By Kumar David –
Unless one is a head in the sand ostrich it is possible to discern the contours of the emerging 2020 landscape. I am no soothsayer and know predictions go awry, but when a configuration is taking shape one is obliged to sketch it. I am aware that protagonists on both sides will challenge me, alleging I am biased against their side; I have faced this in many conversations. By sides I mean what you may call government supporters of various hues (green, purple, pink), on one side, and on the other Gota-Mahinda, the Joint Opposition (JO), BBS etc. The former include Tamils and Muslims to a man (notwithstanding Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe a civilian version of Gota) and most Catholics (notwithstanding MR fan Malcolm Ranjith). Instinctively, everyone is hostile to inconvenient truths about their side but upon reflection most people, I think, will concede that what I say is more right than wrong.
At this point in time I see the most likely scenario in 2020 as rather a mess; a stable presidency and a parliamentary working majority for either side seem unlikely. The purpose of this piece is to set up a pendulum which we can recalibrate from time to time. The corner stones of my thesis are grouped into four; the first is Public Perceptions.
- The big gain of January 8 2015, the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR), ended rights violations, authoritarianism, white-vans, unhampered abuse of power and corruption. This victory I continue to salute even as I fault the government on other things. This core achievement remains in place.*
- Corruption continues but government supporters say it is not as bad as before. Others ask. “Have we exchanged Basil for Mahendran?” The big picture on corruption seems not as bad.
- Is governance somewhat better? Well not having Mervyn, Namal, Bandula, Wimal and such scoundrels is a blessing. But what the heck, this is a pretty low hurdle!
- Is governance somewhat worse? The government is not in control – strikes, stoppages, doctors shifting from Hippocratic to hypocritical oaths and inciting student mobs. Ranil and Sirisena are seen as a weak-kneed duumvirate, humiliated at every turn, whose writ runs nowhere. The GMOA for one has got Sirisena cringing like a whipped puppy. MR would have imposed an emergency on the health sector by now; I am noting the difference, not making a suggestion.
[* I may have to eat my words. After this piece was drafted Wijeyadasa panicked Lakshan Dias into fleeing the country (dbsjeyaraj.com); Gnanasara is running free again; we had the fusillade from Asgiriya].
If you ask me to grade the government on this set of considerations I will give it 50% where 40% is the pass mark. How will the electorate grade it in 2020? I think 40 to 50%.
Constitution and stability
The second group relates to Constitution, Stability and minority concerns.
- Ranil and Sirisena have successfully reached a modus vivendi giving each other space and recognition. The relationship is stable; the effort of the plotters in the Rajapaksa kennel to drive a wedge has come to naught. It is obvious the UNP-SLFP contract will be renewed in December and it is likely that the coalition will run its full parliamentary term as neither dare pull out.
- Nobody knows what will become of the new constitution – nobody includes Ranil and Sirisena! If you are irate at being in the dark, spare a sigh for our dear directionless leaders. Sirisena is foresworn to repeal the executive presidency, what’s holding him back? Why all this talk of options (retain exec pres, semi exec pres, powers and selection PM)? Murky waters run deep. His reluctance to issue firm instructions to ‘Throw out the exec pres’, is, to say the least, curious. Does he harbour residual ambitions for after 2020?
- Primitive provisions on religiosity and language will stay in place. Lanka is culturally too backward for secularism and pluralism. The native hoi-polloi will rejoice and the UNP, SLFP, JO, Dead-Left, JHU, JVP, the entire bunch, will collect votes. This one is a zero sum game.
- Unitary, unified, united, univocal and uniflow verbal gymnastics will be retained to fool the aforesaid hoi-polloi. How about: Sri Lanka will be unitary, unified, devolved and decentralised! My contempt for constipated nationalists and religious quacks shouldn’t surprise you.
We can’t see this early the electorate’s response in 2020 to whatever constitutional jack rabbit is pulled out of the hat. Furthermore there is the dilemma of a constitutional referendum and its outcome. Come hell come high water Tamils and Muslims will shun anything with MR or Gota odour. Politicos in the south will all hedge their bets and play Sinhala-Buddhism, so we can safely conclude the constitution will not be a significant swing factor in moving Sinhalese votes.
Inability to bring villains to justice
The third item is prosecuting and convicting scoundrels, and law and order in general.
- The overwhelming public perception, justifiable or otherwise, is that that this administration has failed to prosecute and punish rogues, abusers and murders of the Rajapaksa era. Come 2020 this will be a damning indictment in the eyes of the electorate. Last minute convictions will leave a taste not of justice but victimisation.
- Law-and-order under the aegis of this administration is judged negatively by the public at large. Police, prosecutors, prison authorities and the machinery of state are seen as ambivalent, disloyal or incompetent. The Joint Opposition has an effective fifth column within the state at large.
The inveterate teacher in me wants to assign a grade to the government on these points. That grade, I am afraid, is Fail. I think the 2020 electorate will concur.
The final consideration is the Economy, by far the most important. This is not the place for analysis; that needs a whole essay and I have done it before. What I should do here is to judge to what degree the government’s plusses and minuses on the economy will help or hinder its re-election. However I cannot plunge in without a few comments on policy and absence of policy.
It is clear the government does not have a functional economic orientation. What is less clear, but more important, is why. Think-tanks, business and financial supplements in the press, conventional economists, columnists and bourgeois pundits bray a monologue. Encourage foreign investors, let the private sector lead, offer tax breaks to capital (the rich), export-orient, be coherent, pragmatic, effective, consistent and committed – wow these guys have access to a fine thesaurus. The secret cipher word is reforms, code for easy firing, slashing employment protection, axing welfare, and sinking the share of the economic pie to the less well off. Do these pundits imagine that Ranil’s old style, like themselves, team – Charita, Eraj, Paki, Harsha and 2xFinance Ministers – is not committed hook line and sinker to just this? Sure the SLFP Ministers know as much about economics as I know about knitting stockings but this is not the decisive obstacle though some policy U-turns are attributable to conflicts in the political milieu
The barrier lies elsewhere. Why is traditional economic policy not getting anywhere? That’s the question. It is not working not for want of effort, but due to a negative global and domestic environment. Global capital is reluctant to invest in production not only in Lanka but everywhere, its heartlands as well; the post-2008 syndrome lingers. (Finance capital and e-marketing is a different game). Lanka’s domestic seeni-bola capitalists are not gung-ho about investing in production and employment creating ventures – with a few exceptions. Local capital has no dynamism at this juncture. If the much canvassed tax and anti-labour concessions are granted, the response will be: dunnama kannang, kala duwannang. It is not that capital, foreign and local, is not offered a fair break, it is that for well understood reasons it won’t take it. Liberal-bourgeois economics is in the driving seat but getting nowhere. Does anyone in his right mind imagine that a government with an economic programme further to the right of this UNP-led one will materialise? No ways.
There is an alternative to neoliberalism, a state-led dirigisme strategy mimicking South Korea and Deng. I suspect Ranil sees it but is powerless because the mindset of his team is stuck in stone-age. (I am puzzled why the two November 2016 planning Bills never saw the light of day in parliament). Increasing exports, disposing of some SOEs, targeting debt and above all increasing output, all this is in everybody’s workbook. How to get it done? State negotiated trade agreements with China, Singapore, and India (ECTA), government underwritten or directed joint-ventures etc. can bring quick results. Technical education and technology parks are imperative for productivity enhancement in the long term.
I must cut this digression into policy-space and get back to my theme. What are the prospects that between now and 2020 the UNP-SLFP alliance will have sufficient economic accomplishments under its belt to persuade the electorate that it deserves a second term? The frank answer is prospects aren’t good. I don’t see much coming to fruition in the next two years.
At the same time it is astounding that the Joint Opposition, Gota-MR and GL’s funny party all have no economic programme whatsoever! This will be forcefully driven into the public mind in 2020.
Love and hate of the Rajapaksas
The government’s strongest suit is that MR and Gota more so, are poison to minorities, liberals, democrats and non-dead leftists. Eighty percent of minorities plus a third of Sinhala-Buddhists is a shade over 45% nationally. On the other side there is a core Sinhala nationalist war-victory inebriated lobby embracing the opposition. Unless the Rajapaksa clan’s butts are firmly parked in the cooler, up to 60% of Sinhala-Buddhists (40% nationally) will stay loyal. This is a ceiling near impossible for the JO to crack since it is denied the use and abuse of state power. Its only hope is a three cornered fight; not impossible.
It seems the 15% swing-voter is king.
My storyline is a projection of visible trends; perhaps a bit linear. The factor I have omitted for want of space is foreign influence, which will, China included, oppose a Gota-MR ticket. Readers, I hope, see a rational thread in the flow of ideas in this essay. It gravitates towards the view that year 2020 will bring uncertainty, possibly a hung parliament, very likely a disoriented president and a muddle. We do live in interesting times, don’t we?