By Rajan Philips –
The country has barely escaped from the burden of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour. It is now facing the threat of newer vistas – the vistas of Social Market Economy, courtesy of the new President, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Gota-Ranil transition may have been all smooth and seamless at the summit, but down in the troughs it is all the same turmoil and travails. After securing his election as President with 134 votes on July 20, Ranil Wickremesinghe would seem to have succeeded in getting all MPs on board with the exception of the three JVP MPs. It is a different story outside parliament and despite the appearances of calm, the gulf between the people and parliament has gotten wider after Gota flew away and Ranil took over.
All due credit to the JVP for standing on principle, but in politics as in life people seem to instinctively follow Omar Khayyam to “take the cash and let the credit go!” Ranil Wickremesinghe and the JVP were partners in yahapalanaya and he used the JVP well, especially getting it to undertake a decoy 20th Amendment for abolishing the presidency to serve his own political ends. He let it go nowhere. Now he wants to take the country everywhere. And he has neither time nor use anymore for the JVP and its principles.
Delivering his maiden presidential speech in parliament on Wednesday, August 3, the President made sweeping promises including a 25-year economic plan and a People’s Assembly to formulate and implement fundamental political and constitutional reforms. And of all it to be done “during my tenure!” For a 73 year old who became a substitute president through a parliamentary vote, Wickremesinghe is acting like a young president with a landslide majority directly from the people. Days after his maiden speech in parliament, the President was out talking again, this time before a captive audience assembled by the Advocata Institute, elaborating on the vistas and virtues of a Social Market Economy for the beleaguered country.
No time for Vistas or Pied Piper
There’s nothing wrong with vistas. Politics is never without “grand ambitions and sweeping vistas,” to recall Trotsky’s felicitous phrase, but it is also, and more often than not, “the art of the possible,” in Bismarck’s practical take. Now is the time of the impossible for Sri Lanka, and not the time for vistas. The people are in no mood for it. No body can do anything if the people were to rise in revolt if the IMF relief takes more months and essential supplies stop coming, but the President has no business to play the Pied Piper when people are helplessly hurting.
The people are anxious about the next two days, two weeks, and at most two months. Not 25 years! The President and his whole government, whether all-party, multi-party or no-party, should be concerned about the fuel supply and other essential supplies, and not some social market economy which can be a past time if and when that luxury can be afforded. While the fuel crisis is acknowledged as the worst of all crises, no one in the government has come out and explained why the Sapugaskanda refinery is continuing to be kept out of operations when it has the capacity to deliver 43% of the country’s fuel requirements. According to CPC Engineers the refinery has capacity to meet 100% of the kerosene requirement, nearly 30% of diesel, 16% of petrol, and close to 10% of LP gas. It could also meet the requirements of the Kelanitissa and Sapugaskanda power plants.
Curtailing and stopping the refinery operations is another Gota-era, and technically ill-advised, blunder. The foreign exchange shortage is no excuse, because with the refinery closed the country has to import 100% of its refined petroleum requirements and not 57%. Even when it comes to importing the refined products, it is not clear why the Gota-government moved away from the traditional petroleum suppliers and opted for spot purchasing. The six largest suppliers are UAE, Singapore, India, South Africa, Maldives and Malaysia. While supplies from India have been continuing, no one hears anything about any arrangement with the other five suppliers. One would think that the traditional suppliers would be more reliable and affordable than new spot sources.
President Wickremesinghe has been running the show for three months, from the time he became Prime Minister, and it is a fair question to ask if any short term fuel supply plan has been developed other than reacting in fits and starts. Privatizing the CPC cannot be done overnight and it is not the immediate solution to the current crisis. Nor are the vistas of a social market economy. Even the negotiations with IMF are now not expected to be concluded before the end of the year. What is the government’s immediate ‘bridging’ arrangement going to be? Hardly the time for social market economy vistas.
On the political and constitutional side, the President seems to be taking the same 25-year economic planning approach and wants to introduce “a comprehensive series of political reforms,” with the promise that “I will carry out those reforms during my tenure. However, not based on my own opinion, but with the consent of the Parliament based on the views of the youth, women and other people.”
What tenure? Gota’s tenure that ends in 2024, or a new term following a new presidential election? There is more with the President “taking measures to establish a People’s Assembly in order to decide which social and political reforms should be implemented. A mechanism to obtain views of all interested parties is being prepared through the People’s Assembly through the consultation of political parties, various organizations etc,. I specially invite the youth engaged in activism and youth who are not to provide their views.”
A people’s assembly? When people are standing in queues to get their basic needs? It would seem that the President is spreading his canvas for too wide when neither he nor the country has the resources to do all at once. And he seems to be setting himself up for the long haul at the age of 73. Is the country ready for it? Better, does the country deserve it? That is the question. Rajapaksas failed because they were clueless about what needed to be done, and reckless in doing what should never have been done. In President Wickremesinghe, the country might be having the opposite problem. Wanting to do too much, with too few resources and with too little immediate planning. The country needs a soft landing with predictable supplies, and not a leap without looking from one vista to another.