By Rajan Philips –
The government might be called two-faced, not in the literal sense of being insincere, but based on two different streams of actions that are flowing from it. Neither stream is insincere, but one is objectively at odds with the other. One stream of actions is associated with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the other with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is overlapping between the two. The difference may not be obvious to the supporters of the government, but to its critics the difference is everything. In their view, the government’s weak point is the dichotomy between the approaches of the two brothers. The President is keen to strike out a new path and a new direction and cut himself loose from the past. The Prime Minister is overburdened by the past, the pile of IOUs, and family expectations. He is also overburdened by the portfolios that have been piled on him.
So, there are good professional appointments, as well as questionable appointments and bad affinal appointments. Ministerial, especially State Ministerial, appointments are almost all abominable. After a spate of arrests and remands, and releases on bail, the President has directed the Police to carry out arrests only when they are strictly warranted. Hopefully, that will put an end to what was becoming the cowboy approach to arresting and prosecuting. Hopefully, as well, the new President will not follow the examples of his predecessor (Maithripala Sirisena) and his co-habitant Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) who allegedly stopped arrests being made even when they were warranted.
Another example of the difference in approaches is the right-hand promise to protect the land and the environment, and the left-hand licencing of sand mining and allowing the transport of gravel and sand without permits. Sri Lanka’s gravel and sand resources are quite limited, and allowing their unrestricted extraction to feed an over-hungry construction industry is unsustainable even in the short term.
On the fiscal front, the government gave a suite of tax concessions apparently as an economic stimulus and to put some cash in employee’s pockets. The concessions raised many an economic eyebrow given the country’s tight debt situation and the need for conserving revenues. Now the government is planning to go after employers and businesses for not passing on the tax concessions to consumers and employees. What was the government thinking?
Consumer prices would seem to be rising the way the rupee was falling under the previous government. Globally, 2020 is being predicted to be the year of food shortages and high prices, especially in developing economies. If prices start rising in Sri Lanka even without external triggers, where will they end if and when external shocks do occur. It is one thing to suffer shortages and high prices due to drastic weather changes and external shocks beyond our control, but quite another thing to let the people fall victims to the whims of hoarders and racketeers. When it comes to food prices, the real election winners are not Sinhalese Buddhists, but the hoarders and racketeers who always win no matter which party wins the election. An executive president has all the powers and political capital (even with 19A) to lower the boom on hoarders and racketeers. What is needed is political will.
On the employment front, the government made much of a programme to create 100,000 unskilled jobs, at Rs. 35,000 a month, to benefit job seekers from low income groups. The candidates for selection will require attestation by Grama Niladaris in their local areas. Now the news is that the government will be deploying intelligence officers to monitor the Niladaris. To attest the attestor. That indeed would be a new approach, and how far will it be extended? Will there be intelligence surveillance of all government workers?
In another development, described by the Daily Financial Times as “storm in a teacup,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has issued a directive to increase monthly estate worker wages by 17% from Rs. 855 to Rs. 1,000 from March this year while the current Collective Agreement is still in place. The storm has apparently shocked the plantation companies and the Employers’ Federation, as the addition of Rs. 145 will increase the total monthly wage bill on the plantations by Rs. 6 billion. The companies claim they cannot afford it given the state of the economy in the tea sector.
The government’s reasoning is that the companies should be able to manage the wage increase within the economic stimulus and relief package that has been provided. Although economically misplaced, politically this is a rare show of support by a Sri Lankan government for workers’ wages in the tea plantations. The real goal is to garner electoral support in the plantations to build towards a two-thirds majority in parliament. The government seems hung up on securing a two-thirds majority in the next parliamentary election, and everything that is currently being done appears to be to that end.
The JVP’s Bimal Ratnayake has indicated that the government has so far not filled hundreds of key positions in government – 200 in state institutions and 238 in state corporations, even two months after the presidential election. According to Mr. Ratnayake, no directors have been appointed for the Ceylon Electricity Board, Water Supply and Drainage Board, Ports Authority, State Engineering Corporation, Timber Corporation, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and Rupavahini Corporation. The JVPer went on to say that “most government institutions had collapsed” during the last year of the yahapalanya government, and that the situation continues two months after the country elected a new president.
It is an absurd situation that a new president elected by the direct vote of the people has to keep his administration in holding until a new parliament is also elected. The absurdity seems lost on the President’s advisers and defenders of the executive presidential system. Their solution is to win the next election big, with a two-thirds majority to boot, so that they can do whatever they want, and to hell with the separation of powers. But that does not address the constitutional obligation for the elected president from one political party to work with the elected parliament even when the majority in parliament belongs to a different political party. If the two cannot work, will one of them have to go, or, rather, modified? Which one? Over forty years every political party has tried to abolish, or modify, the presidency? Is it time someone suggested doing away with the parliament? I am just saying.
The SLPP is cocksure that it will win the next election and even secure a two-thirds majority. The SLPP leaders have every reason to think so given the pathetic state of the UNP and its opposition allies. But there might be internal challenges in fighting a parliamentary election given the two approaches in the government. The President has indicated that the SLPP parliamentary election campaign will be led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa with Basil Rajapaksa providing the overall electoral strategy.
At the same time, there are talks that about 100 SLPP candidates being professionals new to politics and drawn from among the Viyath Maga supporters of the President. Anything to change the current composition of parliament will certainly have a great appeal with the voters. The first, and perhaps the bigger, hurdle is to win the party nomination for the newcomers. That is where the two-faced approaches of the government may come into an open clash. Maithripala Sirisena and his SLFP rump might get crushed in the internal clash over candidate selection. Whoever wins will shape the face of the next parliament.
The opposition parties are supposedly determined to stop the SLPP from winning a two-thirds majority. But they are more disunited than they were during the presidential election. And it is not only Maithripala Sirisena, the man who won the 2015 election promising to abolish the presidency, who is now calling for a two-thirds majority to entrench the executive presidency. Ranil Wickremesinghe is also objectively contributing to the same end by his stubborn reluctance to give up the leadership of the UNP. After the yahapalanaya debacle that he presided over, Mr. Wickremesinghe is not worth even a political obituary. Brutal, but true.