16 May, 2022

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The Government Fights Itself

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

After months of saying they would never allow it, the Sri Lankan government has let the exchange rate float. Once upon a time the dollar fetched five rupees: now it’s nearing 280. Things are becoming more expensive, and corporations and companies are trying to keep profit margins up. Fuel prices have already climbed, with Lanka IOC hiking petrol by LKR 50 and diesel by LKR 75 to a litre, while importers of pharmaceuticals have conferred with the relevant Minister over similar hikes. CEYPETCO claims to be making a loss of Rs 128 per litre of diesel, a claim which has lead to another spate of hikes.

It’s a testament to how passionately neoliberal think-tanks advocated these changes that while they kept publishing infographic after infographic about the dangers of keeping the rupee up, none of them have come up with a similar analysis about the consequences of letting it float down. Econsult Asia has, and its predictions are utterly devastating: bread prices could hike by up to LKR 30, milk by LKR 400, cement by LKR 600, gas by LKR 1,500. To top it all, external debt might hike by a whopping LKR 1.2 trillion.

Like the mythical and nameless Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike, the government is desperately trying to stop the country from sinking. The problem is that the crises we are seeing today are unfolding not just consecutively, but also concurrently: thus, while dollars are paid for diesel, the government delays payments to three gas ships, leading to another shortage. The situation is so bad that we are rationing not so much dollars as the crises we are enduring: fuel one day, flour on another, and power on yet another.

In that state of affairs, while the Opposition blames the government, the government is engaging in a blame-game from within. Wimal Weerawansa’s and Udaya Gammanpila’s exit tells us what we’ve known for a long time, namely that not everyone inside was happy with the way things were going outside. Now that they have been sacked, government MPs are indulging in diatribes against them, with some even suggesting that if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been seeing these power cuts and diesel queues. That is a ludicrous claim, to be sure, but it resonates with pro-government commentators nevertheless.

The Wimal-Udaya-SLPP breach is significant for at least two reasons. Firstly, it shows that the image of the government’s unity was much exaggerated. Secondly, as key ideological backers of the Bring Back Mahinda Campaign, Wimal and Udaya have effectively ruptured the trajectory of the present administration by subjecting a government of which Mahinda Rajapaksa is Prime Minister to severe criticism. One can argue that this is theatre, one long drama scripted by the regime. Yet such explanations fail to acknowledge, or even note, the complexities of the unfolding ruptures and their origins.

If it’s difficult to describe the Bring Back Mahinda Campaign today, it’s because the situation under the yahapalana government was, and is, too complex to rationalise. While liberals and left-liberals viewed it as an attempt to restore an authoritarian status quo, others saw it as a symptom of the failures of the yahapalana administration.

Dayan Jayatilleka was one of the few who shared the latter opinion. From encouraging Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy to opposing it, Dr Jayatilleka cautioned against letting the Sirisena administration be penetrated by the neoliberal right. He argued that the infiltration of such elements would lead to a backlash that would lead to the unravelling of the regime. Dismissed by most, this prediction came true on two occasions: the Local Government polls in February 2018 and the Constitutional fracas nine months later.

I see the Joint Opposition’s campaigns in all this as Populist-Bonapartist. But to leave it at that is to view it as a monolith, which it was not. It would be more correct to characterise the JO as a movement made up of disparate elements, some shifting to the right and others to the centre-left. It opposed not just the government, but the SLFP’s co-option by the UNP. To that end it made use of range of tactics, of which the most memorable would have to be its bicycle-to-parliament protest against fuel shortages and the 2018 Budget.

The Bring Back Mahinda ideologues echoed the contradictions which made up the Joint Opposition. Despite those contradictions, however, they all hailed from political formations which rallied with the Rajapaksas. This was as true of Wimal Weerawansa as it was of Udaya Gammanpila, as well as Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

In all fairness, it must be noted here that Wimal and Udaya did critique the second Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, with Udaya articulating his criticisms in various columns. Then as now, the brunt of these critiques targeted Basil Rajapaksa and P. B. Jayasundera. However, while they did question these people as Ministers, they set aside such differences when the ineptitude of the yahapalana regime enabled them all to come together.

This is not as unprecedented as it may seem: under Chandrika Kumaratunga, the SLFP entered into a provisional coalition with the JVP to checkmate the UNP in 2004. That she was entering into an alliance with a party accused of sponsoring her own husband’s death did seem ironic at the time. Yet for all the disarray that short-lived coalition generated, it achieved much and more importantly ate into the UNP’s electoral prospects. On the other hand, when the contradictions between the SLFP and the JVP got too out of hand, the JVP did not hesitate to walk out, though at the cost of several defections to the Rajapaksas: the most prominent, of course, being Wimal Weerawansa’s.

An important point that often goes unmentioned is that the Joint Opposition was focused less on a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency than a Mahinda Rajapaksa premiership. As Dayan Jayatilleka has observed, the initial plan was to make Mahinda an Executive Prime Minister under the 19th Amendment, and his younger brother a presidential figure on par with Raul Castro. In an interview with D. B. S. Jeyaraj in 2016, Jayatilleka called the two brothers “the closest we get, and shall get in the foreseeable future, to a Fidel and Raul.”

Such analogies made sense when the Joint Opposition swayed to the Populist Left. And for a while, it did sway that way. Like the MORENA coalition’s campaign in Mexico last year, the JO targeted the yahapalana regime’s rightward shifts, including its fuel price formula and its frequent invocations of IMF rhetoric, while touting a populist line.

Yet just as the yahapalana government lost its progressive potential once it got enmeshed in what Dr Jayatilleka called the CBK-Ranil-Mangala troika, the JO abandoned its progressive potential by wilfully tilting to the right. By 2018, the government’s embrace of the neoliberal right was echoing the Joint Opposition’s embrace of a neoconservative right.

As a result of all this, the country’s political dynamics changed, never to be reconfigured or restored again. It was here that the Viyathmaga-Eliya conjunction laid the groundwork for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency, a presidency sealed by the yahapalana regime’s less than stellar handling of national security and sovereignty.

The Bring Back Mahinda Campaign responded ambivalently to these shifts and detours, pushing for Rajapaksa’s presidency and its entrenchment via the 20th Amendment while opposing the latter document’s provisions on dual citizens entering parliament. It was their disagreement with those provisions, incidentally, which pitted them against Basil Rajapaksa: the man they accuse today of holding the country’s economy to ransom.

It’s not entirely accurate to blame Wimal and Udaya, and the rest of the 11 government-allied parties which have now come together against the SLPP, for having voted for the 20th Amendment despite these misgivings. This is because while politics is indeed the art of the possible, it’s also a game of compromise. Alliances are marriages of convenience, and given the nature of our electoral system, they are absolutely necessary for stability.

Wimal and Udaya have recounted in interviews that they supported 20A on condition that Basil Rajapaksa not be made MP. That does sound naive, to be sure. Yet consider that in 2015 the JO, barring one MP, voted for the 19th Amendment, despite its anti-Rajapaksist overtones. That sounds incredible too. But it is how politics works.

The issue facing the government is obvious enough. By destroying the UNP in one go, it destroyed the only possible enemy it could have used to keep itself in check and ensure its unity. Today the CBK-Ranil-Mangala troika is in disarray: Ranil Wickremesinghe is the sole voice and face of the UNP in parliament, Chandrika Kumaratunga is nowhere to be seen, and Mangala Samaraweera is dead. In the face of the crisis or the crises we are now undergoing, the regime finds itself unable to prevent its own fragmentation. It remains to be seen where all this will lead. By all accounts, we are entering a very interesting time.

*The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 10
    1

    Uditha, have to give to you. All we have is a corrupted criminal Mafia family surrounded by more corrupted men/women, for almost two decades. You with DJ trying to glorify with such terms neo liberal right/left/middle, neo capitalism/socialism/communism, blah, blah is nothing but a joke. Wimal/Vasu/ gomanappillai trio, are nothing but clowns in Rajapaksa’s ” Grand Circus” show. The 6.9 million retards who got carried away by SB mania, will not understand a word of you and DJ are talking here. Just go to Nugegoda rally and see those jubilant faces amidst crisis you mentioned here. Crisis ??? Basil is soon meeting IMF and Cabrrrral the great magician, still maintains, it’s nothing to do with debt restructuring but a friendly reunion with old buddies. This is Silly Lanka for you. I am still laughing about the comparison studies you guys have been doing between Rajapaksa Brothers Bad and the Ugly ???, there is no good.

    • 5
      0

      “the JO targeted the yahapalana regime’s rightward shifts, including its fuel price formula and its frequent invocations of IMF rhetoric, while touting a populist line.”
      So, Uditha, are you still claiming that the fuel price formula was wrong, and “IMF rhetoric” is wrong? Are you seriously suggesting that the Rajapaksa brand of populism is better?
      What does Rajapaksa populism really mean? It aims basically to keep prices low by gazette, without any regard to market forces. Fuel must be susidized, fertiliser free, and salaries increased come hell or high water. If the rupee had been allowed to float since 2020, and fuel prices followed the formula, would we have been hit with a sudden devaluation AND fuel price hikes? Ranil wanted to sign the CEPA, by which by now we would have been integrated with Indian supply chains and power grids. But the JO ” patriots” opposed it noisily.

      • 9
        0

        “The ineptitude of theyahapalana regime enabled them all to come together.”
        Any ineptitude was solely due to Maithripala, who refused to quietly play the role assigned to him. Then there were the endless protests and plots of the JO. And of course the Easter bombs, which now turn out to be a Pohottuwa project.
        Any Yahapalana ineptitude pales in comparison with the ongoing daily reversals of gazettes, clueless Presidential interventions in agriculture, etc. Did Yahapalanaya reduce our agriculture to this level? Did Yahapalanaya make us queue in the dark for gas cylinders which explode? Did Yahapalanaya make it impossible to buy even local milk powder?
        Those who talk about “yahapalana ineptitude” don’t know what ineptitude is. Sadly that includes the 6.9 million bovines.

        • 4
          0

          Oc/
          .
          Rajapakshe populism would nt have worked for the mislead if following sons of bitches spread facts and figures to the nation dominated by thanakola eaters.
          .
          BURUWANSE /Vasidewa/ GONTHADIPILA.
          .
          This three-person lying machine through their western invasion conspiracy fairy tales fooled the natio again and again/ people in this country became eternally stupid. .
          ..
          If public execution would be imposed the 3 along with Mahinda would be on the top of the list.
          .
          Shameless Buruwanse faces the press yet today/.
          Can u imagine?🐃🐕😎😡😡😡😡😡

          • 4
            0

            In a country where people still believe the fabricated tales about Nadungamuwa elephant / .
            .
            Do u guys think commoners would ever question about facts about the size of stolen wealth of mlechcha family produced by DA Rajapakshe aiming at total destruction of the nation?.
            .
            Pigs might fly I would say.
            ..
            In a civilised law bound country people would have come to street to tear off anyone in that brutal family/ .
            Good riddance to total ignorance 😎🐕🐃😉😉😉😉

        • 2
          0

          Srilanken sin general/ regardless of their education and walks of life/ constantly underestimate the power of TV telecastes of the mainstream media/ once this would be corrected by media only we can think of a better future in this country 😎🐕🐃😉😡

      • 3
        0

        This happens when irresponsible media fraudsters prostitute in public/ even SIRASATV should take the responsibility for the misleads. They are the primary source of news for the average..
        .
        And they each tied the innocent gullible mind set to them teledrama series. Evenings are wasted by every household/ the room they could better use for the improvement of awareness in crucial issues 😉🐃🐕😎😡

        • 1
          0

          LM,
          The media is totally illiterate. A few days ago I was watching Siyatha talking about diesel prices. It was blaming the government for not preventing the hike in prices by IOC. Where does Siyatha think oil comes from?

    • 5
      0

      “I am still laughing”

      Add me to the list! :))

  • 6
    0

    I predict that these two crooks with Vasu would be the first three to rejoin the bandwagon of Mahinda Rajapakse to make Namal the head of the state.

    • 5
      0

      Buddhist I’m willing to put my money on it. These guys have no ethics nor principles/ political standing , they somehow want to be in power eternally and people like Uditha and DJ are trying to glorify these crooks by telling neo liberal left, right and center. A petty thief has more principle than these crooks.

  • 7
    0

    The most pertinent question in all these theatrics is “Will the people of Sri Lanka begin starving in the months ahead?”…and that would be unprecedented in the history of the Pearl of the Indian Ocean..

  • 10
    0

    Uditha’s writing ……. serves no purpose other than ……… psychotherapy for himself ……… to overcome his childhood insecurities.

    We, the audience, are his couch.

    • 7
      0

      Nf/
      .
      He is a young man who has been reading for his dissertation. Guess who can be the mentor? I think that self proclaimed political analyst – DJ?

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