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“Bernard, I have served 11 governments in the past 30 years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel, and of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I’d have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I would have been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a Grammar School preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac. But above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic.” Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes Minister

At a time when everyone is taking a stand on everything, abstentions only show that you don’t want to take a stand on anything. The SJB, the country’s main opposition, chose to abstain from the vote on the IMF deal. Dayan Jayatilleka’s take on the decision, which SJB MPs justify on the grounds that the deal was not presented properly to parliament, is by far the best: by abstaining, the SJB copped out and by copping out it essentially deprived itself of the best opportunity since May 9, 2022, to consolidate its parliamentary position. That it did not do so, that it chose to duck, only showed how divided it is.

Certain SJB MPs claim to be opposed to the process through which the IMF deal has been finalised. But, as Dr. Jayatilleka pointed out, there was and is a direct link between IMF conditionalities and the authoritarian nature of the government. The latter seems hellbent on imposing austerity at any price, and the electorate are, if somewhat mutedly, reacting against that tendency. Had the SJB taken a stand, they could have conveyed a message to voters; they could have indicated that they were of one mind regarding the IMF deal, that they could only support it if it had been linked to a verifiable promise of holding elections later this year or early next. By abstaining, they merely betrayed their inability to interpret these developments properly, to come to a consensus on them.

Other parties took a much clearer stand. The JVP, the Freedom People’s Congress and the Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya all voted against it. Only the SLPP and the UNP voted in favour. Most minority parties, perhaps signalling their lack of commitment to anything which does not directly impinge on minority issues, kept away. It is possible that some ruling party MPs are trying to insulate themselves from the backlash that will accompany the implementation of IMF reforms. The SLPP in that sense appeared slightly divided, with Sarath Weerasekera and Namal Rajapaksa abstaining. Against such a backdrop, it is significant to recall that, in the 1990s, when the then government passed one reform deal after another, several ruling party MPs chose to abstain as well. Among them was Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Of course, with all due respect to Rajapaksa père and fils, there is a difference between a ruling party MP abstaining and an opposition party abstaining from a crucial vote. In the 1990s Mahinda Rajapaksa was a side-lined and marginalised centre left populist who had been condemned to the backbenches. Like Dudley Senanayake at the end of the Kotelawala government, he chose to dissent silently rather than going all out against his party. Unlike MPs who crossed over to the UNP, he did not question his party; merely its right-wing tilt. In other words, he bid his time. It is doubtful whether his son is following the same path today. But the reasoning seems clear. Namal Rajapaksa is a prince in waiting and he cannot garner the support his presidential uncle lost his family by voting with the SLPP on deals that can, even in the short term, general mass hostility.

The SJB does not have this excuse. It cannot afford the luxury of abstention.

In Dante’s Hell, the souls debarred from entering heaven or hell are of those people who, at a time of moral crisis, chose not to take sides and instead feigned neutralism.

Does the SJB want to take this path? There is a moral dimension to these issues. The IMF deal has been finalised. The government cannot backtrack on it. The question, then, is not whether we should go ahead with the deal – the Rajapaksa government already answered that question when it chose to resort to the IMF a year or so ago – but whether the present regime has taken every possible, necessary step to safeguard the vulnerable from the shocks which are bound to follow the enforcement of IMF conditions.

It is perfectly possible, even within the ideological limits of the SJB, which has always been of two or three minds regarding the IMF, to approve of the IMF deal per se while voting against the deal vetted and finalised by the government.

While the ruling party typically votes for such deals to emphasise its control, its dominance, its hegemony, fringe parties vote against them to emphasise their opposition to that hegemony. This is Politics 101 and in the context of IMF deals that have the potential of mass oppositional resistance and mobilisation, it is incredible that the SJB, which in the past has organised demonstrations against austerity, failed to take a clear stand on it. But this is incredible only if you ignore or set aside the SJB’s co-option by right-wing elements, that is the economic mainstream, represented by not just political parties, but also economic think tanks and civil society circles. Their influence has been sufficiently dominant to distract a mainstream oppositional outfit from engaging in its task of opposing or boycotting government deals. This is, to say the least, highly worrying.

Worrying because it shows how jaundiced the economic establishment and civil society elite are with respect to IMF reforms. Civil society, or at least a big chunk of it, is opposed to the government. Yet they are not necessarily opposed to the IMF reforms, at least not in the same way that the political left, including the JVP-NPP and the ULS, are. This represents a colossal failure. It betrays an inability to reconcile the government’s austerity overdrive with the tenor of IMF conditionalities or the link between the unpopular nature of those conditionalities and the authoritarian character of the government.

This is something even writers and commentators known for their liberal views often gloss over. Here, for instance, is Tisaranee Gunasekara: “During the three months of Aragalaya, the Opposition had ample time to study what the Rajapaksas got wrong and come up with a common minimum programme of corrective regeneration. The Opposition failed in that task. The only one with any workable plan happened to be Ranil Wickremesinghe. While the SJB was promising to end fuel queues via the generosity of the Middle East, the Wickremesinghe administration worked on the QR system. While the JVP was promising to end the dollar shortage via donations from comrades domiciled abroad, the Wickremesinghe administration promoted tourism and wooed foreign remittances. Ranil Wickremesinghe still remains the president because he ended the soothsayer-economics of the Rajapaksas.”

Ms. Gunasekara’s basic assumption, that what saved President Wickremesinghe was his decision to turn away from the Rajapaksas’ economic policies is only half correct. What President Wickremesinghe enabled – which is perfectly predictable and is in keeping with what has unfolded in other countries facing similar crises – was a shift to the right. The Rajapaksas had already enabled this shift in mid 2022. The Wickremesinghe administration merely fast tracked it. One cannot fault either administration for facilitating such a shift: such responses from the state, though objectionable, can only be expected. One can, however, fault writers for misreading it as a benign move on the part of the present regime to correct the policy errors of its predecessor. There is nothing benign in one government descending to the right and its successor completing that descent. Besides, the so-called “soothsayer-economics” of the Rajapaksas is no different to the neoliberal concoctions of the present.

Like certain SJB MPs, the likes of Ms. Gunasekara do not seem to be aware that the debate over IMF reforms and the debate over the government’s handling of protesters are perceived as one and the same. She seems to be of two minds regarding the government in general and President Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular. The latter, of course, is busy consolidating his position. He should not be censured or condemned for that; it is what presidents do. But in the face of such Machiavellian moves, it is inexcusable for opposition parties to feign neutralism. Let me bring up an analogy: the claim made by some SJB MPs that by abstaining from the vote the party actually opposed the IMF deal is no different to the Rajapaksa government’s silly and incredible assertion that Sri Lanka had support from most countries at the UNHRC, even those that abstained, in 2021. Back then the SJB rightly called out on the government’s reasoning. I think it’s only fair to call out on the SJB’s reasoning now.