By Ameer Ali –
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Independence Day address to the nation, in spite of widespread opposition for spending millions of rupees on a celebration while millions of households are finding it onerous to feed themselves, is significant more for what it left unsaid than said. It looks to be a hastily prepared appeal to the people to allow his regime completes its term of office without “disruptions” from “anarchist political forces”. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand what he meant by those three words in view of the rising popularity of JVP/NPP. The “disruptions” of course relate to the scheduled Local Government Elections (LGE).
There were three pivotal subjects crowded the President’s address. First, the dire state of the economy and the importance of implementing the IMF reform agenda in full, which by implication would include the 2023 budget; second, the need to achieve national unity by resolving the so-called national question by implementing the controversial 13th Amendment; and third, the imperative of “system change”, which in his words referred only to “corrupt political factionalism that deceives people, pushing them further into poverty and making them further dependent”. All three subjects seem to have been put together to make a fourth subject left unsaid. And that was the issue of either cancelling or postponing LGE.
All three subjects need critical scrutiny. The dire state of the economy is public knowledge, and the chances of improving the situation even of the IMF program is applied in full is doubtful because of a looming global economic downturn. However, the economy and controversy over the 13th Amendment gained momentum after the Indian Minister for Foreign Relations Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited the country with a fistful of initiatives to help Sri Lanka’s revival. Apart from those initiatives, it was India’s financing assurances to IMF that quickened the pace of debt restructuring efforts by members of the Paris Club and the Bondholder Group. China too offered a two-year moratorium without participating in debt restructuring, which IMF felt inadequate and made RW to contact China for more assurance. These developments, although somewhat encouraging, have still not expedited the release of IMF’s $2.9 billion without which the other $5 billion expected from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and other sources would also be delayed. This delay would mean deeper acute exchange crisis, worsening living standard and pushing back further any chances of economic revival. Hence the need for time and patience without disrupting the reform process becomes crucial. This was the essence of RW’s address to the nation. The link between the disruption he meant and LGE was left to be understood.
Unlike the economic agenda the issue of the 13th Amendment seems to be a bold and shrewd move with a sinister motive. In bringing that issue to the fore RW has cleverly shifted the onus of its implementation to the parliament. After all, that Amendment is in the statute book since 1987. He now wants the parliament either to implement it fully or reject it by passing another motion. If the parliament agrees to implement, then RW would no doubt add a feather to his cap and become a national hero with international plaudits for solving an issue that had been at the root of many problems including the current crisis. But some parliamentarians seem to be cleverer than the president and they have shifted the responsibility on to the people. Already, the usual suspects including Buddhist prelates are blowing the horn to whip up patriotic feelings and preaching that the implementation would end up dividing the country. Provoking this reaction seems to be the ulterior motive of RW for pushing that issue to the front at this point of time. If this issue becomes hotter and cause even a mini riot that would be an excuse good enough to postpone the LGE. Like the Easter bombing in 2018, which helped the former president to win his election, a communal disturbance could help thus president’s continuation.
The subject of system change was included more with an intention to appease the youth than out of genuine conviction. Had RW been serious in his commitment for system change he should have at least taken some action as soon his Justice Minister revealed that a staggering sum of $53billion had leaked through the system and stacked away in foreign destinations, while the treasury is bankrupt and government is negotiating to restructure a $51 billion debt to foreigners. Isn’t this one of the paradoxes of the current system? Similarly, how does one rationalize another paradox where the system allows an ex-president begging the public for contributions to pay his Rs.100 million fine imposed by the courts for dereliction of duty, while he is found to be sitting on an estimated wealth of more than $14 million? Did RW take any action to show his commitment to change the system and its political culture? This is why his reference to system change is nothing but political opportunism.
Really speaking, system change involves a fundamental change in the ideology of the country’s political culture and method of governance. That change has to start with a new constitution and out all the opposition political parties and coalitions only JVP/NPP has committed to make that happen. What RW is trying with his IMF blessed One Plan Framework (OPF) is to keep the system and culture intact while repairing some of the damages caused by them. RW’s new economic and social reform agenda with objectives to causing first a recovery and then a renewed development seems to assume that such a fundamental transformation would be the byproduct of his economic Valhalla.
In summary, the entire address had a hidden message and that was to appeal to the people to allow RW and the parliamentary mob that put him on his pedestal to continue translating into action the IMF agenda and his OPF. The forthcoming LGE is threatening that prospect. The next few weeks would decide the fate of that election.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia