By Ameer Ali –
“… I must warn the Honourable Members of this House: let’s stop pretending, let’s stop fooling the people or attempting to fool the people … You make a fundamental change – bring a new constitution, don’t pretend, don’t lie to the people and try to make the people fools”. ~ (M.A. Sumanthiran, M.P)
When aragalaya was launched in March 2022, the protesting youth came out with two specific and complementary messages. One was directed mainly at the intelligentsia and policy makers to remind them that there need to be a radical systemic change and not finetuning of the current system so that the country could be pulled out of its multiple crises; and the other was to inform the voting public that the sitting 225 members in the parliament are incapable of effecting that change and that voters should elect a new team of legislators mandated afresh to bring about that change. The first message was also a virtual vote of no confidence on the existing constitution that legitimizes a type of political governance based on ethno-religious nationalism and a model of economic management accountable to no one. The entire system was designed by a generation of leaders whose hearts were not in the development of the country and its people as a whole, but on the development of themselves and the community and clan to which they belonged. To the aragalaya rebels on the other hand, who belong to a technocentric, apolitical and a-sectarian generation of globally connected young men and women, that system of governance and model of economic management has to be uprooted and a new system need to be put in place. Hence, their twin demands.
Disappointingly however, the political changes that aragalaya provoked i.e., from the resignation of Prime Minister MR on 9 May 2022 to passing of the 22nd Amendment on 21st October, had sent a counter message or response to the rebels that the 225 would remain at least until the end of their term and continue to guard and strengthen the existing system with cosmetic changes to the constitution. Sumanthiran’s memorable words quoted above, endorses that message. The solitary maverick who voted against the motion did not want even that cosmetic change, while some of his colleagues who were vociferous in opposing that bill, finally decided not to make fools of themselves and showed their approval by absenting from voting. They must have realized that there was nothing substantial in that amendment to reduce the powers of the executive president. What a farcical drama, which actually ended in hardening the system rather than changing it? Yet, there are a few who argue that despite its flaws 22A was a victory for democracy. On the contrary, it was a victory for RW’s political chicanery. With all the tinkering, the constitution has left the Executive Presidency virtually as powerful as it was meant to be. The public has been fooled once again, and as the French writer Jean-Baptiste Karr wrote, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.
Having got the amendment approved with two-thirds majority and got his powers virtually intact, RW has obviously won another feather on his cap, adding to his popularity. He will now focus his attention on the economy, which unfortunately cannot be won with the same two-thirds majority. To comply with IMF conditions, personal income tax, corporate tax, VAT, tax on export crops and a few others are expected to be introduced or increased in the 2023 budget. But the main problem with these taxes is not their punishing rates but their capacity to raise the expected revenue so that budget deficit could be reduced.
Laxity in tax administration is a perennial problem in the country, and RW has not said anything so far on how to improve its efficiency. The latest scandal about politicians, businesspersons, and dignitaries getting caught to a fraudulent investment scheme involving hundreds of millions of dollars, operated by an “erotic queen”, raises the question as to how these victims were able to amass so much financial wealth and whether that wealth was net earnings after meeting their tax obligations to the state. In a system where corruption has become so endemic, tax revenue will fall far short of the expected total. Doesn’t this itself call for systemic change?
Moreover, the impact of some of these taxes like corporate tax and tax on exports would be detrimental to foreign investment and export competitiveness. There are reports already that some companies with foreign affiliation are planning to shift their operation to other countries, and the popular apparel industry is reported to have frozen intake of new workers. These are not good news for economic revival, let alone transforming the country to an export-oriented mini miracle. Therefore, to overcome the negatives in foreign exchange earnings, RW will have no alternative but to go for a new round of loans with IMF certification, which means the debt burden would continue for another couple of decades at least.
IMF initiated reforms are not going to change a political culture that thrives on ethnonationalist divisions, corruption, nepotism and injustice. When the supreme court itself swings like a pendulum, as described by Sumanthiran, and meet out justice in a manner reflecting the wishes of the ones holding political power, what justice could people expect from those occupying its bench?
The demand for systemic change is more than an isolated and romantic cry from a bunch of upper and middle-class youth, as some had tried to denigrate it. It is an intergenerational struggle reflecting not only the changing demographics of the time, which is universal, but also a growing awareness among the youth of this country that the “polycrisis” facing the nation is the product of a pernicious ideology of divide and rule. A history of deliberate discrimination against certain sections of the population had deprived the country of incalculable intellectual, social and entrepreneurial capital. That same ideology manufactured a system of governance, which over the years had denuded democracy of its inner strength and produced instead a kakistocracy thriving on economic crimes without any accountability. RW’s silence about accountability to such crimes committed in recent past and by certain sitting members of parliament shows that he does not want to topple the apple cart. This is why aragalaya has to resume. The planned multi-sectoral demonstration in Colombo November 2nd may herald its resumption.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia