Wednesday’s countrywide strike made the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration bite the bullet and offer to negotiate with the protesting trade unions. Government propagandists went into overdrive to make little of the strike, and play down its politico-economic fallout, but the harsh reality dawned on the powers that be despite their rhetoric. The warring trade unions suspended their strike in response to a government offer to have a discussion, which took place, on Friday, between Saman Ekanayake, Secretary to the President, and a group of workers’ representatives, who said they had been promised a meeting with President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself, but it is doubtful whether anything fruitful will come of the talks to be held.

The government seems to be playing for time in the hope that the economic situation may improve in the meantime, and the workers’ resentment might subside. The protesting workers’ main demand is a substantial reduction in the PAYE tax on their monthly earnings, but the government has not agreed to grant it on the grounds that the tax hikes are one of the conditions the IMF has laid down for granting assistance. So, the uneasy truce between the government and the protesting unions is bound to end sooner than expected. However, the fact remains that the trade unions on the warpath, unlike the political Opposition, have succeeded in putting the government on the defensive.

The Opposition parties have been doing their best to have the local government elections held in a bid to prove that the government is without much popular support so that they could capitalize on the SLPP-UNP administration’s predicament to win national elections. That the government’s approval rating has plummeted is public knowledge. It is as low as 10%, according to a recent opinion survey carried out by Vertie institute. This is why the SLPP and the UNP are wary of holding the local government elections in midterm, and President Wickremesinghe has derailed them by preventing the Treasury from releasing funds for the Election Commission. The Opposition has failed to pressure the government to reverse its decision; it does not do anything other than holding rallies and making a lot of noise. The government carries on regardless.

It is not only Sri Lanka’s economy that has failed. Political institutions, too, have gone the same way. The government has become a metaphor for failure. It is claimed in some quarters that the Opposition, too, has failed, and that is why the failed government has been able to retain its hold on power by engineering crossovers and controlling Parliament. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is convinced otherwise. She thinks the entire country has failed. Addressing a youth conference of the Nawa Lanka Nidahas Pakshaya, on Friday (17), she did not mince her words when she called this country a failed state.

The reaction of the government to Kumaratunga’s claim is not known; the ruling party leaders, who make a public display of what they make out to be their love for the country, are likely to flay her for saying so, but there is no such thing as patriotism in Sri Lankan politics. For politicians, patriotism is only a synonym for self-interest, which they maniacally pursue at the expense of everything else. Those who used to wear their brand of patriotism on the sleeve find themselves in the dock today, having stolen public wealth, mismanaged the economy, wasted the country’s precious foreign currency reserves and thereby bankrupted the economy. A few years ago, they took on their political rivals who called this country a failed state. The former branded the latter as a bunch of traitors bent on preparing the grounds for foreign interference here, but today on the watch of those ‘patriots’, the country is teetering on the verge of total failure.

Governments fail, and that is why they are voted out of power. In a democracy, it is the mainstream Opposition that topples a failed government and captures power. A political crisis invariably comes about when the Opposition fails to do so and is not seen to be a viable alternative to the unpopular government, with other actors moving in to employ extra-parliamentary methods to engineer regime changes. This has been Sri Lanka’s problem. Last year, thousands of ‘leaderless’ protesters overtook both the government and the Opposition before their struggle was politicized and hijacked by some parties with hidden agenda. They began their struggle by asking all 225 MPs to go home. The government has managed to consolidate its power despite the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the PM, and the Opposition has not been able to live up the expectations of the public, and all attempts to revive the Aragalaya protest movement has not been successful.

It is against this backdrop that the emergence of trade unions as a countervailing force against the government should be viewed. Most of these organizations are affiliated to political parties, and therefore their agendas are not totally devoid of politics, but they are basically workers’ associations which cannot survive without giving pride of place to the interests of the labour force. If workers’ interests are redressed, trade unions cannot take on governments effectively to further their political interests.

In the present instance, workers are beset with many problems which the trade union arms of political parties could make use of to advance their political agendas. At present, there is an overlap between the interests of the political parties that some trade unions are affiliated to, and those of workers. The government cannot solve workers’ problems and isolate trade unions with political agendas; it lacks the wherewithal to do so owing to the current economic crisis. It also does not seem keen to win over workers if its coercive methods are any indication. It issued a veiled threat to sack strikers, and had the pro-government media remind the public of the 1980 general strike, which the J. R. Jayewardene regime crushed ruthlessly by resorting to mass sackings. The message that the government intended to deliver was that the same fate awaited the workers who were planning to take part in Wednesday’s strike. Some government politicians threatened pay cuts and even warned that workers in the sectors declared as essential services would be liable to imprisonment and the confiscation of their properties in case of striking work. But those methods did not work; the strike happened, and the government had to soften its stand and negotiate with the strikers.

The political role trade unions can play in dealing with an unpopular regime is limited. They can bring the government to its knees by launching work stoppages, etc., but it is up to the political Opposition to mobilize the public and engineer a regime change democratically. Otherwise, there is the risk of the country being plunged into anarchy.




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