By Kumar David –
The two parties whose electoral prospects (Local Govt or Provincial) regarding which there is much curiosity are President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s (RW) UNP and the NPP/JVP. At this time, it does not seem likely that Sajith Premadasa’s SJB will encounter any spectacular change (maybe in the plus 10% to minus 20% range) and anything smeared with Rajapaksa faeces will be erased. Funnies like the Vasudeva-Gamanpilla and Tissa Vitarana cartoon strips are unlikely to make an impression unless that get into bed with some entity with a big dick. This leaves RW’s UNP and NPP/JVP as the targets of current curiosity. I have devoted about three or four of my articles to the NPP/JVP in recent weeks, so it is omitted except peripherally in today’s column, giving space to focus on RW. The infighting in Tamil politics and the street-fighing in the Muslim al-Hajj populated fudge parties will of course go on, but both have only marginal influence on who forms the next government.
I insisted throughout last year that whoever sorted out the long petrol queues would enjoy the political equivalent of the Christian “Life Everlasting”. Today one can hail a three-wheeler or taxi on the streets and the queues petrol partly are gone for a combination of reasons. Hence RW as the incumbent president will, even if grudgingly, enjoy some credit.
The economy will be the big factor deciding RW’s fate in the coming months . Let me jot down what the main trends look like at this time of writing. There are five points and most of these factors seem to denote a bit of an upturn for RW.
* The bourgeoisie and the upper-middle classes are of the view that RW is a better bet than Sajith or the pro-Rajapaksa horse dung – or so I reckon.
* 13A, RW’s consistency, the Tamil vote outside the N-E, and conversely rabid monks who are on the war path are the factors to bear in mind.
* Whether the NPP/JVP has the guts to stand against Sinhala-Buddhist extremism will be a big concern as I will explain.
* Somebody is gaming the economy; certainly, India if we take note of what the visiting Indian External Affairs Minister said on his visit about three weeks ago.
* The IMF certainly, and China possibly, want to stabilise Sri Lanka. All their humming and hawing notwithstanding eventually they will.
Let me elaborate point by point. Though I have lost many a bottle of Scotch taking election bets I am inclined to risk it again. There is little animation about Sajith in the minds of the better-off classes. At this moment therefore for these classes it is a two-horse race between the desired RW/UNP and the feared NPP/JVP. A factor that could change this is a showdown over 13A. The Mahanayakes have announced that they intend to mobilise the forces of Sinhala-Buddhism; red-necked reactionaries clad in saffron robes tried their luck with a march on Colombo last week. Ranil gives the impression that he is going to stick with 13A and India obviously will back it to the hilt. Malai Naatu Thamilar (Up country Tamils) will make their own decisions on the issue in time. Opinion in the West is that the time has come to scuttle extremism in Sri Lanka. The balance of forces to end racism is favourable and a stand along the lines adopted by Harini Amarasuriya can settle the score. She told the Island: “It is already in the Constitution and it should be implemented . . . we have a debate whether it is a tenable solution for the national problem (Why the vacillation?). We have no faith in other parties, only the NPP can do this”. Agreed.
I will now turn to the last two points which could be decisive – the course of the economy over the next say 24 months. India wants investment opportunities and the Trinco oil farm and is favourably inclined to stabilising SL. It also seems that the IMF and Western Powers have made up their minds to give Sri Lanka a break; that is an opportunity to come out of the quagmire without imposing horrendous costs. This has global implications. I have argued for some time in this column that the West, India and possibly China are not willing to let Sri Lankan economy collapse and more important let the country flop into anarchy. Why? As one of the few surviving post-colonial democracies this is absolutely impermissible. Giant India is another story. Malaysia and South Korea are off-again on-again democracies.
This however has multifaceted implications for this country because stabilising the Sri Lankan economy over the next say 18-24 months will, in the first instance, be favourable for the Ranil Wickremesinghe Presidency. The downside of this is that RW has an anti-democratic past; it is not without reason that he is known as Batalanda Ranil. He sent his military goons to crush Aragalaya activists who were asleep. I am aware of the cock-eyed demands of some Aragalaya activists such as the Frontline Socialists who demand that their programmes be accepted by the government even if they fail to win a single seat in Parliament! What planet do such loonies come from? But you do not send out your gorilla troops to batter and bash young people who are fast asleep!! And the Internet is replete with images of the lechery of Ranil’s bob-squeezing cops. No, Ranil’s way of doing things is bad for democracy.
Rape in times of war is now been classified as a war-crime – good! Those convicted of serious war-crimes at the Nuremburg and Tokyo War-Crimes Tribunals at the end of WW2 were executed. It is a pity that due to prissy modern hang-ups these days, criminals guilty of extreme offences such as murder, torture and rape no longer face capital punishment. This mollycoddling of war criminals must cease.
A group, styling itself the “Ad Hoc-Group of Sri Lanka Bondholders” wrote last week to the IMF Managing Director and said that it “stands ready to design and implement restructuring terms to help SL restore debt sustainability and regain access to international capital markets. It promised engagement with SL’s official creditors towards a solution of the current crisis and restoration of debt sustainability”. The Paris Club (Japan, France, Korea, Germany, US, Spain, Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Austria, Canada, Denmark, UK, Belgium and Australia) has also expressed its support for strengthening the Sri Lankan economy. Such initiatives may strengthen the hand of the government. RW will profit politically from the gains in macro-economic stability that these measures will lead to.
My expectation if much of this materialises is that the rupee will improve in the next period (Is 250 to the dollar completely unimaginable?) and limits on capital controls will be eased to encourage FDI and capital flows into the share market. Well-to-do Sri Lankans with now blocked accounts will be glad to buy and sell dollars and this will be reflected in rising house prices, upper and upper-middle class people dining out more frequently, more tourist arrivals and investments in tourism. RW will gain politically among the aforesaid social classes and their retainers and associated factotums. This is not unusual in any country where capitalism makes gains; examples are a dime a dozen in Asia and Latin America. This is not an absolutely certain outcome but cannot to ignored. I am prepared to eat my words with a cup of the finest up-country tea at the Galle Face Hotel lounge if I am proved wrong.
This throws a heavy onus on the NPP. The NPP/JVP alone can counter-mobilise on the streets and on the villages, on the campuses and the trade unions to use the economic opportunities that may become available from international agencies, IMF injections, debt restructuring and improved import-export trade. An improvement in economic conditions need not be exploited for the benefit of the capitalist classes – other outcomes are possible. To redirect benefits towards the people the NPP must accept a programme and philosophy of social-democracy and must summon a Party Conferences at which it will table, debate and adopt its alternative Party Programme. The JVP must be told to forget its bankrupt past and follow suit. What other options does the JVP have?
In my column last week (12 February 2023), speaking from a left perspective, I demanded an NPP Party Conference. I now repeat this demand in the broader public interest as well. It cannot be ducked.