By Kumar David –
Less than three months ago on 19 June (“Ranil: A SWOT Appraisal”) I offered readers an evaluation of the future that beckons then Prime Minister now President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW). It is a sign of how quickly events move that I have to repeat the exercise so soon. If you track the Sunday Island, daily Island or other English language papers you will be familiar with what columnists are saying. For my purposes today the Home Page of Colombo Telegraph (CT) is more convenient. With one click you gain access to a large number of titles and with another click reach any of them. Of the 20+ currently on offer here are the 12 most hostile to RW. I have omitted author names because debate about specific opinions is not my purpose; it is the trend that I want you to observe. These 12 pieces see RW as dangerous and a threat to democracy and describe the economic prospects facing his Administration as hopeless.
People understandably are very angry about RW’s inordinate use of force to beat up protestors the moment he was sworn in as president. It provoked me to call him ‘Batalanda Ranil’ in my columns. Also see a damning 2015 report by Dharman Wickremaratne in Lankaweb. (Obviously I cannot vouch for it).
Ranil was complicit in the notorious Batalanda torture chamber, furthermore Prime Minister Premadasa had knowledge and permitted the functioning of dozens of torture sites across the country.
The Research Directorate of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in its joint website with the UNHRC reports as follows: “The Batalanda Commission report that was submitted to President Chandrika on 27 March 1997 found the police Counter Subversive Unit (CSU) headed by (Douglas) Peiris “directly responsible” for the torture carried out at the semi-unofficial detention centre at Batalanda Housing Scheme. The report also found that Wickramasinghe knew of the centre’s existence”.
More recently a hard-hitting piece, titled “President Wickremesinghe’s first step was to inflict violence on protestors” appeared on 23 July in this US website jurist.org/news. It said: “RW made public declarations supporting people’s protest before being appointed Acting President under Rajapaksa and advised officials not to interfere or use force against protestors at ‘GotaGoGama’. Contrary to his words, his action on becoming President speaks volumes about his character. …. As the days progress the people of Lanka and the world wait to see whether he will reign through terror and hinder democracy”.
I have pulled out these three pieces to show why so many people fear that RW may go from bad to worse. The CT titles I listed convey the impression that most correspondents believe that RW is still a threat. However, I think they are not tracking trends. Good heavens I am not asking you to whitewash RW in the democracy department! Victor Ivan has done it for inexplicable reasons (and what’s the socio-economic programme which Ivan says the two of them have cooked up?) Nevertheless, we must evaluate trends as they progress. The reason I am undertaking a follow-up SWOT analysis is because I see a dynamic at work.
SWOT denotes Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The rest of this essay is how I see RW’s options shaping-up in the coming months. He has been attacked mercilessly by domestic opinion (trade unions, liberals, the left, churches, temples, the media, the diplomatic community in Colombo) as well as global human rights groups and world public opinion. The military option, the Kamal, Army Silva, Sarath Weerasekara, STF, murder-with-impunity and tiger-behind-every-cadjan-fence fairy tales, are dead for now. The Emergency will be allowed to lapse, PTA watered down, Tamil diaspora given some space and the RTI Commission, Transparency and civil society will gain some strength. RW is plastered to the wall and prevented from violating democratic rights. For how long? Maybe for long; he has no way of reincarnating a Batalanda avatar any time soon. Supporters will market this as a virtue, a return of the prodigal to godliness and peddle it as a Strength. The business community will buy it.
Secondly RW’s performance evaluation depends on two more factors; (a) can he sell belt-tightening to the people as unavoidable for say two years and a necessary measure on the road to economic recovery, and (b) how will any alliance he cobbles together perform at an election within a few months. Let’s not speculate beyond that in these fast-changing times. Even aragalaya militants grant that there will be hard times ahead on the economic front, their debate is about where the burden should fall. Only Lanka’s Mad Monetary Theorists (new style MMTs) say ‘switch on the printing press 24/7, flood the pockets of the poor with crisp new notes and let the middle-classes and businesses go fly a kite’. People know inflation, they have suffered at the receiving end for nine months and they can perceive what hyperinflation will do. Let’s watch the December budget for real indicators.
People are not stupid; they know that even if the Son of God is made president, substantial price inflation will persist. Were Sajith, Anura Kumara or some SLPP-Rajapaksa coot to say “Make me president in place of Ranil; I will bring down prices fast and Lanka will flow with milk and honey” he will be greeted with shrieks of derision. The gist of what I am saying is this: Price inflation and a slow economy will not kill RW if an election were to be conducted within a few months. People know that not much is possible pronto. The IMF and global capitalism prefer Ranil to Sajith, AKD or a Rajapaksa-coot. Western capitalism and India will nudge external economics (debt restructuring and procurement of fuel) in directions that will help RW survive and be re-elected. I am saying that global capitalism wants Ranil and will assist him in subtle and not so subtle ways: this I guess is obvious to most people.
In SWOT terminology this counts as an Opportunity and if RW plays his cards smartly a Strength. What then in my view is the most significant Weakness facing RW at this time? Without doubt it is that till the dissolution of Parliament he is a slave of pro-government and SLPP Members of Parliament and thence a retainer of the Rajapaksa Clan (Mahinda, Basil and Gotha’s residual killers in Defence Ministry, military and the ex-Tripoli Market unit). Only after Parliament is dissolved can RW, if he has the guts, jettison the SLPP flotsam. Recollections of Rajapaksa linkages will be RW’s biggest electoral bugbear.
How will RW perform at an election held within a few months? A crucial caution is what will be the stance of Sajith and the SJB? I cannot imagine the SJB’s intelligent heavyweights going to the polls without some type of alliance with the formal UNP – that is without ‘going back home’. The SBJ despite numerate persons like Eran (the clearest minded and most articulate), Harsha and Kabir cannot, by itself, present a credible national alternative, sans an alliance with the grand old party. Furthermore, a Sajith-Ranil union will do less well in urban areas than a Ranil-Sajith alliance; the converse is true in non-urban electorates. The SJB can outperform the UNP only in city areas and districts with a heavy minority (Ceylon Tamil, Muslim and Up-Country) presence, but only if a credible minority candidate splits the vote.
Far wiser men than I have busted their savings taking bets about elections so I am not going to say anything other than the obvious regarding an election which may be held within months. Obviously the SLPP, all pro-government contraptions, the nine-party circus, the twelve strong GL, Dullas Alahapperuma outfit and the Wimal-Udaya-Vasu comedy would all have been erased in toto in a first-past-the-post contest. In the proportional representation system, the whole lot together may win a dozen or two dozen seats. The electorate will shun anything tainted by Rajapaksa Robbery. Ditto for pissu Sira’s SLFP.
Last month’s Budget is bandage; it plasters over Basil’s preposterous crap. The real McCoy will be the one-year Budget due in December. Government, Central Bank, Treasury and RW’s inner circle will have to line up with the IMF’s stipulations. The IMF $2.9 billion pitch (Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has approved the Staff Level agreement), not verbatim but conscientiously abbreviated is as follows:
“Raise revenue to support fiscal consolidation from one of the lowest revenue levels in the world. The programme must make major tax reforms; income tax more aggressive, broaden corporate tax and VAT and reach a primary surplus of 2.3% of GDP by 2024. Introduce cost-recovery based pricing for fuel and electricity to minimize fiscal risks from state-owned enterprises. The IMF welcomes the already announced substantial revenue measures and energy pricing reforms. Mitigate impact of the crisis on the poor and vulnerable by raising social spending, improving the coverage and targeting safety net programmes. Restore price stability through data-driven monetary policy, phasing out monetary fiscal financing and a stronger central bank. Pursue flexible inflation targeting. A new Central Bank Act is a cornerstone of this. Rebuild foreign reserves through a market-determined and flexible exchange rate. Safeguard financial stability by ensuring a well-capitalised banking system. Reduce corruption, improve fiscal transparency, public finance management and the anti-corruption legal framework”.
This is the liberal-bourgeois, post neo-liberal rationale, and I alerted my regular to most of it during the last three months well before the Central Bank, RW or the Treasury mentioned the inevitability of a dual exchange rate, floating rupee, relaxed currency controls to entice money-market funds and FDI, fiscal reform and above all significant belt-tightening. If Lanka aligns with Western capitalism and the IMF and restores a liberal bourgeois state these changes will flow naturally. As for RW now licking the wounds of his July 23 fiasco, this is a destiny that aligns with his inherited class palate.