By Kumar David –
Except restoration of democracy, government’s record is unimpressive
It’s the end of the year, nearly three years from 8 January 2015 and an opportunity to draw up two balance sheets. Today I will focus on the acts of commission and omission of the Sirisena-Ranil duumvirate and next week take a sharp look at Local Government (LG) elections slated for February. The latter will be a significant pointer, so I will keep you salivating for a week. Commentators agree that more than local administration hangs on the results, therefore I assure you it’s worth the wait.
A question frequently put to me is: “What do you now have to say about this government? Didn’t you canvas for the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa? Isn’t yahapalanaya a failure?” The question is directed at me because I am responsibile for originating the Single-Issue Common-Candidate concept taken forward by Rev Sobitha’s Just Society Movement, anti-Mahinda political parties and democratic and human rights activists. Most people cottoned on to the Common-Candidate (CC) strategy to facilitate the defeat of Rajapaksa, but few grasped the parameters of the Single-Issue (SI) concept. Let me explain this fine and nuanced line and clarify my mixed reaction to the shortcomings of yahapalanaya.
The CC strategy was pulled off by Sirisena, Ranil and Chandrika in a brilliant political coup. Hats off! The need to unite all who detested Mahinda-Gotabaya oppression, repression and slide to autocracy, was an easy idea to grasp. Millions cottoned on, refused to be intimidated by state power, resisted billions of rupees, and voted for a common candidate to drive Rajapaksa out of office. Bravo!
The more finessed point, SI, is that many, like me, who united to defeat Rajapaksa did so for one clearly articulated reason. The motive of those of us who voiced the Single-Issue concept was to pull Lanka out of a creeping dictatorship. This was the bottom line, the minimal agenda; anything more would be a bonus. Let me be clear; the purpose of SI-CC was to defeat MR-GR, halt the slide to dictatorship and abolish the all-powerful executive presidency. We harboured no assurance that much more would be achieved. Yes, there was hope on two related objectives; a constitution translating electoral victory into statutes, and second, vigorous action against corruption that had made Rajapaksa era abuse of power profitable. These were possible bonuses, but the minimum was to halt an erosion of democracy, dignity and human rights.
This is crucial: There was no illusion, there could possibly not have been any illusion on the Left, that a government led by the ideological heirs of JR Jayewardene and a woolly headed erstwhile Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalist without an economic strategy, would fashion an economic programme to gladden the hearts of leftists, socialists and Marxists. Those of us who endorsed SI as a minimum do not have any right to be disappointed if this government pursues a liberal-capitalist economic strategy. Anybody who expected Ranil to make his beloved uncle turn in the grave was a dreamer. The tenor of explicitly enunciated economic strategies of the yahapalana government is true to its form and as expected. I will explain at the end why, buffeted by the gales of global realpolitik, the government has been compelled to buck its much-loved neo-liberal inclinations.
My first response to my interlocuters is: “I am pleased on the Single-Issue theme. The defeat of the Rajapaksa regime and clan has achieved what was paramount, restoration of a modest quantum of democracy. Those pushing the nation to despotism have been routed – no more state and semi-state extrajudicial murders, no more white vans and arbitrary arrests, no more intimidation of journalists, no more dread of the police and military in the heart of every Tamil and Muslim”. This does not mean that the UNP or the Sirisena-SLFP will win future elections; such dynamics are more convoluted as Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 and Churchill in 1945 learnt the hard way.
To repeat: The overriding objective underlying SI-CC has been achieved. Anything more is a bonus, but before touching on bonuses let me add: The greater credit for restoring democracy belongs to the 8 January activists; only a lesser part can be credited to political leaders (I have already paid a handsome compliment to Sirisena, Ranil and Chandrika for translating the CC proposal into reality). I grant that though not perfect – where in the wold is a government perfect – yahapalanaya has, by and large, been supportive of democratic reforms (right to information, reconciliation, expanded media freedom and so on) but the government has been held on a short leash by its midwife, the January 8 forces, who can therefore claim a greater share of the credit for these reforms.
A new constitution, prosecutions to bring the multitude of Rajapaksa era crooks to book, and measures to stem corruption within the new administration, these are bonus dividends over and above the Single-Issue and would have been welcome. On these matters I share the public’s disappointment. Well, a new democratic constitution to replace JR’s abomination is, actually, more than a bonus; it flows from the need to cement the defeat of autocracy. It is a necessity to firm up the victory.
Indications at this time are that the constitution will fizzle out. The SLFP is a repository of Sinhala chauvinism and does not have the sentiment or the gall to support a modern constitution. It has advocated only Sinhalese interests for seventy years, its politicos are place-seekers who prospered as lick-spittle stooges of the powerful; think of (Dr) Mervyn Silva. Not one SLFPer, or for that matter Communist, Samasamajist or DLFer, opposed the 18th Amendment. What can one expect from such reptilian life-forms? The UNP too contains creepy-crawlies. Is this harsh? Maybe, but may I humbly ask you to pause and reflect on whether this is true. The truth, in turn, is a reflection of the Sri Lankan voter whose consciousness has not matured to pluralism and modernism.
Now you see my pessimism about two-thirds of these types of MPs supporting the abolition of the executive presidency, devolution of administrative power to minorities and many fine proposals contained in the six sub-committee reports. I hope I am wrong and that two-thirds will be forthcoming, but I am pessimistic. I have argued in this column before, and am willing to reiterate today, that if two-thirds can be found among the Kotte dunderheads, then the referendum can be carried relatively easily; high 50s and up to 60% support is conceivable even if Gota, Mahinda and GL Peiris stand on their empty heads.
There is universal disappointment, if not condemnation of the laws delays and insolence of office. Prosecutions are not filed for ages, cases are buried in the courts as deep as the Treasures of Tutankhamun, Ministers blame the Attorney General’s Department, the police are not allowed to do their job, and everyone agrees the judicial-legal system is ramshackle. Surely, part of the blame must rub-off on the government. If the system is buggered, doesn’t it have the power and the funds to fix it? Of course it has, but lacks motivation!
Explicit corruption charges against yahapalanaya big-wigs, Ministers and MPs are met with the defence that ‘sleaze is not as bad as in the Rajapaksa days’. Good heavens, what a minimal defence! The Bond Scam has done damage and established that the Prime Minister is not competent in the selection of persons of integrity and ability for key positions. Indrajit Coomaraswamy is an exception, but when else has the PM opted for excellence and expertise over old school tie, society types and sycophants? President Sirisena is not in the clear either. A proposal to buy a Russian Offshore Patrol ship for Rs 30 billion (three times the fraud alleged in the Bond Scam) is said by Muhammed Fazl (Colombo Telegraph, 22 Dec) to be a possible Sirisena scam. The Joint Opposition keeps deadpan silence on the matter, motivating Fazl to ask; is the scam in cahoots with the Rajapaksas? Though none of this, nor many lesser bandit stories about Ministers and MPs have been proved in court, allegations are many and the ‘ung okoma horu’ refrain has gained currency.
My minimal expectations, a) defeating the Rajapaksa Presidency and restoring democracy and b) abolishing the executive presidency, have been fulfilled, completely and partially, respectively. In respect of other expectations, those who were very hopeful are, understandably, disappointed, others like this correspondent who were only keeping their fingers crossed for a bonus pay-out, are not surprised. That’s the truth of it.
Backsliding on neo-liberalism
Not just Mangala but the government as a whole is schizophrenic on economic strategy. Ranil, Charitha and Manik chorus hosannas to free-market capitalism, serenade wild-ass liberalism and croon to the global and domestic private sector. The last named will, they say, ride in on a great white stallion to rescue the stranded UNP maiden. Neither knight nor stallion have, so far, been sighted. Global capitalism is in retreat and multinationals are reluctant to invest except in safe havens like China. Global FDI peaked at $1.9 trillion in 2007, collapsed to $1.2 trillion in 2009 and recovered only partially by 2016; FDI inflows to developing countries shrank by 14% from $752 billion in 2015 to $646 billion in 2016 (UNCTAD data). Lanka has not bucked the trend and FDI has fluctuated between $900 billion and $700 billion between 2011 to 2016. Global capital is in hibernation while domestic capital has shallow pockets and is overcome by stupor.
Actions speak louder than words. Every mega economic initiative of yahapalanaya has been state-to-state. Note the $1.1 billion Hambantota Harbour and economic zone, intended lease of the Matala white elephant to India, continuation of Colombo Port City, proposals for 1200 MW of coal power in a belated attempt to contain further aggravation of the Rs 220 billion Sampoor cancellation blunder, and the much talked of Economic Zone in the East with Indian participation. Where are the nourishing FDI inflows of private capital? Mangala can huff and he can puff and he can blow the House down in Sri Jayewardenepura, but the directive axis of foreign investment in Sri Lanka will remain state-led. Let them (Ranil, Mangala and the golden oldies) sleepwalk into it; no matter, so long as they sleepwalk in the right direction.