Featured image courtesy Colombo Gazette
Almost 15 months under the present Sirisena-Wickremesinghe rule, the economy is in no good state. Defeating Rajapaksa at the 2015 January 08 presidential polls was not meant to merely abolish the Executive Presidency (which wasn’t done) but also to lift the country out of the economic abyss. In the Maithripala Sirisena manifesto for the presidential elections, he therefore promised
I will put right development priorities that are now upside down. I will suspend all wasteful expenses and establish a National Economic Planning Council comprising learned personnel, who would act not on pecuniary considerations but out of love for the country…. [; No.2 Development Economy – page / 20]
While that is yet to see daylight, the economy during the Rajapaksa era wasn’t limp, though it certainly needed serious repair despite Rajapaksa bragging and propping up by China. A lopsided economy, it nevertheless had heavy infrastructure projects running with huge Chinese funding and was also pepped up by India, Russia and Iran. This economy was providing space for a new middle class to emerge, especially in an increasingly urbanised Colombo centric society. The rest of the society, the majority, was undoubtedly left behind. But there were no accusations the economy was in shambles or collapsing. Mega corruption and massive frauds were however accepted as the norm, at every level in society.
Those advocates for “change” who backed Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena wished to call the ousting of Rajapaksa the “Rainbow Revolution”. Stepping into the 15th month after the “Rainbow Revolution”, the Sri Lankan economy is identified as a collapsing economy. On March 03 this year (2015) the Island newspaper had a write up by a Special Correspondent titled “Government should get its act together to avert economic collapse”. The caption itself was very revealing. The article said, “The Fitch Rating Agency has stated that the 2016 Budget has done little to address government revenue concerns and predicted continued fiscal slippage over 2016 and 2017. It explained that Sri Lanka’s government debt has increased to more than 75 percent of GDP by end 2015 up from 71 percent at the end of 2014.“(emphasis added). Put in a nutshell what it means is, this “Yahapalana” leadership had completely failed in managing the economy. During the whole of 2015 when the 100 Day program was released and then with a compromised government in power, this “Rainbow Revolution” wasn’t able to manage the economy, having got its “Interim Budget” adopted in February 2015.
The economic crisis was acknowledged by PM Wickremesinghe in Parliament on 08 March (2016) . He moved Parliament to amend his own government’s budget for year 2016. Presented in Parliament only 03 months before by his Finance Minister and adopted by a 2/3 majority, it was being amended by the President and by the cabinet of ministers immediately after it was passed. There were also differing opinions on how to arrest the economic decline by the Central Bank Governor and the Finance Minister.
Much or all blame for this economic debacle is pinned on the Rajapaksa clan by PM Wickremesinghe. He told Parliament that his government was not aware of the total debt the country is facing, when the 2016 Budget was being made. By now the government has managed to uncover a massive debt of 9.5 trillion rupees he said, adding that it could even go beyond 10 trillion. The Rajapaksa regime was accused of even crediting loans as income. The debt picture painted was frightening. Wickremesinghe went on to say they are incapable of digging out all the debts and therefore have discussed with the IMF to have their expertise to conduct a “Forensic Audit”. Although he did not then realise, the implied meaning is, Rajapaksa regime had been far smarter than this government. Wickremesinghe and his men were unable to find what Rajapaksa hid.
Meanwhile PM Wickremesinghe said his government is amending tax proposals to improve on State revenue. With the massive debt the country is burdened with, most national resources have to be channelled to settle foreign loans he said. His government is now held responsible for these massive unwanted loans, is what he told the parliament and the people. That was PM Wickremesinghe explaining his and his government’s plight in managing a rotten economy blamed on Rajapaksa.
But this was not what he said in 2013 February, about the same “staggering debt so incurred”. A lengthy explanatory letter written exclusively to “Sunday Times” as they say, “On betraying public trust” Wickremesinghe then as Leader of the Opposition and the UNP said, when voted to power, his government would not honour any of those loans.
The staggering debt so incurred will have to be paid back by the next two generations. Fortunately, our Constitution does not allow the inalienable sovereignty of the people to be subordinated to the financial markets and the insatiable greed of racketeers. As pointed out, these loans, if incurred, will be invalid and we are not obliged to repay them. (Sunday Times / 24 February, 2013 – emphasis added)
What then is the problem with Rajapaksa loans? Why don’t Wickremesinghe as PM now stick hard and firm to his much argued position (as Leader of the Opposition then) of not repaying loans? Wickremesinghe has always avoided taking firm positions on crucial issues. In 2007 he had the UNP abstaining at the vote on Emergency Regulations. In 2014 June the UNP abstained at the vote on OHCHR probe. So it was with the 18A and with the impeachment on CJ Shiranee Bandaranayake. A leader who avoids making serious decisions, his present lament on meeting debt responsibility is clearly an excuse for his government’s incapacity in turning the economy around. His government created budgetary history in moving heavy amendments to its own revenue proposals within 80 days of its adoption in parliament – proof of incapable, inefficient leadership.
The budget was no radical piece of “development economics”. The government did not prove nor show it had rightly identified the problems of rural society. The breakdown of rural life was not simply about farming and marketing. It’s more about the exodus of young women to Middle East to toil as housemaids for a paltry wage of 150 dollars. It’s about families not having any economic worth in the village to lead a family with basic human needs. It’s about youth who previously was recruited in large numbers as soldiers, but has no alternate employment for the present youth. It is also about battle hardened young soldiers back in the village after the war loitering unproductively, leading to increased crimes. The Rajapaksas never thought re socialising soldiers returning from the war was a serious necessity. Nor does this Wickremesinghe government think it is a major requirement in curbing crime. Not even the President who is Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence. If with all that and the loud rhetoric about creating 01 million jobs in 02 years is removed, the government has nothing on the ground for rural people to hope for. The government had thus paved space for farmer protests over the patchwork job done on the fertiliser subsidy that in fact serves no purpose for farmers.
Meanwhile President Sirisena is on his own, totally ignorant of what the Wickremesinghe government says and does. Three days before PM Wickremesinghe announced his tax proposals, President Sirisena launched his agriculture programme to rid Sri Lanka of toxic chemical use in 03 years. He promised to stop all chemical fertiliser, pesticides, weedicides and insecticides used in agriculture and to have a nontoxic agri Sri Lanka. There are no serious alternatives discussed or proposed as to how harvesting volumes necessary for this population could be sustained and from where and how substitutes for chemical fertiliser will be supplied in adequate quantities right round the year. Except highlights on adverse impacts of using chemicals, a cheap popular platform created by Sinhala extremism, there seems no actual programme. But this sure will be a counter campaign for Wickramasinghe’s approach in market oriented large scale agriculture.
Worse is this government’s indecision and thus its duality in addressing the requirements of the UNHRC Resolution with transitional justice and reconciliation. The President is firm in keeping out any probe, even domestic, with his guarantee of safety given to the military on war crime investigations. Thus his consistent statements on keeping out foreign involvement at any level given at the recent Law Forum in Wadduwa. He also has backtracked on his promise to the TNA on releasing Tamil detainees held under the PTA for many years without charges. His politics is Sinhala and no different to Rajapaksa. He seems to believe that all he should do is to visit North once or twice and dole out something to the Northerners. That he believes makes him different to Rajapaksa. A few patches of land handed over now and then to people in North, his compassionate heart, that gave amnesty to his supposed LTTE assassin sounds enough for reconciliation with the National Anthem sung in Tamil at independence celebrations.
Contradicting the President, Foreign Minister goes public here and internationally on the necessity of having foreign expertise for the war crimes probe. He decides on a Task force on public consultation in developing a mechanism for a transitional justice process. A government that pulls apart on serious, major issues especially one that involves a heavily polarised society could never serve the people other than with rhetoric nor will it be stable and popular for long.
Add this factor of a duplicate Rajapaksa in Polonnaruwa. President Sirisena’s Polonnaruwa is going the same Hambantota way. In July last year, the “Yahapalana” government decided to spend Rs.16,650 million in developing Polonnaruwa as a “Metro City”. Two months later in October President Sirisena launched his 05 year development programme for Polonnaruwa, “Pibidemu Polonnaruwa” (Awakening of Polonnaruwa). Recently there was a guided tour of over 30 diplomats in Polonnaruwa. The tour was organised with the aim of providing aid for development of Polonnaruwa, the media reported. On 14 March this year, presided over by President Sirisena, Polonnaruwa development committee has proposed expanding the old Hingurakgoda runaway and airport into a modern airport. Another proposal had been to construct an international cricket stadium.
Apart from copying Rajapaksa and imitating him, this government with no people’s mandate to be in power (they represent opposing vote blocs) have no authority and a will to govern. Closing in on 15 months, they prove they cannot still have the State machinery moving under their writ. The second island wide power cut within 17 days proved them quite impotent. This incapability, this impotency gave Rajapaksa the courage to get on stage and shout “if you can’t, give it back to me. I will show you how to run the country”.
The whole issue is about direction. With two incompatible political leaderships, and with no common programme identified and adopted to work on, there cannot be a ruling government that could command respect and authority. That is evident at every turn. The 19A was heavily compromised, with the only objective of telling the world they adopted 19A, an election promise. Content and provisions were not their issue. So is it with Constitutional Reforms. President says he is not sure if what he needs is the 20A or complete abolition of the presidency. UNP and PM Wickremesinghe moved for a completely new Consitution with a 29 member committee called the Constituent Assembly. But gave into the dissident Rajapaksa group in the Opposition to completely change course. Now it is no “New” Constitution that would be worked on. Now the whole parliament would sit as the Constituent Assembly. For sure, the final Constitution will be what the Rajapaksa group as the Joint Opposition would prevail upon. This crossbred dual headed government that knows not where to head, will have to compromise for its life in power. It thus leaves the whole society grappling with more issues in the next year or two to come. Far worse, this impotency allows Rajapaksa to claim he does the job better.