February ended as a month of discontent for the public after the government raised power tariffs for a second time on February 15. It was said to be the last of 15 conditions to be met for the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Extended Fund Facility (EFF) of $2.9 billion. But the uncertainties over the EFF are not over as the IMF is yet to receive assurance from China as India and the Paris Club have done. China has offered only a two-year moratorium on its debts.
Opposition SJB MP and economist Dr Harsha De Silva, while strongly condemning the raising of power tariffs for a second time, said Sri Lanka could technically still receive IMF support. He said it can be done through Lending into Official Arrears Policy (LOAP) with support from the US, if 50% of debtors have agreed to restructure their facilities. He suggested that if loans from the China Development Bank can be moved under commercial loans instead of bilateral loans, this could be achieved.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe speaking at various forums has focused on economic recovery. While addressing a Rotary gathering on February 18, he emphasised the importance of economic recovery and improving citizens quality of life. He said democracy depends on the maintenance of public order which requires law and order. Following the country’s economic recovery, next year it would be able to decide on the future it wants, with the use of the ballot (italics added), clearly indicating he was against the LG election.
Addressing Tax Forum 2023 on February 21, he strongly defended the current tax policy, as a rescue operation and not a normal tax policy. If the policy is disrupted, Sri Lanka will not be able to join the IMF programme and lose the opportunity to do business with foreign countries.
The President is applying his masterly skills at obfuscation to handle questions on the long overdue LG elections. The election scheduled for March 9 stands postponed as the Election Commission had been facing a number of structural and financial issues to conduct the elections. The air has been thick for the last two months with questions on LG elections from all sides, ranging from semi literate politicians, sensationalising paparazzi, sanctimonious but erudite civil society leaders and sermonising do-gooders who shun responsibility.
The President’s speech on the LG election issue in parliament on February 23 is an eloquent example of obfuscation. He said “There is no election to be postponed. I have so far not got into this debate on elections as I kept out of it on the grounds that I will not get involved in politics. However, today, we hear the Election Commission will inform Courts that the election cannot be held since an affidavit has been submitted. I will speak on it, as otherwise it will be unfair on the part of the Treasury Secretary. The Commission has been informed by the Treasury Secretary that they are unable to provide necessary funds to conduct the elections. That is not true. It was I who first informed the Election Commission in December that due to the economic situation, it was not possible to hold the elections.
President Wickremesinghe appears to be a votary of 50s British humourist Stephen Potter who authored Lifemanship series of books. In that era of self-help manuals of the Dale Carnegie variety, Potter focused on books with less exalted goals of survival issues like: “winning without actually cheating (Gamesmanship), “creative intimidation (One-Upmanship)”, and “making the other man feel that something has gone wrong however slightly” (“Lifemanship”). The President seems to be using all the ploys of Potter to confuse the nation reeling under unmanageable price rise of daily necessities. Obfuscation is the erudite man’s quibbling in action. Oxford Languages explains it as “the action of making something obscure, unclear or unintelligible, when confronted with sharp questions they resort to obfuscation.”
Successful politicians develop their skills at the art of obfuscation to difficult questions from the paparazzi, awkward questions from the informed audience and perhaps, to handle embarrassing moments with their girlfriends. If there is an award for obfuscation in politics, President Wickremesinghe will win a platinum award. Perhaps, he can’t be faulted for it because probably that came, when he earned the President’s chair without a popular mandate after a severe drubbing in the general elections.
But time may be running out for such gamesmanship, if we go by the mood of the people in the thousands who had gathered in protest in Colombo on February 26. The National People’s Power (NPP) led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) held a massive protest against the postponement of the LG elections by the government in Colombo. NPP and JVP leaders including MP Anura Kumar Dissanayake and NPP MP Vijitha Herath had joined the protest. Prior to the protest, magistrate courts concerned had issued orders preventing the protests. Orders were also issued against 26 persons including Dissanayake from marching towards Galle Face Green and the Presidential Secretariat. When the protestors gathered in strength and wanted to march towards Colombo Fort area they were stopped by the police. Meanwhile, reinforcements of police in riot gear and army personnel joined the police.
Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the restive crowd which were shouting anti-Wickremesinghe slogans. In the melee that followed more than 20 persons were hospitalised. One of the NPP candidates for LG election who was hospitalised succumbed to his injuries. Police action in crushing the public protest has been condemned by civil society and even political parties not supporting the NPP-JVP combine.
Meanwhile 15 unions of the Ceylon Electricity Board employees are already protesting against the structural changes and tariff revisions. Trade unions of several sectors are scheduled to go on strike on March 1 against the recently introduced tax policy. Meanwhile, President Wickremesinghe has signed a gazette notification declaring several services related to ports, airports and passenger transport services as essential services.
Clearly the President faces Hobson’s choice.
Tailpiece: Resurrection of Prabhakaran on February 13, 2023, Tamil nationalist movement leader Pazha Nedumaran resurrected the ghost of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader who was slain on May 19, 2009 towards the end of the Eelam War. The aging former Congress leader from Tamil Nādu claimed Prabhakaran was still alive and would appear in public shortly. He said the LTTE leader was “hale and robust” and urged the Tamil people to rally behind him. The news failed to animate anyone.