Tisaranee Gunasekara

Truss’s U-turn and Rajapaksa’s Downturn

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“In a year of scarcity…Louis XV was hunting, as usual, in the forest of Sénart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired… ‘For a man or a woman? A man. What did he die of? Hunger’.” – Jules Michelet (Historical view of the French Revolution)

On the sharp edge of the precipice, the UK halted, reversing back to relative safety.

A massive tax cut was the showpiece of the mini-budget of PM Liz Truss and chancellor of exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. Reaction was immediate. Markets revolted. The pound crashed. The IMF issued the kind of rap-across-the-knuckles-statement it generally reserves for the Third World. The Bank of England pledged to buy UK government bonds worth 65 billion pounds (73 billion dollars) in a desperate attempt to reassure markets and save pension funds.

The prime minister and the chancellor of exchequer remained unmoved.

Then the Tory party’s dissent broke out into the open. With the annual party conference in session, more than a dozen MPs aired their disconcert in public. The naysayers included several Conservative grandees. Party chairman issued an implicit threat to deny nominations to those who would vote against the mini-budget. But the rebellion could not be staunched. Opinion polls showed that the tax cuts, especially reducing the top rate from 45% to 40%, and removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses were deeply unpopular with the electorate. More than half the voters wanted Liz Truss out.

Faced with the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the mini-budget and a general election, PM Truss backtracked. “We get it, we have listened,” said the chancellor of exchequer who had reportedly celebrated the tax cut at a champagne dinner with financiers. The worst was averted by throwing the most objectionable overboard – the slashing of the top tax rate. Democracy, and the dissent it enabled, saved the day.

Compare this with what didn’t happen in Sri Lanka when the Rajapaksas unveiled their own crazy tax cut. The objectors were few, the UNP and the JVP, some voices from civil society, international rating agencies. But from the ruling coalition, there was not a word of protest. Those who are now busy painting themselves in saviour-hues, from Dullas Alahapperuma, G.L. Peiris, and Charitha Herath to Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Maithripala Sirisena, were as silent as the dead.

Tory MP Damian Green said, “It’s a political no brainer that if we end up painting ourselves as the party of the rich and the party of the already successful, then, funnily enough, most people won’t vote for us and we lose,” (The Guardian – 3.10.2022). In Sri Lanka, the SLPP said nothing about the Rajapaksa-giveaway to the rich, because the Rajapaksas were the party of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The majority safely tethered with minority-phobia, the coming parliamentary election was as good as won.

The Rajapaksas could get away with manifestly disastrous policies for so long because they could count on the backing of a majority of the majority. Another key contributory factor was the absence of inner-party democracy, an autocratic plague common to all Lankan parties. There was also the bureaucracy’s entrenched habit of going along with politicians up to the precipice and beyond. In the absence of the necessary human factor, institutional guardrails became reduced to stage props.

A sovereign default and two popular uprisings later, very little seemed to have changed. The factors that pushed us down the precipice are impeding our puny efforts to crawl out of it, starting with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP.

Politics of hunger

Ranil Wickremesinghe began his premiership by telling the truth to the people about the country’s disastrous condition. That was perhaps his finest hour.

Today the opposite is happening. His ministers, Rajapaksa-acolytes to a man and a woman, have reverted to covering the soiled reality in clean linen. They deny the width and depth of hunger, of malnutrition, of poverty. Listening to them, a visiting Martian could be pardoned for thinking that nothing much ails this country. Most worryingly, even now, these know-nothing politicians can find bureaucrats to corroborate their lies.

This at a time when the FAO and the WHP have included Sri Lanka among the 48 countries identified as hunger hot spots. Recently the Health ministry rejected a UNICEF report on Denial not just covers up the problem. It removes the need to look for solutions, the duty and the responsibility to take action.

Sooriyawewa, that Rajapaksa pocket-borough, is currently in the crosshairs of a malnutrition spat. Medical professionals claim an 80% malnutrition rate. The SLPP part of the Government decry the statistic as calumny. In the meantime, in the Namadagaswewa Maha Vidyalaya in Sooriyawewa, the principal and the staff have set up a food bank to feed hungry children. Teachers bring an extra food packet or two daily and deposit in the bank; needy students withdraw the packets.

This innovative solution was possible because the staff noticed that many students fainted from hunger during school hours. If the staff went into denial, if they blamed the fainting on voluntary dieting or enemy action, the food bank would not have come into being; and increasing hunger would have resulted in mass dropouts.

We must acknowledge the abyss before we can escape it.

Denial is not just counterproductive. It is also stupid. You can lie about growth rates and foreign reserves. But you can’t convince the poor that they are rich or the hungry that their stomachs are full. Poverty and hunger can be hidden only from those who are neither poor nor hungry. And in Sri Lanka, that percentage is shrinking.

We are living in times of dissonance. The IMF chief has warned about people on the streets, again, a global problem. There’s nothing more dissonant than a small percentage of the populace living in the lap of luxury in a time of general want. In his tome on the French Revolution, historian Jules Michelet mentions that for centuries, observers were amazed at the patience of the French people, their acceptance of intolerable economic and political injustices. But there comes a day when even the most worm-like worm turns.

While denying the gravity of the economic crisis and the depth of public suffering, the SLPP is busy pushing for an expanded cabinet. They won the first round when President Wickremesinghe gave in and appointed 38 parasitic state ministers. If he expands the cabinet, he will fail the ‘smell test’ again and destroy his credibility, even among those who are grateful to him for ending fuel and gas queues.

More pertinently succumbing to Rajapaksa pressure will impede President Wickremesinghe’s capacity to implement his economic agenda, to the country’s detriment. After the appointment of that herd of state ministers, the Government has no moral right to talk about inefficient and overstaffed state sectors. Given the public funds squandered on maintaining this herd in a state of luxury, how can the people be asked to tighten their belts any further? The rot is already visible in a tendency to take the easy way out, eschewing the hard road out of the crisis, the one that will address the root causes, the one President Wickremesinghe keeps on referring to in his speeches. The reversion to a disproportionate dependence on indirect taxes and the abolishing of 15% interest rate on deposits by the elderly are cases in point.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone as the more extremist or simple-minded elements within the opposition insist. The ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ slogan may work as propaganda but it shouldn’t have become the basis of political analysis or strategising. For instance, if the opposition came to a short-term deal with President Wickremesinghe about a common political and economic program and a parliamentary election in 2023, the SLPP could have been deprived of their bargaining and blackmailing power. The Rajapaksas were able to make a comeback partly because the opposition and Wickremesinghe turned their guns on each other. Incidentally this comeback may be electoral as well, going by the SLPP’s huge wins at the Panadura and Gampola cooperative elections. The world provides other worrying examples. In Brazil, more than 43% voted for the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, bucking opinion polls, pushing the election into a second round.

When everything becomes reduced to survival, that very obsession threatens survival. The high security zone gazette fiasco could have been avoided with a little forethought. But the Rajapaksas are hooked on immediate gratification and their ethos is winning in government circles. In August, it looked like President Wickremesinghe with his economic sanity had the upper hand. By the end of September, he seems to be reduced to a voice in the margins, with the Government walking, talking, and smelling like the Rajapaksas.

In history, art can be omen. This year’s top winner at the Cannes film festival was ‘Triangle of Sadness’. A super luxury yacht filled with jetsetters is engulfed in a storm at sea. The turbulence outside creates an upheaval within. Power relations are upended, with a former cleaner gaining control. Real life is not that neat. The last may not become the first; cleaners may not win in the end. But the time before that revanchist end could become filled with violence, visceral and indiscriminate. The democratic narrative is undermined when injustice becomes entrenched. The virtues of stability and order sound hollow, when poverty and hunger overwhelm a populace.

Political illiberalism and economic neoliberalism: a lose-lose scenario

Tsering Dorje was an ordinary Tibetan man who discussed the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother on the phone. For that ‘crime’ he was detained for a month in a re-education facility by the Chinese authorities.

Re-education or rehabilitation centres sit ill with democracy. Irrespective of the name they masquerade under, these are Orwellian entities aimed at turning thinking citizens into mindless subjects.

After the high security zone gazette departed, in ignominy, came an attempt to set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation. Its targets, apart from the usual terrorists and extremists, would be drug addicts (turning drug dependence into a political crime) and ‘any other group or persons who require treatment and rehabilitation.’ Would the ‘persons who require treatment and rehabilitation’ include the thuggish son of state minister Prasanna Ranaweera? Or the ministerial goons who attacked petrol station attendants in Maharagama for refusing to violate the QR code? If not, why not?

The Bureau’s Governing council is to include the secretary of defence. The current holder of that title has a credible claim to the label extremism. At an October 2017 Viyath Maga confab in Gampaha, retired major general Kamal Gunaratna defined the backers of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft constitution as traitors who deserve death. They should be denied normal last rites as the JVP/DJV did to its victims during the second insurgency, he further stated.

Commenting on this pronouncement, Mangala Samarweera said, “We need not reply to filthy statements of racists, yet, I should voice the concerns of democracy-loving people who stand against the barking of those blood thirsty and power hungry political elements. If they can make such gory comments on a civil platform when they are out of power, people with some sense could imagine the crimes they had committed when they held ruling power.” To take his argument a step further, what kind of rehabilitation will such people implement if the Bureau of Rehabilitation becomes a reality?

Addressing a memorial meeting for Gowri Thavarasa, lawyer and human rights defender, the former director of CID Shani Abeysekara said, “I had produced so many before courts. But I understood what it meant only when I was produced before the courts”. When Abeysekara was persecuted by the Rajapaksas, he was saved by the commitment of civic-minded lawyers like Thavarasa and by a judicial system that retained the backbone. A functioning system of justice and an active civil society are protectors of the last resort for every one of us.

Whatever the faults of liberal-electoral democracy, it provides the best available protection – however inadequate – for the poor and powerless from the depredations of political and economic power-wielders. By keeping avenues of peaceful dissent open, it also functions as a proven safeguard against violent disorder and systemic instability. The UK may have escaped a fate partially similar to Sri Lanka because, unlike Sri Lanka, its electoral democracy is also quite liberal.

Instead of making the Lankan system more liberal, as he did during the 2015-19 period, President Wickremesinghe is initiating or permitting a return to the illiberal policies, practices, and ethos of the Rajapaksa era. By doing so, he is helping to stifle whatever corrective mechanisms and safety valves still exist. At a time a global economic and political storm is brewing, and more and more families are pushed below the poverty line nationally, this mix of political illiberalism and economic neo-liberalism cannot ensure order or save the Government (it can’t even maintain tourist arrivals; an outsized obsession with terror laws and repression is not a lure for tourists). By increasing societal alienation, it will just bring another day of reckoning closer, a more violent one.

Sri Lanka: Prelude to Elections

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“What are we supposed to do when the system consistently yields terrible candidates?”

Nanjala Nyabola (The Kenyan Kakistocracy – The Nation – 12.8.2022)

Most politicians have a questionable relationship with reality. The Rajapaksas operate in a reality that is all their own. Asked why brother Gotabaya fled the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa replied, “Who accuses him of fleeing? He went for a medical check up.”

So the SLPP, that quintessential Rajapaksa party, acts as if the recent popular uprising happened in a parallel universe. As poverty engulfs new swathes of population and malnutrition ravages the young, the SLPP is planning to present a cabinet paper authorising the payment of 117million rupees to favoured ex-officials (civilian and military) on the spurious grounds of political victimisation. This in a land where the main children’s hospital is making urgent appeals for orthopaedic surgical supplies.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa might be fleeing from country to country; his family has learnt nothing from his fate. Sons and nephews remain as clueless as fathers and uncles. Namal Rajapaksa sent a letter to the Minister of Environment recommending two names as CEO of a subsidiary of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, one a Pradesheeya Sabha member and former secretary to acolyte-politician DV Chanaka. (Ranil Wickremesinghe set up a committee to review and approve appointments and transfers in the upper bureaucracy probably in response.) When outrage ensued, the Rajapaksa scion clarified matters by explaining he gives such letters of recommendation frequently!

The SLPP has submitted a should-be-ministers list to the president. This roll call of favourites sounds (in most part) like the broader populace’s index of undesirables. (Whether President Wickremesinghe accedes to that request will say much about his ability to chart a path that bypasses some of the worst Rajapaksa excesses.) Unfortunately, if an election is held today, SLPP faithful will ensure that many on that list are back in parliament.

The SLPP will not gain a majority in the next election. But it won’t be wiped out either. The Rajapaksa family party is likely to command a significant minority with around 20% of the vote, especially if Mahinda Rajapaksa leads the campaign. The diehard Rajapaksa voters, the kind who sees a national threat in every Tamil and every Muslim (and Christian too), will vote for the SLPP to save the Motherland from these encroaching enemy-aliens. And their preference will go not to the least objectionable but to the most deplorable.  

Commenting on the upcoming US midterm polls, Senator Mitch McConnell warned that rival Democrats are likely to retain the senate due to ‘candidate quality’; the fringe-nature of Trump-approved Republican candidates may propel many moderates either to vote Democrat or abstain. In a first-past-the-post system moderate voters have a considerable say in deciding the winners. In a preferential vote system, it is the died-in-the-wool party faithful who determine who’s in and who’s out.

If the next Lankan election is held under the preferential vote system, many of the most unsavoury characters on both sides of the aisle will be re-elected. The kind that had other priorities on the day the parliament was to debate the state of the economy. The debate was cancelled for lack of a quorum with a majority of SLPP and SJB members busy elsewhere; this in February 2022 when the economy was freefalling and a sovereign default looming. Then again, given the abysmal quality  of the current parliament, the debate would have degenerated into a slanging match. It is hard to imagine a sober, well-informed, fact-based discussion of the economy or any other subject in this parliament.

Down with 225 is a popular cry. But we elected 196 of them. If the next election is held sans a change in the electoral system, we’ll be back ere long shouting, Down with 225!

This counter-meritocratic polity

Almost every job imaginable requires some basic qualification or skill set. Politician is perhaps the sole exception.

“The purpose of government is not to look after the gifted minority,” Eric Hobsbwam argued, but to care for the ‘ordinary run of people’. “Any society worth living in is one designed for them, not for the rich, the clever, the exceptional, although any society worth living in must provide room and scope for such minorities” (On History). In other words, a meritocracy which is committed to ensuring a liveable life to the ordinary majority.

Lankan system has been engineered and habituated to look after not the ordinary majority nor the gifted minority, but a supremely mediocre political caste and its business, professional, religious, and societal satellites. Ours is a counter-meritocracy where the worst own the earth (and pass it on to their progeny) while the better are forced to leave.

In our political culture brawn trumps brain and willingness to violate all norms of decency is a prized quality. The preferential vote system amplifies this twisted ethos. Non-partisan voters may decide which party wins how many seats, but who adorns those seats is decided mostly by the hardcore of each party, via preferences. And the hardcore of whatever hue prefer loud-mouths to sober minds, slavish loyalty to knowledge or capability.

Our elections are billion rupee affairs. The source of this money is as much of a mystery as how it is spent. Campaign finance is lawless territory. The resultant absence of limits, oversight and transparency has turned elections into corruption hotspots. Where do parties and candidates get their money? If the money is their own, how did they earn it? If the money is donated, who are the donors? What are their affiliations and interests? None of these are known, since there is no law to compel parties and candidates to reveal how they got and spent their money. All we have is the reasonable assumption that a donor would give a bunch of money only if the potential return is high enough.

Ending this dangerous opacity through the introduction of a campaign finance law before the next election will go some way in correcting the distortions inherent in our electoral system. A related priority is to change the electorate from district to constituency. As long as district remains the electorate, money, family connections, political and muscle power will play a disproportionate role in deciding winners.

A hybrid system which combines the positives of proportional representation and majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems might give moderate voters a greater say in electing our next lot of representatives. Incidentally, all professional politicians (including retired ones) should be banned from the national list which should be for people with knowledge and expertises. Such a hybrid system together with a campaign finance law could weed out some deplorables and reduce the oversized role money plays in our elections. If the opposition does not want to join an all party government, it can perhaps focus on electoral reforms and the abolition of the executive presidency in the six months between now and the earliest constitutionally possible date for a dissolution.

Given the enormity of the challenge we need parliamentarians who can think beyond the old shibboleths of the left and the right. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist, has been a harsh critic of the IMF for decades. But his stance has changed in response to the IMF’s own shift away from the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. He has praised the IMF’s 2022 agreement with Argentina for its non-insistence on austerity hoping it “may set a precedent for dealing with debt restructuring and financial crises” in other countries (Argentina and the IMF Turn Away From Austerity – Foreign Policy). In its official proclamation, the IMF stated that the Argentine deal included the government changing its spending priorities to accommodate “higher energy subsidies and appropriate social assistance to protect the vulnerable from the food price shock.”   

In this post-Washington Consensus climate, a deal with the IMF need not lead to austerity for the people. The choice of who tightens belts and how much will be made in Colombo. For instance, if the government hikes defence expenditure or re-embraces the failed infrastructure-led development model, budget deficit will be controlled by axing health, education and social welfare.

The ball is in the national court. Much will depend on whether the government can stand up to vested interests, be it politicians, business class, the military, monks, or state-sector trade unions. The role played by the first four in pushing through policies harmful to the national economy needs no belabouring. But the last might need a word of explanation.

The recent hike in electricity has been justly condemned for imposing a greater burden on low income consumers; the exception is the CEB. The hike might compel many old and new poor to lose access to electricity. But the CEB’s beef is that the hike is not high enough. It demands more rate-increases to reduce a 45billion annual loss while insisting on its right to bonuses.  If this is not a vested interest that works against common good, especially the good of the poorest of the poor, then what is it? Are state owned enterprises which burden the budget, and thereby ordinary people, national assets or national liabilities? 

An election sans electoral reforms, may land us where Lebanon is. There, no party got a majority, former PM is caretaker PM, politicians are trying to cobble alliances, and the president is busy promoting his son-in-law. The people suffer. Sounds familiar?

Motherland returns?

The brutal attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us again what obscenities the marriage of religion and politics spawns. As writer Adam Gopnik said, the attack “is horrific in the madness of its meaning and a reminder of the power of religious fanaticism to move people” (Salman Rushdie and the power of words – The New Yorker)

Religion and race played a decisive role in the 2019 and 2020 elections, and here we are. Minimising these deadly influences is necessary to ensure that the next election produces a parliament that is more moderate and more rational.

The unbanning of some Tamil Diaspora groups has created a hype among Rajapaksa supporters and other extremists. The Rajapaksas initially banned the Diaspora organisations in 2014, five years after the war ended, to shore up their waning Sinhala-Buddhist support. The ban was lifted by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015 and re-imposed by the Rajapaksas upon their return. The ban was always a political gimmick. Now it will be used by majoritarian extremists to raise the Undead Tiger in all its striped glory. The decision to sing the national anthem in Tamil at the upcoming 75th anniversary of Independence and the proposed return of some of the military-occupied lands to their original owners will be further grist to the Motherland-in-danger mill.

There are countless grounds on which the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency can be criticised, starting with the ongoing repression targeting Aragalaya activists, a practice even the courts have questioned. The inclusion of poet Ahnaf Jazeem in banned people’s list is both silly and dangerous. Using the PTA to clamp down on democratic dissent will create a deadly precedent (This abuse is the best argument for the abolition of the PTA). Rising inflation, non-appearance of the promised social security net, the continuation of corrupt practices such as giving chairpersons of dissolved provincial councils and their attendants thousands of litres of fuel – all are condemnable and should be condemned.

The SJB is currently not playing the race-religion card, but the advent of the Weerawansa-Gammanpila group and the Dulles Allahapperuma group into the oppositional space might change this. These grouplets are likely to use the Motherland cry out of necessity (to cut into the SLPP base), inclination or both. Even if they fail electorally, they will shift the political discourse to the extreme, making ethnic and religious racism fashionable again.

When Pope Francis visited Greece, a Greek-Orthodox priest called him a heretic. That charge would have led to a gruesome death by fire in most of Europe just a few hundred years ago. If that past seems not just another time but another universe, it was thanks to the work of Christians and Catholics who struggled for religious reforms and the secularisation of politics, often at the risk of their lives. It is the inadequacy of such struggles or their failure that creates spaces for fatwas against authors and their brutal implementation.

The Rajapaksas regained power by riding on the collective back of Sinhala-Buddhist monkhood. Their disastrous performance discredited religion-in-politics for a brief moment. Political religion regained credibility and relevance by changing its tune. It is now back in its self-appointed role as supreme guide in all matters secular, from politics to economics, from marriage to why girls are born (A monk called Mahamewunava Saddaseela preaches that daughters are born to parents as punishment for the sin of lying. He obviously lack the gray matter to understand that going by his own logic, if all Sinhala-Buddhists eschew lying, the race will become as extinct as dinosaurs in one generation).

In times of national distress, when a secular path towards political, economic, and social justice is absent, the door opens for political-religions. If the idea of common good cannot be pursued, society will fragment and into the resultant chasms irrationalism will creep. That is why in this interim time before the election, the more moderate parties should form an understanding about not giving nominations to clergy of any religion and keeping religious symbols out of politics in general and electoral politics in particular. Allowing extremism of any kind a role in politics will take us not to a better future but to the worst places in our past. Those who believed in the Kelani cobra are still with us.