out of this crisis. Many see this document as indifferent and also as promoting systemic abuse of power, human suffering at a large scale, and preserving and advancing economic inequality. The people see constitutional governance as failing to deliver on the promise of the sovereignty of the People and as failing to compel the state to promote human flourishing. These are hard questions and questions that constitutional law scholars and practitioners are perhaps not equipped to respond to. That itself is another crisis, a crisis of ‘expertise.’

There is more to be said, about emotions, location, belonging, suffering, hope, exhaustion, about mentoring others through a crisis, about care and what all of this means for scholarship. I leave that task for another day. For today, I will rest and raise a glass to my fellow citizens. Come what may, we now have a Sri Lankan story of democratization that we can talk of, for generations to come.

Dinesha Samararatne, 15 July 2022

The week on Verfassungsblog

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SUGGESTED CITATION  Samararatne, Dinesha: The People in the Palace, VerfBlog, 2022/7/15, https://verfassungsblog.de/the-people-in-the-palace/, DOI: 10.17176/20220715-233806-0.