By Ameer Ali –
The former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s (GR) authoritarian route to transform Sri Lanka into a Sinhala Buddhist paradise of “prosperity and splendour” ended in disaster. His policies to translate that dream to reality bankrupted the treasury, pauperised the economy, angered international community, led to social and political unrest, and left no alternative but for him to vacate the presidency and run away from the country.
Unlike GR who had no experience in politics, his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW), with forty-five years of that skill and parading himself as a liberal democrat quite knowledgeable in Western political and economic systems, promised to be the man, at least in the eyes of the ruling elite, who would repair the damage done by GR and take the country along the democratic path to achieve stability and growth. In fact, he was one of the earliest advocates to insist that the Rajapaksa regime should approach the IMF for economic advice and assistance while it was prevaricating on the advice of GR’s Viyathmaga experts. Recently, RW expressed his own vision to transform Sri Lanka into a dynamic export economy to achieve First World status by 2048. But the way he had started his presidential career reveals a different agenda. He is proving to be a wolf in sheepskin, ready to give up all democratic pretensions and follow the same authoritarian route as his predecessor. GR at least could claim that he had a mandate for his authoritarianism from 58 percent of voters who elected him to power, but RW has no such warrant and only the support from a majority of parliamentarians, which he claims to be enough to rule regardless until the end of 2024. This could turn out to be a dangerous gamble.
He has chosen the authoritarian alternative as a roulette to try his luck in surviving the aftermath of the seventeenth IMF designed economic program. RW is fully aware that the day-to-day life for a vast majority of people would become unendurably painful once the impact of that program starts biting into the real income of households. Given the predicted contraction of the economy by 8 percent this year and the food inflation rate reaching 82.5 percent last July – fifth highest in the world, it would be hard sell for RW to expect public support for the reform package. The shortened queues for cooking gas, diesel and petrol, and price reduction on a dozen consumer items retailed through Sathosa are temporary soothers before the price hike follows the implementation of IMF reforms.
It is to get full backing from the members of parliament that he is making a valiant effort to constitute an all-party Government with an expected 30 cabinet ministers and 40 regional ones so that some semblance of a national commitment could be manufactured to push through the reforms. However, Sri Lanka needs more than the IMF package. Implementation of those recommendations also require other pro-growth measures including a radical change in the corruption ridden and ethno-centric political and administrative culture of this country. It calls for a systemic change as encapsulated in aragalaya’s opposition against GR’s authoritarian alternate path to development. The aragalaya youth also understood that it is impossible to bring about such a change with the current 225 legislators in the parliament, majority of whom are beneficiaries of that rotten culture and would have no chance of returning to their seats once that culture is destroyed. It was the realization of this impossibility that underlined aragalaya’s “No 225” slogan. And it was their uncompromising stand on systemic change that awakened the nation and eventually brought an end to GR’s authoritarian route to nowhere. Disappointingly, the man who stood to benefit from aragalaya has now turned out to be GR’s doppelganger. He is shaping himself to be the unchallenged guardian of that fossilised system at least until 2030, according to his party secretary.
RW is fully aware of the predicament of majority of those 225 and that is why he is confident in commanding their support for his brand of authoritarianism. With that confidence and with backing from security forces, he is turning his attention to get rid of any opposition to his agenda. The indiscriminate use of the draconian PTA under GR’s presidency, which received the condemnation of a number of international agencies including UNHRC in Geneva, September last year, and hopefully would receive the same fate again this September, has been resorted to by RW to arrest, detain and even torture any protestor on trumped up charges of advocating militancy, inciting violence and intending to commit terrorism. It is no secret that RW carries a personal grudge against the aragalaya youth who he believes were responsible for burning down his private residence. His turpitude is shocking after he demonstrated support for their struggle before becoming president.
RW’s confidence in the authoritarian alternative to push through his economic agenda could be shattered by developments on two fronts. Firstly, aragalayers have not returned home but withdrawn from the metropolis voluntarily and regrouping in provinces trying to convert the struggle into a mass movement. Post-IMF economic pain would add enough ammunition to sharpen their criticism of the present system and its upholders. An unwritten alliance between aragalaya and NPP would strengthen opposition to RW’s hardline. Secondly, certain politically motivated decisions bound to provide sustenance to ethno-national elements that could undermine his authority. For example, his rejection of the One Country One Law Report submitted by the controversial Rev. Gnanasara, to appease the Muslim community and win the support of their parliamentarians; delisting of a few previously proscribed Tamil groups, with one eye on encouraging Tamil diaspora investment and the other on rallying the support of TNA and other Tamil leaders; and the recommendation in the proposed 21A constitutional amendment to prevent duel-citizenship holders becoming parliamentarians, which would immediately kill the political aspirations of Basil Rajapaksa, would certainly raise ire among Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists. The expected return of GR could provide an added boost to their morale and resolve and help create dissension within the pro-RW Rajapaksa camp.
Taking all this into consideration RW’s authoritarian alternative is going to create more problems than solutions to the ongoing agony, and how far would friendly nations like India and China continue to assist is also uncertain. Debt restructuring negotiation with China, which IMF insists, is also going to be tough. Almost 45 percent of national debt owes to China.
Given the economic constraints imposed by global uncertainties the time is ripe for a more radical solution. Rising interest rates, escalating inflation, natural disasters, and war-induced supply shortages are making life harder and budgeting a challenge to people and governments. Smaller and open economies like Sri Lanka would be the worst hit. Price controls, import restrictions, higher taxes and even privatization of SOEs, imposed with an iron fist, are measures to fine tune the existing paradigm which is breaking down at the seams. They are all bandage solutions to a life-threatening injury. This is why systemic change is becoming all the more imperative. RW is certainly not the leader to undertake it. The aragalaya youth and NPP are on the money.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia