By Rajan Philips –
On the scale of election excitement, the upcoming August 5 elections is more like the July 1960 election than any other past election. In 1960, following a hard-fought March election six months after the assassination of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, the people were tired of going to the polls for a second time in four months. Today there is more political fatigue than election excitement. There is also abundance of caution on account of the coronavirus. Thank God, there are no wingnuts in Sri Lanka like in the southern states of the US, not to mention the White House, insisting on their freedom to court infection. The virus is not letting them down. And Europe is not letting them in. Sri Lankans have been smart and voluntarily complied with a national curfew despite its dubious legality and highhanded policing.
Politically, for most people in Sri Lanka, there is nothing much to expect from a new parliament. And quite a few among them will not bother even if there is no parliament, old or new. If parliament has come to be so easily dispensable, why carry the burden of Provincial Councils? Except, you need the former to get rid of the latter. Just as the country is being advised that it needs the Prime Minister to “do the politics”, for the President to “do the work.” A new separation of powers between siblings at the summit, no less.
With the opposition parties still trying find a firm footing for their campaigns, whatever political curiosity that is out there is all focused on the election moves of the President and the Prime Minister. The President has admonished that his photograph should not be used by candidates of the Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Peramuna (SLNPP) the governing alliance led by the Rajapaksa political wagon, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). His office has also directed that those in the security forces, government service, Corporations, Boards and Statutory Bodies should not engage in political activities.
Media reports speculating whether the President is distancing himself from the election campaign are also indicating that it is the Prime Minister who is leading the SLNPP campaign. And the Prime Minister reportedly clarified the arrangement at the top, at a public rally in Kurunegala. “He told me, the Prime Minister said of the President, “aiya, I will do the work, you do the politics.” So far, so good.
The first sign of stress will likely come from the Election Commissioner if he has to intervene to enforce the President’s directive barring government officials from election activities, against the Prime Minister’s henchmen in public offices who are not used to sitting on their hands during election times. Another occasion for stress could arise if SLNPP candidates and campaigners try to cut corners and run around social distancing and other Covid-19 restrictions.
The sure-fire political stress will come when the President’s work and the PM’s politics invariably overlap, and even collide, especially before the elections. It is more likely, even certain, that politics will prevail over work before the elections. Equally likely, the President’s work will suffer after the elections because of the PM’s politics during the elections. There are three critical areas where politics and work are likely to collide during the campaign: the much maligned Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC); the Economy that is in tatters; and the Constitution that can be left alone.
WikiLeaks and MCC
The patriotic fuss over Millennium Challenge Compact is an unnecessary headache that the SLPP and the government have created for themselves. New WikiLeaks information, published by Colombo Telegraph, on diplomatic cables sent to Washington by US Ambassadors (Jeffery J. Lunstead and Robert O. Blake) in Colombo between March 2005 and January 2008 indicates that three prominent figures in the current government and administration, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Presidential Secretary PB Jayasundera, and Advisor without portfolio Ajith Nivard Cabraal were also the lead participants for Sri Lanka in the discussions with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, in 2005 and 2006. Those discussions focused on obtaining grant funding for potential projects in three areas: rural irrigation and agriculture; roads; and small and medium enterprise promotion.
We do not know the detailed extent to which specific projects were developed, but there is no question that the Government of Sri Lanka, first under President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005), and later under President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006) were very keen to secure MCC funding for development projects especially in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami disaster. We now learn from the diplomatic cable sent by Ambassador Blake on January 14, 2008, twelve days after the Sri Lankan government “decided to abrogate the CFA (Ceasefire Agreement)” on January 2, that “in December 2007, the Board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation removed Sri Lanka as a country eligible for MCC lending for 2008.” The cancellation of Sri Lanka’s eligibility status was one among a number of measures taken by the US to signal its “displeasure” at “the escalating violence and growing human rights problems” in Sri Lanka.
How and when the MCC’s decision was conveyed to the Government of Sri Lanka is not known. And as far as I know, no one from the Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) who worked on the MCC initiative, or from the post-2015 Wickremesinghe-Samaraweera partnership that secured the current MCC grant agreement, has made it known that the MCC initiative was unilaterally ended by the Americans in December 2007. Nor do we know if the unilateral rejection by the Americans in 2007 is the reason why the Rajapaksa brothers are opposed to the current MCC agreement. If that were so, it would be a politically understandable reason, but they should be forthright in saying so. It would be economically indefensible, however, as it will be akin to the Sri Lankan government, out of some patriotic pique, terminating trade with the European Union because during the war the EU unilaterally suspended the preferential (GSP) privilege given to imports from Sri Lanka.
What is more puzzling is the silence of Mahinda Rajapaksa, PB Jayasundera and Nivard Cabraal who vigorously pursued MCC grant funding in 2005 and 2006. No one is suggesting that they should be making public statements now, but there is not even hearsay about any internal attempt to impress on the President that even if it is not politically acceptable to endorse the MCC agreement negotiated by the Wickremesinghe-Samaraweera partnership, there is no point in throwing the whole baby worth $480 M with the duo’s bathwater. The MR-PBJ-ANC troika could have advised Gotabaya Rajapaksa, first as candidate and later as President, to inform the people and the American government that the new Rajapaksa government would seek specific changes to the current Agreement, or even negotiate a new Agreement.
Mr. Cabraal, seemingly responding to Wikileaks information, has fired off a denial of some alleged insinuation that “the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government was ready to enter into a Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation that was detrimental to Sri Lanka.” But he does not say anything about the US government’s unilateral removal of Sri Lanka’s eligibility for MCC grant in December 2007. Nor does he say anything about the new Gotabaya Rajapaksa government entering into a new MCC agreement, except to religiously assert that the old “Mahinda Rajapaksa Government would have NEVER agreed to any conditions that would have put our country at any risk whatsoever.” Be that as it may.
Port City Game
It is also not clear whether or not the SLPP is playing the same game that Ranil Wickremesinghe played so well with the Chinese and the people of Sri Lanka over Colombo’s Port City development. Needless to say, from engineering and environmental standpoints, the Transport and Land projects identified in the MCC agreement will have greater benefit/cost ratios and minor externalities in comparison to the Port City project. Technically, it would be a tough sell for the current government to remove the Transport project from any new MCC Agreement that it might pursue. Even the Land project (which btw is not 30% but 16% of the grant amount) is not some Trojan horse, but a long overdue initiative that is consistent with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s repeated directives to digitise the land registry system.
If indeed it is the Port City game that is being played now, the SLPP leadership should have held the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila on a tight leash on election platforms. And it was a mistake to entrust impractical economic sovereignists to carryout a review of the MCC agreement. Ranil Wickremesinghe is right on the mark in calling the experts committee report, “useless,” and devoid of “anything substantial.” To put it polemically, the experts’ report is expertly useless and insubstantial for Executive decision making. In another breaking news, at the time of writing, the President has given his Ministers a take home exam – to study the Presidential Committee’s report and submit their views to him within seven days. What next? A straw poll at cabinet?
The fact that the government is still not prepared to officially announce that it is not going to sign the agreement can only mean that it is looking for a way out of the hole that it has dug itself into. Isn’t it getting curious that Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena would take a call from the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but doesn’t want to tell the country that he duly informed Mr. Pompeo that the Sri Lankan government will not be signing the MCC agreement? Mr. Gunawardena has nothing to say to the country because he said nothing to the Secretary.
For Mr. Pompeo and the Trump Administration, hopelessly stuck in the worst foreign policy record for any American government, getting an agreement with Sri Lanka would be a tiny feather in a badly crushed cap. President Rajapaksa could also claim that as the new head of a new Sri Lankan government, he could reach a new agreement with the American Administration which is not the same Administration that unilaterally terminated the MCC negotiation in December 2007. Whichever way the government wants to pivot, giving the political explanation to the people is best left for Prime Minister Rajapaksa. Wimal Weerawansa has apparently told the media that he would “not spend another day in this government” if it signed the MCC agreement. There cannot be a more positive incentive for the government to sign the agreement.
As for the economy and the constitution, they are not the friendliest of bedfellows. Embarking on constitutional changes will be a massive distraction to the urgent and the total attention that the economy demands of the government at the present time. But the government seems to be gung ho about the constitution and less so about the economy. While the economy doesn’t need a two-thirds majority in parliament, or even a simple majority in crisis times such as now, constitutional changes will require a two-thirds majority in good times and in bad times, and even more – a referendum for certain changes.
And while the constitution is all about politics, the economy will need dedicated work. Does this mean the division of labour at the summit will result in the constitution being looked after by the Prime Minister, and the President minding the economy? Such a separation of powers and functions will not be without problems, because the President is only the head of the cabinet while its entire trunk resides in parliament. And the Prime Minister is also the Finance Minister.
The campaign for a two-thirds majority may not catch fire if the economy is not fired back to some semblance of pre-Covid normalcy. Asking the people for a two-third majority when they are hurting without jobs and without income, may prove to be counter productive. At the least, it will be prudent for the government to assure the people that it will not initiate constitutional changes until the economy turns around. That might be a long wait, even the entirety of the presidential first term, given how things are. People will not tolerate if government leaders were to suggest that the country needs a new constitution to sustain the economy.