By Ananda Jayawickrama –
Samagi Jana Baleveganya, the main opposition party, correctly decided to file a no confidence motion against the Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila immediately after the government decision to increase fuel prices by large margins on 8th July. In December 2019, world crude oil prices remained at $68.44 per barrel and it was in similar level in January 2020 as well. The fuel prices in Sri Lanka at that time was Rs. 161 per liter of Octane 95 petrol, Rs. 137 per liter of octane 92 petrol, Rs. 104 per liter of super diesel and so on. We observed a sharp decline in world crude oil prices from February to April 2020. By 28th April 2020, the world crude oil prices fell down to $20.44 per barrel, by $48 per barrel or by more than 70% from the price prevailed in January 2020. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government did not revise local selling prices of fuel downwards in response this historic decline in world crude oil prices. The government said that it was not in a position to pass the benefit of decreasing crude oil prices to local fuel consumers. With all taxes and charges, the government could have reduced retail fuel prices by at least 50% compared to the existing prices. Despite repeated requests and demands from the opposition, the government said that it was not ready to cut down fuel prices and instead announced the establishment of a fuel price stabilization fund using extra proceedings earned through uncut prices. With the above decision of the government, people of the country had no option other than filling their tanks by paying excessive taxes and they expected the government to accumulate sufficient buffer stock of funds to maintain fuel prices constant at prevailing rates for at least few years even if crude oil prices increase in future.
From May 2020, the world crude oil prices started to pick up slowly and by December 2020 a barrel of crude oil cost only $50.86 which was still much less than the price in January 2020. There were no signs of local fuel prices coming down. The world crude oil prices increased to $72.22 per barrel on 8th June 2021. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government responded quickly increasing local fuel prices by a massive margin. The government increased the retail price of 95 petrol from Rs 161 to Rs. 184 per liter, of 92 petrol from Rs. 137 to Rs. 157 per liter and of super diesel from Rs. 104 to Rs. 111 per liter and so on. Everybody question the fate of fuel price stabilization fund which collected extra tax proceedings for more than a year. The government said that the fuel price stabilization fund is no more and therefore they have no option other than increasing fuel prices. The desertion of the fuel price stabilization fund is highly doubtful as the government fails to give a detail account of it. The government has breached and violated its own financial regulations if the fund has been utilized for some other purposes without approval of the Parliament to do so.
Unfair Oil Price Hike
I would like to draw the attention of the readers to the following dates and numbers: On 24th April 2019, the world crude oil prices stood at $ 74.57 per barrel and Sri Lanka sold fuel at prices of Rs. 159 per liter of 95 petrol, Rs. 132 per liter of 92 petrol, Rs. 104 per litter of super diesel and so on. On 15th May 2019, the world crude oil price stood at $ 72.55 per barrel and Sri Lanka continued to sell fuel at prices of Rs. 159 per liter of 95 petrol, Rs. 136 per liter of 92 petrol and Rs. 104 per litter of super diesel. On 8th June 2021, the world crude oil price stood at $72.22 per barrel and the government of Sri Lanka raised selling prices of 95 petrol to Rs. 184 per liter, 92 petrol to Rs.157 per liter and super diesel to Rs. 111 per liter. What kind of arithmetic is this? What is the logic behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s selling fuel at a higher price when world crude oil price was relatively low than the price set by Maithiripala Sirisena when crude oil price was higher than the price at present? I would rather happy if someone from viyathmaga provides an answer.
The world crude oil prices increased briefly to $77.16 on 05th July and dropped down to $68.84 by 22nd July 2021. The crude oil prices were just above $69 mark only for few days in July 2021. Based on fuel price formulae, the government of Sri Lanka in October 2019 has set the retail prices of fuel (prevailed before 8th July) based on $69 average crude oil price per barrel. Since average crude oil price is still around $69, absolutely there was no loss to the government by selling fuel at prevailed prices even today. Any drops in tax revenue could have been easily offset by proceedings collected to the fuel price stabilization fund. The fake “people friendliness” of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is now clearly visible as the government shamelessly exploiting and pick pocketing people through exorbitant fuel prices in a situation there was no actual need to increase prices.
Oily Oil Drama
With a view to divert people’s anger over the fuel price hike, the government launched a ‘fooling people’ campaign by staging a fake division in the government over the fuel price hike. It was clear for the public right from the beginning that the decision to increase fuel prices came as an order from the President, officially rubber stamped by the Committee of Cabinet Ministers on cost of living, legally undertaken by the Minister of Finance and orally announced by the Minister of Energy. But the Secretary and some MPs of SLPP, on the instruction of their bosses in my guess, launched a verbal attack against the Minister of Energy accusing him for dragging the government into an uneasy position by increasing fuel prices and demanded the minister’s resignation. The Minister then started a counter attack against the SLPP Secretary, MPs and others behind the move. A great drama was on stage: Actors were doing their roles at best. Day by day, media reports and media briefing were popped up forcing people to think about an eminent collapse of the government over fuel price hike. The government expected people to embrace this drama as a pain killer. The government itself wrote, directed and staged this drama because they knew that there was no sufficient ground to justify the fuel price increase and I would say still there is no. Some parliamentarians of the government tried fooling the masses portraying a magician whose eminent return to the country will be the only hope to bring fuel prices down and the make economy a heaven. The fooling game launched by the SLPP since the Easter Sunday attack continued uninterruptedly.
Opposition and Off-position Politics
At this point, the SJB tactically took this up and submitted a no-confidence motion to the speaker against the Minister of Energy, putting the government under pressure, especially the MPs who demanded Minister Gammanpila’s resignation over the fuel price hike. This has resulted in a sudden stop of the government’s blame-game as the honesty of the SLPP parliamentarians was in the test. The no confidence motion made the government rethinking of its strategies to divert people’s anger over the fuel price hike. It seems that the ministers and MPs are advised to spend more time on finding fault with opposition parties, especially the SJB and its leader Sajith Premadasa. In order to hide its failure and impotence, the government wants to make people believe that the opposition is making nuisance over the day-today affairs of the country and making lives of people more difficult. The government also started acting against protests and demonstrations erupting island-wide due to fuel price hike, banning of chemical fertilizer, crisis in online education, failure address teachers concerns, weak and unorganized pandemic control, malpractices and corruption in vaccination process, environmental issues, etc. Further, bringing so-called magician into the action officially did not materialize as was articulated. Nothing was made better and nothing was halted getting worse. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government seems fast running out of trumps and mixing things up continuously.
With growing pressure from the opposition, the Rajapaksa’s needed a backing from the opposition camp to make the opposition work fishy and shabby. The Rajapaksa camp clearly knows about their choice for the task. It is in this backdrop, the United National Party, after one year from the date of the general election decided to nominate Ranil Wickremesinghe, its self-appointed lifelong leader, for its one and only national list seat. Ranil Wickremesighe and the United National Party had no whatsoever concern over the conduct and policies of Gotabaya Rajapaksa government during the last one and half years. Ranil Wickramasinghe, who made all sort of efforts to grab powers of the executive presidency when he was the Prime Minister, was not interested in coming back to the parliament to place his objection to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution which makes the executive supreme. They did not want to come quickly to the parliament to work against the Port City Act and related regulations which set the groundwork for selling and rewarding lands and properties of the country to foreigners, and many other bills and procedures that work against democracy and interests of general public and the country. Ranil Wickramasinghe and the clang were deaf and blind on government’s decisions to ban fertilizer, increase fuel prices, sell public properties, tarnish democratic rights, grant presidential pardon for murder friends, etc. With Ranil Wickramasinghe’s return to the parliament, many expect the recurrence of personal and family level deal-politics again as was done in the past by Wickramasinghe’s and Rajapaksa’s parties. In an earlier article written to Colombo Telegraph, the writer emphasized Ranil’s return to the parliament as a deadly harmful for democratic practices and non-deal politics of SJB and the opposition. Ranil Wickremesighe is back in the parliament with an assigned task. The task is to weaken the SJB and ouster its leader and the new leadership hope of the country, Sajith Premadasa. But we know that the days of deal politics are now belong to history and nobody may halt the progress of the SJB and its commitment and responsibility towards the general public.
Ranil Wickremesighe’s foul play was clearly visible when he tried to propose amendments to the no-confidence motion against Minister of Energy. The amendments suggested to change the focus of the motion from against a single minister to the entire cabinet. This was a preplanned attempt to divert the very objective of the no-confidence motion. Knowing that they do not have the required number in the parliament to win the motion, the SJB’s attempt was to reveal the double standards of the government (increasing fuel prices and displaying a fake displeasure on it). Had that amendments been accepted, all MPs of SLPP will be more comfortable in voting against the no-confidence motion under the slogan “we vote against the no-confidence motion because we want to protect the people-friendly government” than voting against the no-confidence motion under the slogan “we vote against the no-confidence motion because we really wanted to increase fuel prices and make life of people miserable”.
The SJB clearly and very correctly informed the speaker that they would not accept the proposed amendment to the no-confidence motion and would continue with the original focus. The SJB was smart to thwart the attempt taken by Ranil Wickramasinghe for easing the pressure on the government and expose all SLPP MPs and its allies who voted in favour of exorbitant fuel prices. The government and its parliamentary members with 2/3rd majority have now assured that “we defeated the no-confidence motion against Minister Udaya Gammanpila because we all really wanted to increase fuel prices and make life of people miserable”. The SJB and other opposition parties should continue to keep in mind that these persons will dig hard to trap and drag the opposition by foot and make the ground clear for Rajapaksa’s to have “free hits” against farmers, fishermen, labourers, teachers, students, and the general public. Though Ranil Wickramasinghe is sitting at opposition chambers in the Parliament, he is actually in an off-position because he is not actually playing for his voters’ expectations. The SJB MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has clearly stated duplicity and dishonesty of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s attempt indicating their well-awareness of this political remnant. The bottom line here is that Ranil Wickremesinghe has neither realized his role and position in the current political context nor delivered up to the expectations of his limited voter-base.
*Ananda Jayawickrama is a Professor in Economics at the University of Peradeniya. Currently, he serves as the President of the Intellectual Forum for People (Janathavadi Buddhi Mandapaya), a forum of university academics, researchers and experts. He is available for any clarification at firstname.lastname@example.org.