Groundviews

The Political Logjam

Photograph courtesy President’s Media Division, Government’s Aim Is to Create a Public Service and Political Culture Free from Corruption and Nepotism

“…something begun so well had now gone off the rails…”
George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo)

In a recent New Yorker article on Donald Trump, commentator Adam Gopnik reminds his readers that while crazy lovers are pitiful or pathetic, crazy politicians are not.

The shenanigans of Donald J Trump are a potent reminder of what Sri Lanka’s fate would have been had the 2015 presidential election ended differently. A third Rajapaksa presidential-term would have been infinitely worse than the Trump presidency; by 2015 Sri Lanka had been denuded of those standard democratic checks and balances which keep autocracy at bay, especially an independent judiciary, a free media and a vibrant civil society.

Neither time nor electoral defeat has caused even the slightest dent in the Rajapaksa mania for power. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is just few months short of the halfway mark of its five year lifespan. If a new constitution which does away with the presidential system is not put in place, presidential elections will have to be held in the first quarter of 2020. Since the 19th Amendment prevents Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting again, the candidate of the Rajapaksa camp is likely to be younger brother Gotabhaya.

The Rajapaksas are crazy with power-lust. “For mine own good, all causes shall give way”: Macbeth’s not quite sane pronouncement could well be the motto of the former first family. But the Siblings managed to overcome the political death a sensible electorate dealt them, not once but twice, thanks in the main to the idiocies, inadequacies and illegalities of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration came into office on a popular wave. Mr. Sirisena and the UNP were able to defeat the Rajapaksa juggernaut because they succeeded in inspiring the voters by giving them a new sense of hope.

Two years and two months on, the government has squandered almost all the goodwill it once enjoyed.

Three incidents which happened last week symbolise the failure of the government to live up to even a minimal level of expectations. The government moved two supplementary estimates in parliament; the first one of Rs, 494 million was to buy luxury vehicles for several cabinet and state ministers[i]; the second one of 134.4 million was to fund a monthly allowance of Rs. 100,000 for parliamentarians, ostensibly to maintain an office. The week ended with yet another shameless deed – the conferring of an ambassadorship on ASP Liyanage by President Sirisena.

Bribing ministers, parliamentarians and sycophants with perks and privileges at the expense of the country is the way President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe maintain their hold over their respective parties and win friends. Many a broken promise and a significant departure from the basics of good – and sensible – governance were born from this tactic, starting with a bloated cabinet.

This tactic has won for the government a majority in parliament. The victory, however, is an ephemeral one, something which can be upended in a matter of days; most ministers and parliamentarians would change sides, again, and become born-again Rajapaksa loyalists, the moment the government is sufficiently unpopular. It doesn’t take a feat of imagination to visualise Susil Premjayantha or Anura Priyadarshana Yapa singing the praises of the Rajapaksas and damning Mr. Sirisena as a traitor to the party and the country.

The Deadly Absence of Political Will

In 2015, President Sirisena had the historic opportunity of overhauling the SLFP and turning it into a post-Rajapaksa party invulnerable to the siren song of the Rajapaksas. This was what JR Jayewardene did with the UNP, and he did it while in opposition and despite the enormous popularity of the late Dudley Senanayake, both within the party and the country.

JR Jayewardene knew of the importance of breaking the UNP from its feudal past. He also knew that by making the attempt he was risking a split in the party. It was a dangerous gamble, one which could have gone badly wrong and condemned the UNP to a long stint in opposition. But Mr. Jayewardene took the risk even though many thought he was being foolhardy. After all, the UNP had been synonymous with the Senanayake name and family since its inception; throughout its existence, it had been led by a Senanayake, except for the short Kotelawala interregnum. But Mr. Jayewardene knew that if the UNP was to have a future it had to make a clean break with the Senanayake past. And he possessed the necessary political will to do the needful.

Mr. Sirisena could have performed a similar historic feat and prised the SLFP away from the Rajapaksas, politico-psychologically. His best chance was immediately after the parliamentary election of 2015. The Rajapaksas had suffered their second consecutive defeat and were in retreat. Mr. Sirisena was popular, he was trusted and he had power. He could have turned the SLFP from a backward looking semi-feudalist entity into a modern democratic political party. He could have groomed a new crop of leaders, untainted by the Rajapaksa muck and capable of resisting any Rajapaksa comeback.

Mr. Sirisena could have used the National List appointments to make a clean break with the Rajapaksa past. Instead he appointed well-known timeservers like Dilan Perera and SB Dissanayake. From that moment onwards, his dealings with the SLFP became marked by a cringe-worthy level of opportunism and a distressing absence of courage. The result has been a politically-debilitating inability to dominate (let alone hegamonise) the party of which he is the nominal leader.

Mr. Sirisena’s failure to develop a new vision and a new path for the SLFP and his inability to develop a set of new anti-Rajapaksa leaders who can take over the party once he retires are likely to cost the country dear. As a result of these multiple failures, the SLFP remains vulnerable to a Rajapaksa takeover and Sri Lanka in danger of a Gotabhaya presidency.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was expected to usher in a government of financial probity and administrative efficiency. He has failed to live up to both expectations. Bond scam was his seminal failure. It depleted his credibility and legitimacy to near zero-levels. Instead of fighting for a new constitution, Mr. Wickremesinghe spent most of the last two years fighting for Arjun Mahendran, squandering most of his political capital to defend the indefensible.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration lacks a long-term perspective, not just economically but also politically. This is why the government has focused almost exclusively on keeping the political class – and other influential interest groups such as the military and the Buddhist monks – happy while neglecting the problems and needs of ordinary voters (including the rank-and-file of the three forces and the police). Since a change in the parliamentary balance is the easiest way to bring down the government, both Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe would do almost anything to retain the parliamentary support they currently enjoy. This is the logic of bestowing more largesse on parliamentarians in a time of severe financial crisis, when five percent of the country’s populace is suffering under the hammer blows of a crippling drought.

This strategy might have worked if the drought been a short-term phenomenon, a dry spell lasting for no more than a few months, in between the regular monsoons. But the current drought, said to be the worst in decades, is the outcome of global warming. A continued increase in Indian Ocean temperatures is beginning to affect monsoon patterns in South Asia.[ii] Failed monsoons resulting in long periods of drought; short spells of extremely-intense rain causing unprecedented floods and landslides – that was what Sri Lanka experienced in 2016; and that might be the shape of our foreseeable future, weather-wise. If so, the drought is likely to be not a distant memory but a living reality for a significant percentage of Lankans when the time comes for the next round of presidential and parliamentary elections.

Disaster Politics

Close to one million – that is the number of drought-affected Lankans in immediate need of food assistance, according to an assessment carried out jointly by the government and the UN. Of these, 80,000 men, women and children are in need ‘urgent life-saving support’.[iii] The numbers of drought-affected Lankans are likely to increase in the coming months, especially if the monsoons fail to become active (as was the case last year), and drought is transformed from a seasonal phenomenon to a fact of daily life.

The drought has already affected all nine provinces and 23 of the 25 districts of the country and his is pushing people into adopting ‘coping strategies’ with devastating medium-to- long-term consequences, such as taking children out of school and selling livelihood assets[iv]. If monsoons continue to fail and the affected are not provided with adequate assistance, assetlessness will spread in farming communities and rural poverty will increase. In a few years, the country might witness a surge of internally displaced, driven away from their lands and their homes by drought and its myriad consequences ranging from poverty to land degradation and the depletion of ground water.

In 2016, Sri Lanka’s rainfall was 23% less than the average rainfall for the three previous decades.[v] Consequently cultivation levels fell to a record low. For example, of the 800,000 acres of paddy land, only 300,000 acres were planted last year.

Harvest failures and resultant income losses are causing a worrying hike in rural indebtedness. Over 60% of drought-affected Lankans are said to be in debt, each to the tune of US$1,200[vi]; at the current exchange rate this is about Rs.250,000, a massive sum most of the debtors won’t be able to repay if monsoons and harvests continue to fail. A medium-to-long-term debt relief programme is another urgent necessity which is neither being acknowledged nor addressed by the government.

Even the generally tone-deaf IMF seems more aware of the systemic consequences of the drought than Lankan politicians. “A more prolonged drought could raise food and oil imports with adverse impact on growth, inflation and the balance of payment,” IMF mission chief Jaewoo Lee reportedly warned[vii].

The IMF might be concerned about the economic effects of the drought, but the Finance Ministry remains in a state of infantile sanguinity. The Ministry has reportedly predicted that the drought will not affect the budget deficit[viii]. There’s no better proof that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has begun to see the world through Rajapaksa glasses.

The IMF, having compelled the government to implement a VAT increase, has warned of its inflationary effects. The warning, though hypocritical, is accurate; inflationary pressure is building up and is likely to reach a new high if monsoons fail in 2017. This is likely to exacerbate another worrying consequence of the drought – a tendency on the part of the affected people to eat less, quantitatively and less well, qualitatively.

The overall prospect is a worrying one: increases in rural poverty, landlessness and unemployment, in school-dropout rates, malnutrition and diseases; generation of village and area level civil conflicts over water and other depleted resources; eventually the creation of internal climate-refugees.

Juxtapose this with another tendency: of Colombo experiencing 160% increase in super rich over the next decade, a hike second only to that of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.[ix]

A society in which a tiny minority wallows in riches while a large majority is plagued by absolute or relative poverty and economic uncertainty is not a healthy society. Such a society is vulnerable to civil and systemic instability and to anti-democratic and extremist impulses. These are all horrors Sri Lanka had known in the past. The challenge is to ensure that they don’t become a part of the country’s future.

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[i] http://www.ft.lk/article/602050/Vehicle-bonanza-for-select-MPs

[ii] http://roar.lk/environment-wildlife/the-indian-ocean-climate-change-and-failing-monsoons/

[iii] https://www.irinnews.org/news/2017/03/06/exclusive-drought-leaves-80000-sri-lankans-need-%E2%80%9Clife-saving%E2%80%9D-food-aid

[iv] https://www.irinnews.org/news/2017/03/06/exclusive-drought-leaves-80000-sri-lankans-need-%E2%80%9Clife-saving%E2%80%9D-food-aid

[v] http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/01/drought-could-cost-sri-lanka-billions/

[vi] https://www.irinnews.org/news/2017/03/06/exclusive-drought-leaves-80000-sri-lankans-need-%E2%80%9Clife-saving%E2%80%9D-food-aid

[vii] Daily Mirror – 8.3.2017

[viii] http://www.nasdaq.com/article/sri-lankas-drought-wont-hit-budget-deficit-finance-minister-says-20170303-00559

[ix] http://www.dailynews.lk/2017/03/07/business/109638/colombo-ho-chi-minh-city-see-160-growth-super-rich-class