By Dayan Jayatilleka –
An explosion is not always a good thing. But it is not always preventable. Sometimes an explosion cannot be predicted but sometimes it can. Often an explosion is not inevitable but that does not mean it isn’t likely or even probable. In any country, these factors would cause a social upheaval. In Sri Lanka, a country of much unrest and violence, an explosion is almost certainly on the way. I do not wish it, nor will I exult over it, but I can see that it is on the way.
It will be a social explosion caused by economic crisis and public frustration, but made probable by political factors. Those political factors will not be to do with the Opposition but entirely with the government.
The coming social explosion will be caused by the economic meltdown combined with the mismatch between the economic crisis and the political response to that crisis.
We are talking politics when we should be talking economics. Just look at the facts. The rupee is at its lowest ever in relation to the dollar. The economic growth rate is the lowest in 16 years (back when Ranil was PM in 2002). The stock market has flat-lined.
Dreadful as these are they are only signs and symptom of a terminal economic illness that has set in under this government. Each of these factors will breed secondary ailments. The concatenation of these fundamental factors will set off a chain reaction that blows a hole in the very foundations of the economy and below the waterline of the government.
The government does not seem to care either because it is preoccupied with its internal political discontents or because the PM hopes to use the crisis to sell off national assets such as the Trincomalee oil tanks and the Port, Mattala airport and the Colombo East jetty, thereby getting some cash and giving foreign powers a stake in keeping him in power.
This won’t work because each of these steps is so controversial that it will rip the government to shreds in in-fighting and even generate dissent within the governing parties. A giant sell-off will also cause a trade union backlash. A grand sale will further deny the government social legitimacy due to the public perception of rampant de-nationalization and foreignization. All of this will be fuel for the firestorm to come.
As a (second generation) student of foreign affairs and a former practitioner, but above all as a member of the Vietnam generation, I am acutely familiar with the phenomenon of governments that get into wars which are unwinnable and are too blind or boxed in, to develop an exit strategy. Luckily for the USA, Dr. Henry Kissinger knew that Vietnam needed an exit strategy and was appointed to implement the task by a President, Richard Nixon, who was a supreme realist.
This government is in an unwinnable war in the political, economic and electoral senses. The only sensible thing to do would be to recognize that and develop a political exit strategy which can avert a conflagration. However there is no faction in this faction-ridden government and its supportive intelligentsia that recognizes this. This absence of moderate realism is itself a symptom of the terminal nature of the government’s crisis.
This faction-ridden government contains hardliners who think that it would be both possible and prudent to jail its political opponents, especially Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the potential candidate with the most formidable narrative and bearer of the greatest public expectations. Such incarceration itself will radicalize the inevitable public response to the crisis and shape the nature of the successor regime.
Then there are those others in government who think that the present leader of the UNP actually has a chance at winning next year’s election. A simple public opinion poll could put them right. The same goes for the President. As he has proven (Jan 2015), he is not intrinsically unelectable but he has been keeping the wrong company and is in the wrong company—indeed the very worst possible. This was something I told him in December 2014 and went on to remind him of publicly over a year ago. How can the PM or President even think of running for the highest office when their respective parties which enjoy governmental power, cannot even mobilize a march on May Day, one year away from the Presidential election?
Let us return to economics or rather the nexus between politics and economics. There are steps that can be taken to stabilize the economy which is in a tailspin, but this government lacks the social legitimacy to take them. Any attempt to administer bitter medicine and the public will vomit it out violently, all over the government.
There are several obstacles to economic stability and recovery. Firstly, the economic elite and the economic policy elite– the upper crust of the corporate community and the economic bureaucracy– which should be ringing the alarm bells and demanding an election so a new, freshly legitimized government can stabilize the situation, is not doing so because it is culturally, personally, socially, politically and ideologically comfortable with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe whose profile and policies are causing the crisis. The macro-economy’s discomfort zone is their social comfort zone and their social comfort zone is the macro-economy’s discomfort zone.
The socioeconomic elite will have to make the hard choice between the continuity of the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration on the one hand, and macro-economic stability and recovery on the other. The former is not the prerequisite of the latter; indeed it is the main impediment to the latter. It is a zero-sum game. The socioeconomic elite is swallowing poison while mistaking it for the antidote!
Secondly, the policy measures that are taken in the name of economic stability are actually ideologically driven rather than reality driven. These measures will not bring economic stability because they will only exacerbate social and political instability. There can be no economic stability which is not at the same time, politically and socially stabilizing.
The economic time bomb is ticking because the economic necessity of a new, legitimized, popular government runs up against the attempt to entrench this government in office, persecute its opponents and win an unwinnable election. It is as if there is only one way to turn in order that the economy survive but the politicians in office are turning in exactly the opposite direction.
The avoidance of an explosion requires that the safety-valves be opened up soon. Instead, the government is taking the risky path of postponing the Provincial Council elections scheduled for the third quarter of this year. With the mounting economic crisis as backdrop, the dysfunctions of a frozen Provincial Council system, added to the discontent that could have been released safely but instead will be pent up, make an explosion far more probable.
The Government is living dangerously, on borrowed time, but doesn’t know it. Either the politics shifts to accommodate the economic imperatives, which means an early parliamentary election to stabilize the situation, or the economic crisis or social upheaval will blast a path open for a new government. If early national elections are not held, there will be a social revolution either before or the morning after the inevitable election of late next year.
As Mahinda Rajapaksa is fond of saying, after this upcoming Vesak Poya, there is only one more Vesak Poya that the people have to suffer this government. I have chipped in, that it’s only one more Avurudu too. But can the economy survive that long?