Photo courtesy of Daily Mirror
In his latest column, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka criticises two economists for what he interprets to be a call for postponing presidential elections next year. Both economists, Dr Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Nimal Sanderatne, have not, to be sure, actually called for elections to be postponed or cancelled; they have only pointed out that economic imperatives tend to take a backseat when elections, particularly divisive elections, are around the corner. But such arguments can be, and often are, taken up by the stability brigade: those who believe, sincerely or otherwise, that the Wickremesinghe government’s policies should be continued at any cost because there is no viable, long term alternative.
In its latest press release on the country the IMF applauds the “remarkable resilience” of the Sri Lankan people and the “significant progress on important reforms” made by the government. There is a palpable disconnect between the two, however, and the IMF does not seem have realised that the people’s resilience has come at the exorbitant cost of various social indicators, including food security. It is in this light that one must critically view Dr. Coomaraswamy’s and Dr. Sanderatne’s statements. Although neither actually calls for elections to be postponed or cancelled – Dr. Sanderatne in fact admits that elections are “constitutionally mandatory” – their statements tend to be digested by a group who believe that nothing, not even elections, must stand in the way of the government’s reforms.
The neoliberal, pro-austerity right, of course, has valid reasons to fear elections although calling for their postponement would invariably generate a backlash. But elections are a gauge of people’s sentiments and any reforms imposed on people without accounting for their responses to them are bound to be reversed sooner or later. As things stand, there is a consensus within the right that there is no alternative. If there is no alternative, any party that cancels these reforms would plunge the country back into crisis. From such reasoning Colombo’s intellectual elites have framed a binary between economics and politics. But this binary is false and arbitrary and should be called out as such.
Despite my misgivings about the IMF’s agenda in the Global South, I see no reason why the neoliberal right should fear a cancellation or reversal of these reforms should a populist alliance comes to power. This is so for three reasons. First, we have given an undertaking to the IMF that we will implement their reforms. We have, to be sure, gone to the IMF some 16 times before and on all occasions we backtracked. But this time, it’s different; there is a broad consensus, even with the middle classes hit hard by austerity, that the government has no solutions beyond doing what IMF bids us to do. This is why people are more inclined to blame the government than the IMF and why we have yet to witness the kind of IMF demonstrations that are so common in Latin America.
Second, the opposition political parties themselves, which the neoliberal right fears may be populist now. But almost all of them have been penetrated by a section that believes there is no proper alternative to IMF reforms. Apart from the old left – the new left as epitomised by the JVP-NPP are still waiting on the fence – I have yet to come across a concrete critique of the IMF’s prescriptions from the opposition. The SJB’s leader may get up on stage and claim that he will subject the IMF agreement to scrutiny when he comes to power but there is a pro-IMF wing in the SJB that concurs with the neoliberal view of things. Most if not all Colombo based think tanks are eagerly batting for these reforms. And many of these MPs align with their thinking.
Third, and most important, an election could address the contradiction between the supposedly imperative nature of these economic reforms and their lack of popularity, thereby infusing some credibility. What pundits who applaud the government’s policies do not realise is that the government and the way it is enforcing these reforms have become unpopular. There is a way to tax people and there is a way to resolve budget deficits. The government seems determined to bleed the people dry and sell the family silver. This is amenable neither to the people nor to the regime. What we need is a soft reset and an election is the only way to achieve that. History can offer some lessons here. Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election in 1989 achieved a rupture with J.R. Jayewardene’s policies without letting go of the country’s ties to the IMF and World Bank. The current president served as Minister of Industries in that particular administration.
None of this is to say that we should unconditionally endorse the IMF’s agenda. As a number of left wing scholars and academics such as Devaka Gunawardena and Ahilan Kadirgamar have observed, the IMF itself is complicit in maintaining the fiction that there is no alternative to its hegemony. Devaka Gunawardena has noted, rightly, that despite their constant reference to the open economy, right wing economists seem “surprisingly oblivious” to the changes unfolding in the world today. Mainstream economists go as far as to question nonalignment on the basis that there is no room for such ideologies now. But multilateralism is the logical successor to nonalignment. What other future does Sri Lanka have than joining the trend towards multilateralism be it in Eurasia, East Asia or even Africa? Are we to use the IMF as an excuse not to bandwagon with and benefit from these developments?
Dr. Jayatilleka once called Susil Siriwardena a traitor to his class and an organic intellectual. The same can be said of a whole bunch of other intellectuals including Newton Gunasinghe. But there can be no organic intellectuals or traitors to the elite classes in mainstream and right wing circles. As of now, it’s this mainstream and the right wing establishment that dominates discussions on economic policy and political reform. The longer that status quo continues, the bigger the fissures beneath the surface are going to be. This is why calls for postponing or cancelling elections, however innocuously made, will not help the country or the people. Especially in the long term, by which I mean next year.