By Rajan Philips –
Believe it or not, South Korea is going ahead with its parliamentary elections on April 15, and the Covid-19 response of the Moon Jae-in government is dominating the campaign. Like Sri Lanka, South Korea also has a presidential parliamentary system and the governing (liberal) Democratic Party of President Moon Jae-in is predicted to retain control of its parliamentary majority. Public opinion went against the government early on during the campaign when President Moon was reluctant to ban travel from China. But it has since turned in favour of the government, which now has easily the best record in the world in the fight against the global pandemic. The unemulated secret of South Korea’s achievement is its mass testing and loads of data. They are the only preventative weapons against the novel coronavirus until a therapy or a vaccine is found.
Sri Lanka after foot dragging at the highest levels found courage in its Election Commission to cancel the April 25 elections soon after nominations closed on March 19. The country has since been under a national curfew to prevent widespread transmission of the virus. Elections are not expected to be held any time soon and indications are that the Supreme Court might be asked to show a way out if elections have to be postponed for more than three months after dissolution. Unlike South Koreans, Sri Lankans will have to wait to give their verdict on the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. For now, even diehard UNPers are palpably relieved that it is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and not their disastrous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo, who is at the helm in the island’s fight against Covid-19.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is assuredly in power for five years, with or without the SLPP winning the parliamentary election. And no matter if it wins two-thirds big, a simple majority, or the highest number in a hung assembly. The question though is how long can the current quarantining of parliament continue? Things could have been made a lot easier if the President’s dissolution gazette was rescinded and nominations were not accepted. And the old parliament could have continued till August to complete its full term.
Instead, the government’s political calculations led to going ahead with the nominations to take advantage of the elephantine split in the old but by no means grand United National Party. Until decision-making on the election landed on the Elections Commission when the nomination process closed, the government was gung-ho on having the election and hoping to ride the viral wave to a two-thirds majority. The best laid SLPP plans were brought to nought by a virus far deadlier than mice. And postponing the elections, however belatedly, became the best independent executive decision ever made under the 1978 Constitution.
Admittedly, there is nothing much the old parliament can do in the current fight against the coronavirus. Equally, there is likely no one in the country with the appetite to see any of the dissolved MPs (with all due respect to the few good among the rotten many) resurrected to political life. Although, many of the old bandicoots will reemerge after the elections as almost all of them stand nominated by party apparatchiks regardless of their disqualifications; or, in fact, because of their disqualifications. Nonetheless, parliament as an institution is a great deal more than the sum of its members and it cannot be indefinitely quarantined.
While parliament’s involvement is not directly needed in the fight to contain the coronavirus, its role is essential to give the sanction of legality to executive and administrative actions, and the direct vote of approval by parliament is a fundamental requirement to authorize the government’s expenditures and economic and humanitarian responses during the current shutdown. And it is not necessary to summon the entire parliament into a continuous session. As has been done in many countries during the current crisis, the Sri Lankan parliament can be recalled from time to time and inviting only the requisite minimum number of MPs who would be proportionately selected by the different political parties.
The longer the country gets used to being without its parliament, greater will be the prospect of parliament becoming a redundant disposable. Already self-serving individuals are beginning to question the need for parliament, to envisage a future soft dictatorship without a bothersome legislature, and to suggest that Sri Lanka has accidently stumbled on a Singaporean style government and must keep it that way. These are aspirations similar to the advices that Maithripala Sirisena was given and for acting on which he paid dearly and politically.
Government is god
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is considered to be too smart to fall wholesale for such supplicant entreaties like his predecessor. But there have been more than retail problems. The most important are the legitimate, indeed humane questions about the impacts the constantly extended curfews are having on the people and disabling them from getting their basic necessities of life. The government has responded through a large (constitutionally questionable) cabinet-size Task Force under Basil Rajapaksa, but the question is how long this arrangement is to go on, because there is no quick end in sight in the fight against the coronavirus.
The problem is also equally about people’s income when virtually all non-agricultural activities are closed. There have been a number of fiscal and financial initiatives but nothing to compensate for the loss of daily, weekly and monthly incomes of working people in the informal and formal sectors of the economy. The idea to release 20% of EPF savings prematurely among 2.5 million workers, is lamebrained at every level, and thankfully it seems to have been severely ignored by the Central Bank and the President’s economic advisers.
The government has extremely limited fiscal room to maneuver, due in no small measure to the ill-advised rescinding of traditional tax collections. It has mounting debt repayment problems and the balance of payment crisis is only going to get worse and worser (to use Muhammed Ali’s poetic license). But the government is also the only provider God to whom working people can turn for money when they are rendered moneyless by a government lock out to prevent the virus spread. If the (government) god were to fail, people will be justified in spelling it backward to damn the government.
These are totally unprecedented times when a crisis has indeed become critical, belying Sir Francis de Zoysa’s old adage that “in Ceylon, no crisis ever becomes critical.” In such times, it would make utmost sense for the government to divert whatever cashflow it can garner from debt moratoriums, international grants, and savings due to rock bottom oil prices (even though sales revenues will also drop due to falling demand) – to first keep paying government employees; second, to supplement private sector employers to keep their employees on payroll and pay them the government’s supplement and whatever they (employers) can top it with; and third (not in an order of importance) to provide direct financial support to informal sector workers estimated to number nearly half the country’s population. The alternative would be mass starvation.
Giving money to the people through work (or during lockdowns) is more efficient than rationing food supply and other basic necessities. Amartya Sen found that out in his study of the 1943 Bengal famine that killed between two and three million Bengalis. No society deserves to relive those miseries. Practically every western government with the exception of the US is supplementing up to 75% or higher, the wage bills of private businesses to ward off layoffs and disruption of employment contracts during the current crisis. And these governments are creating money as they go, just like a god, to help their workers to make ends meet. The spectre of inflation can wait. A positive outcome of all of this could be the establishment of a universal basic income in every country.
Sri Lanka should do its mite to move in that direction by starting to look after the incomes of its people now caught in a necessary shutdown by their government. There is no denying or diminishing the challenge at hand. There will be plenty of detail devils to be sorted out to provide financial assistance to the informal sector workers, a majority of whom may not have a bank account or a documented form of income. That exercise alone will require additional human resources and new job opportunities in what is akin to a war economy.
So, there is a lot more to be done besides waiting for the virus to disappear under a national curfew. When the curfew is lifted, to paraphrase what the Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told fellow Americans, the virus won’t remember that it was under a curfew. It will, as is its wont, resume spreading relentlessly. The global and local pictures are becoming grimmer every week. In its global sweep, the novel coronavirus has moved the epicenter of the pandemic from east to west. The Americans are bracing for the worst, from temperate New York to hot and humid New Orleans. Sri Lanka is waiting under a curfew. God only knows what awaits India when Modi ends his Janata curfew, which he is now promising to do in stages. And only the South Koreans are going to the polls.