By Jehan Perera –
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe joining of the government was expected to turnaround the degrading tragic economic situation wherein child malnutrition figures are making Sri Lanka the 7th worst in the world. The country is living almost on a “ship to mouth” basis where the delay of a ship, or the cancellation of a ship bringing fuel, can lead to enormous hardships. More than six weeks after the new prime minister took over, the deadweight he has to pull is turning out to be too much. It is not possible to say that the economic situation has changed for the better. If at all, it has turned worse. The queues outside the fuel stations that are still open, and only a few remain open, are longer than ever. Most fuel stations are closed.
The progressive shut down of the government continues with the “work from home” policy for government employees being further extended along with school closures. The reason being given is to save on fuel stocks. There are fewer and fewer vehicles on the road due to the inability to find fuel to pump into vehicles. Schools have been closed for a further two weeks. It appears that the government is paving the way for the younger generation to be both mentally and physically stunted by lack of adequate nutrition and learning opportunities. Nearly all universities are conducting their classes “online” though the university teachers feel this is an ineffective mode of education.
When Prime Minister Wickremesinghe took over office there was much criticism that he had no moral right to become prime minister of a government that was no longer wanted by the people. However, there was also a positive expectation that he would make a positive difference with his vast experience of politics, encyclopedic knowledge and international reputation. There was no other justification, certainly not one that could come from democracy, as his party had been routed at the last general elections in 2020, being reduced overnight from 105 seats to one. The main justification for him, with his single seat in parliament, to become prime minister was to rescue the failing economy.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe joined a government that was tottering due to the mass anger that had erupted on May 9. On that fateful day there were scenes of uncontrolled violence that gave a grim foreboding of what the future can become. It was widely believed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be the next to step down after his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to step down as prime minister following the violence which his party members had instigated. The president pledged to cobble together an all-party government of not more than 15 members and indicated his readiness to call for fresh general elections and a referendum on abolishing the presidency.
There is today much disappointment and anger that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe joining up with the government gave the president the excuse not to take this path. There is today a visible consolidation of the government and its past bad practices including large size and allegations of gross mismanagement. The size of the cabinet is presently 20 and there are more to be appointed including controversial persons associated with scams. There is a further complement of around 20 state and deputy ministers. Latest reports are that there will be district ministers also appointed which would make the grand total exceed 60 at a minimum.
Members of this government are quick to say they are “sorry’ for the mistakes they make. President Rajapaksa said he is sorry for his mistakes but has said he will stay on for his full term. The minister of power and energy has emulated the president in saying he is sorry for having given false expectations about a fuel tanker docking last week in the port and easing the fuel shortage. But now that ship is no longer coming and there is no assurance of when the next shipment will come. In the meantime, government offices, schools and universities have been ordered to close or restrict their operations.
Apart from an acknowledgment of the wrong committed, an apology also implies two other things—a sincere request for forgiveness and evidence of a change in behavior. Alas, these last two elements of being truly sorry are not manifested by Sri Lanka’s political leaders. They say sorry but continue as before. The latest manifestation of this characteristic is the landmark 21st Amendment which is ending up to be very different from what it was originally meant to be. It was hoped to be part of the “system change” that the youth– led Aragalaya protest movement, and larger civil society, have been seeking. It was to have removed the excessive powers of the presidency and transfer them to parliament.
Unfortunately, the indications are that the 21st Amendment will be doing much less. It will leave the president as powerful as ever and able to appoint the prime minister, ministers and secretaries to ministries and remove them at will. Armed with this power, the president will be able to determine the course of the government and make decisions as he once did, such as to ban chemical fertilisers and pesticides overnight. How long Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will be able to continue and retain the president’s confidence in this environment in which he, with his party’s single seat in parliament, is a big question. He will have to contend with 60-odd ministers in the government and 224 other MPs in parliament who are not from his party who belong to the old order and will want to keep it that way.
Last week a dialogue between civil society and parliamentarians on the 21st Amendment took place. The civil society members of the “Collective for Reform ” had labored long and hard to analyse all the civil society proposals with regard to the 21st Amendment and come up with a common minimum set of proposals to present to the parliamentarians. The proposals they studied included those presented by a plethora of organisations—the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, March 12 Movement, National Movement for Social Justice, University Teachers’ Association, PAFFREL, Direction Sri Lanka, Second Generation, ebuildSriLanka2022, People’s Constitution through a Participation Mechanism, People’s Struggle Cooperation Movement, Government Physicians Association, Way forward for Young Leaders, Transparency International Sri Lanka, Socialist Student Union, Inter-University Student Federation, Movement for Consumer’s Rights Protection, National Collective Manifesto, Sri Lanka Administrative Services Association, Public Council, Association of Health Professionals, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, and Association of Internal Audit Professionals in Sri Lanka.
The parliamentarians who attended the “dialogue” made speeches in which they either claimed the civil society submissions were included in their own submissions, or they spoke on an entirely different track or justified their own conduct in the past and present. Only a few of them stayed on till the end to listen to the conclusions of civil society. Among those who attended were those who had voted successively for the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments, one contradictory to the other, and now presumably will vote for the watered-down 21st Amendment. The younger generations represented by the Aragalaya protestors have seen through this lack of integrity and policy. Sri Lanka needs not only a “system change” but also a “politician change” which will best come through elections held sooner rather than later.