By Jehan Perera –
The situation in the country has become so dire that the government has decided that government workers should stay at home for two weeks. Government schools too have been directed to shut down along with government-supported private schools. Only a few of them would have the capacity to conduct online classes as was seen during the Covid lockdowns. In addition to being physically stunted, the way is being paved for a younger generation that is deficient in the growth of their mental and intellectual faculties.
The crisis has become a great leveler. The rich and poor together are in the kilometers long lines for gasoline at the fuel pumping stations. Although those in the urban areas have higher incomes on average than their rural counterparts they are likely to be affected more by the sharp price rises in food. The UN system has issued a call for international humanitarian assistance for Sri Lanka. A country that at the time it attained independence was the second most prosperous in Asia, and said to be the Switzerland of the East, has now become a basket case. It is ironic that what exploitative colonials did not do, our own national leaders have done.
The UNICEF spokesperson for Sri Lanka has said on international media that children in Sri Lanka are the 7th most malnourished among the world’s 195 countries. He said that he had been to countries such as Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan, but Sri Lanka was a country like no other. There is no place within the country that those who were poor and hungry could go to. They could only hope to go abroad, he said, in response to the international media’s question about Sri Lankans migrating to other countries.
The warning signs of the disaster that has struck the country were seen as far back as three years ago. The then governor of the Central Bank, Dr Indrajith Coomaraswamy, warned that Sri Lanka was going to face a foreign currency crisis in the near future. He pointed to the massive loan repayments that had accumulated and would have to be paid soon. He said that the country could take remedial action, such as by going to the IMF, so that the effects of the crisis could be mitigated and with financial discipline the country could come out of it.
The well considered words of Dr Coomaraswamy were not heeded by the government and the president appointed another governor who went on a borrowing and money printing spree. It is likely that he convinced the all-powerful president that this was the way forward. With great power comes great responsibility. It is also said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is in this context of unprecedented economic hardship that the slogan “Gota go home” resonates throughout the country.
The presidency is an institution that has been much criticized by every party out of power and by civil society from its inception IN 1978. It is rejected today by the main political parties including the ruling party whose ostensible position is that it should be abolished. The major opposition parties too support the abolition of the presidency. Previous presidents even campaigned and won presidential elections on the promise of abolishing the institution. But as stated by the 18th Century English poet, Alexander Pope, “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, as to be hated needs but to be seen. Yet too oft, familiar with her face, we first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
The worst feature of the presidency is that it can be used to enforce arbitrary and ill thought policies as state policies. The president is the head of the government and head of the cabinet of ministers and has the power to appoint and sack ministers at his pleasure or displeasure. These decisions cannot be questioned in a court of law as it is provided by the constitution. This makes it difficult to challenge his decisions even when they are obviously ill advised and wrong. Thus, when the president decided to ban chemical fertilisers and pesticides and go in for 100 percent organic agriculture overnight many who should have known better failed to correct him.
Unfortunately, the full power that he displayed in implementing his vistas of prosperity has driven the country towards a panorama of hopelessness being displayed island wide. The decision to go in for organic agriculture was to ruin the country as we see today with agricultural production plummeting by 50 percent. This single decision has impoverished the agricultural sector, contributed to the malnourishment prevalent in the country and even threatens mass hunger and food riots in the months to come. Only access to foreign aid, such as generated by the UN appeal for humanitarian assistance, can ward off the inevitable. The goodwill of the international community is key to the nurturing of Sri Lanka’s younger generation.
Perhaps in recognition of the policy disasters he has presided over, President Rajapaksa has declared that he does not want to go as a failed president. This seems as an acceptance of failure at present for which the president has apologized and his wish to continue to stay may not be the best option for the country. He has expressed resolve to continue at the helm, come hell or high water, until his term of office ends in two plus years. However, the president has also said that he will not seek re-election. This suggests a way forward for the president to redeem himself and leave behind a positive legacy.
Every person’s life goal is to be successful in what they do. By using pillars made from the knowledge of our failures, we can erect a bright future for ourselves. If he so chooses President Rajapaksa can be the president who finally abolished the presidency which is now widely seen by the people as the root of political abuse of power and which most political parties also want abolished. The president has provided the justification of the abolition of the presidency. He said that his observation has been that it is not possible for an executive presidency to coexist with an empowered prime minister. Either the presidency should be abolished or the parliament is kept out of governing. “My personal opinion is that if you have a presidency he must have full powers. Otherwise abolish executive presidency and go for full Westminster-style parliament.”
If it is to be one or the other, the answer is clear that it should be the presidency that goes. Parliament is the more democratic, stable and safer option, as it provides a forum for debate and discussion, rather than relying on the sanity and judgment of one man. As seen in other countries also the president can decide in isolation with disastrous results as evidenced in the fertilizer ban. Even as the government seeks to find the foreign exchange and international assistance to sustain the economy, there is a way for President Rajapaksa to convince the world that his government is worth supporting. This would be to work towards the abolition of the presidency, and provide a time frame, so that he is the last executive president of Sri Lanka.
The other would be to find a political solution that gave rise to three decades of war and destruction that has contributed to the present plight of the country. Both of these, the executive presidency and the ethnic conflict, are problems that the country has been burdened with for decades and been unable to resolve. The ethnic conflict gave rise to war and a large part of the country’s resources were diverted to the war. The country fell into the debt trap partly on account of expenditures devoted to the war.
Even today, more than 13 years after the end of the war, the military budget is the largest single component of the national budget, dwarfing the expenditures on health and education combined which is unacceptable in the context of economic collapse. President Rajapaksa has cultivated the reputation as the leader who kept the country united even though it was through warfare and not by winning the hearts and minds of all the people. He has assets he can utilize for the purpose of a mutually acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict. One is that the very youth who wage the Aragalaya or struggle against him have been publicly eschewing racism and ethnic divisions.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is an astute politician who has never used communalism to win elections. Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris is a legal expert who, along with Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam of the main Tamil political party of that time, devised the most liberal constitutional formula to end the ethnic conflict and share power between the ethnic communities. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake are both in favour of abolishing the executive presidency and are non-racist in their politics. A roadmap to both resolve the ethnic conflict and abolish the executive presidency prior to the next election is need not be a mirage.