By Kumar David –
The five big Rs in my title all serve a purpose. Remember, recalls past experience which is that Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) is a Risk to democratic Rights and some say that he in prone to be Revengeful. Therefore, we have to remain on guard for another 2 ½ years till the constitutionally legitimate term of the current presidency expires. Unfortunately, circumstances are more complex and dangerous; I will deal with that anon, but first I must say upfront that RW is president legitimately and constitutionally. Those who say he has no legal right to hold the office are wrong. They have justifiable moral ire on their side since he did not win a seat at the 2020 elections, his presidency is unpopular and he owed his prime ministership to a backdoor deal to safeguard the Rajapaksa rogues; but none of this amounts to constitutional illegitimacy. Governments the world over are at times derided by the population, but that does not make them constitutionally illegitimate, only irksome.
This makes circumstances tricky. RW has a constitutional right to soldier on for the remaining unexpired portion of Gotha’s term, to ignore demands to repeal the executive presidency as desired by 80% of the people, and to ignore the clamour for a new constitution (or even ignore 21A/22A). True he can be forced to resign as Gotha was compelled to do by extra-constitutional mass pressure exerted by millions, but then as in Gotha’s case it would be a supra-constitutional act. It is in this background that my five-Rs play. Let me repeat: Although RW’s presidency can run up to the end of its constitutionally legitimate days he also comes with the stigma of scant respect for democratic and human rights and he will manifest these genes whether ingrained by nature or acquired by his nurturing in an authoritarian neo-liberal JR-period apprenticeship. Do not expect RW to shift against these deep-rooted traits, unless!
Ha! Unless what? All things are transient, all morality tradeable and in politics as in other facets of life self-interest comes first. So, what tradeable merchandise does Ranil have? He is the SLPP’s president although 15 to 20 of Sajith’s SJB MPs must have voted for him – otherwise the numbers (134:82) just don’t add up. Having elected him the SLPP cannot impeach him, the procedure is cumbersome. But RW needs a strong support base in the SLPP only until he consolidates a multi-party government. He also needs a reputation in the international arena that he is not a violator of democratic rights otherwise he won’t get any money. If self-interest makes it advantageous for Ranil to dump the Rajapaksas he will do it and reshuffle his Cabinet into the bargain. Yes, the SLPP gave him the ladder to climb up, but he will kick it if it serves his interests to do so. A big plus for RW’s popularity could be if corrupt members of the Rajapaksa-clan are arrested and indicted. The days of the Rajapaksas are numbered one way or the other
The scant regard that Ranil and his military have for human rights was on display in the first act of his presidency – senseless brutality. Sending troops to beat up political opponents, some still asleep, as well as journalists, lawyers and folks out for a walk on Galle Face is vintage Batalanda Ranil. This man, his military and his alleged goons barred their fangs. However, the violence misfired badly. The backlash was universal; Cardinals and monks, lawyers, doctors, columnists, university staff and scientists have savaged him mercilessly. The JVP has described him as an oppressor. He and his military are withering in the face of condemnation from every quarter domestic, diplomatic and international. He is now running for cover pleading for an all-party government as a fig-leaf to hide his ebbing manliness. He may get a ‘national government’ of sorts but it will impose on him the condition that he behaves. The multi-party tail will wag the presidential dog. RW will swallow his autocratic and vengeful pride and bend his knee since that will be the only way he can survive. For starters no one will touch him unless the Emergency goes.
I am not suggesting that breaking into government buildings and trashing furniture is acceptable. It is wrong and wrong doers must be prosecuted. However, the authorities in democratic societies handle such matters with finesse and patience; not Ranil and his army. The Western diplomatic community in Lanka led by US Ambassador Julie Cheng was aghast. Her statement in part reads “(Express) my grave concern over the unnecessary and deeply troubling escalation of violence against protestors . . . This is not the time to crack down on citizens”. Please reread this again and again, it’s a slap in Ranil’s face. The British and Canadian High Commissioners, the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Lanka, EU’s representative and the UNHRC in Geneva have not refrained from slippering him on both cheeks. And he needs money, lots of foreign money from the IMF, India, the West and Japan if his government is to survive. His state needs a few billion dollars simply to pull through the next month or two. It will not get a kopek, not even from China if he tramples on rights and provokes unrest. China already rightly accused of befriending thuggish military regimes in Burma and Pakistan will be cautious about blundering again in Sri Lanka. IN my view RW will be compelled to climb down and compromise on democracy.
Ranil’s survival is predicated on alms dropped into his begging bowl; if his military does not climb down and put its guns in its pockets there will be an explosion that makes Gotha’s eviction look like a children’s party. Yes, RW’s presidency is lawful and constitutional, but what can anyone do if the man insists on arresting demonstrators, dealing harshly with youthful miscreants and continuing an unjustified State on Emergency? What substantive concessions is RW going to make to reassure domestic and international opinion that his government poses no threat to rights and democratic freedoms? He miscalculated badly when he sent his troops and goons after aragalaya which was on the backfoot and retreating – not fast enough, but retreating for sure. Now RW will have to climb down and eat humble pie or he will not get political stability, a must do so for substantive international economic support. Five-kilometre-long, prolonged petrol queues spawn anger and unrest, fights break out, this situation has to end fast. This is the first of two key points in my case today.
RW thought that if he adorned himself in a fancy suit and spoke in grammatical English to the IMF team, he will get a deal. That may still turn out to be true but neither Ranil nor his technically dumb Cabinet understand that fuel and fuel above all else underpins the workings of a modern economy. Production, exports, industries, public transport, offices, schools, the very wheels of a modern society are predicated on the availability of fuel. Even editors, economists and column writers groping in the dark till recently are now getting a glimpse of the technical imperatives of modernism.
OK let us now leave aside immediate concerns and move on to review short- and medium-term options. A period of belt-tightening, fiscal discipline and capitalist economics is unavoidable; inflation and interest rates will remain high. Electricity, water and fuel prices will go higher. Exchange controls will be relaxed in anticipation of FDI and capital inflows, the rupee will fall further. The external and domestic economy are coupled and cannot be separated. (Subsidies and relief will have to put in place for the poorest decile if not quintile of society but that is a different issue).
I cannot see Sri Lanka climbing out of this hole for many years. Yes, we are entering a period of capitalist economics, that’s the second key point in my case today. It’s a fact but the challenge for the JVP-NPP, aragalaya and progressives is to ensure that it is also a period of (bourgeois) democracy. No matter whether Ranil gets his all-party or many-party government, no matter what Sajith and his fractious SJB do, the left’s political mission at this time is to sustain democracy. The JVP-NPP is unlikely to join a multi-party government but it will have to wisely navigate an unavoidable period of capitalism and strengthen its hand in the interim. A revolutionary overthrow of capitalism at this time is an illusion.
What then are the prospects facing the next elected government? We have to be realistic and give our minds to say the five-year programme of the next elected government whether the election is soon or whether RW’s presumptive ‘national government’ soldiers on till 2025. In my view the medium-term economic strategy for Sri Lanka should be double-track: (a) a strong state-led interventionist strategy, and (b) market forces to guide effective and efficient decision making in investment ant production and to encourage entrepreneurship.
Sounds contradictory? No, not at all! Let me explain with an example we are familiar with, summarised by S.R. de Silva in “The Other Side of Globalisation” published by the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon. Consider the much-publicised East Asian Economic Miracle – Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. The crucial point is that East Asia did NOT accept the then neoliberal IMF’s prescriptions. These countries did not exclude the state from economic policy, quite the contrary the state played a key role in picking winners and losers and in choosing emergent sectors and industries. The state did not leave it to market forces to set the menu initially; only gradually was a freer role opened to the market. The approach was a grand success.