Ousting GR to Reduce CoL or Strengthen Economy?

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The Sri Lankan political situation is presently at its most indecisive moments in living memory. Anti-government protests that began over four months ago had successfully ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. With each passing day, since the protests began, the call for the President’s and his Prime Ministers’ (first Mahinda Rajapaksa and then Ranil Wickremesinghe) resignation rapidly built in crescendo. 

Within this short space of time, the rare two-third majority government lost its strength to become a simple majority government. Despite President Gotabaya’s efforts to form an All-party Interim Government, the Opposition remained insistent that President must resign. Even some of the SLPP MPs began to echo this demand.

On 8 July 2022–eve of the fateful rally – the President, in a special statement, announced that with the Indian credit line gas and fuel stocks will arrive in the Island on 12 July 2022. He also noted that: 

Stocks of essential medicines have been received, The first consignment of 44,000 MT of a total 75,000 MT fertiliser from India is to arrive on 9 July 2022,

Measures are taken to introduce a number of agricultural programmes to prevent food shortages. 

Furthermore, the statement read that the draft for the 22nd Constitutional amendment had received Cabinet’s nod. 

As the country is about to reap the benefits of a long and painstaking  effort, the President appealed to the public not to be misled by the Opposition’s misconstrued messages. The prevailing crisis is not unique to Sri Lanka, explained the President, but a global issue wrought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even countries with strong economies have been affected. However, it is those countries like Sri Lanka with weak monetary reserves that have got adversely affected. 

Regardless of this message, thousands of protesters converged at the President’s House in Fort. Around noon the protesters entered the President’s House and some were seen frolicking in the pool. Later, the protesters managed to force their way into another State building as well as the President’s Office and took selfies sitting on President’s chair. The scenes were remarkably reminiscent to that of the Arab Springs. 

They also broke into Wickremesinghe’s private residence and set the place on fire at around 9 p.m. An hour before the vandalisation, a group of  Police in anti-riot gear was seen near the vicinity clobbering some civilians believed to be from the media. Soon after, men in helmets swarmed the area and began their attack on the premises. 

Thereafter, the Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena wrote to the President to inform him of the decisions taken at the special party leaders’ meeting that was urgently convened on Saturday to address the growing agitation. 

Close to midnight, the Speaker announced, via a press conference, that President Gotabaya has informed that he will resign from the Presidency on 13 July 2022. His reason to wait for four days, explained the statement, is to enable the peaceful transition of power. Hence, the need for further agitation is unnecessary. Therefore, President’s request to all was to maintain the necessary peace to facilitate this power transition. 

The Rising Star

On 6 July 2022, the civil organisation, Sarvapakshika Aragalakaruwo, organised a conference to garner support for the rally from the Opposition, other civil societies and the public. Among those who pledged support were the SJB and the JVP. 

Leader of the Opposition and the SJB, Sajith Premadasa, was physically present at this conference. Yet intriguingly, when SJB MP Rajitha Senaratne tried to join the protests, he was pelted with water and other items. He had to be immediately escorted away to safety. 

A similar incident occurred on 9 May 2022.  During the clash between the protesters and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters at the Galle Face Green, Premadasa arrived at the site as a show of support for the protesters. However, the protesters turned on him and began to attack him as well. Had his security not pushed him back into his vehicle, which then sped off at record speed, undoubtedly Premadasa too might have met a similar fate as MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala, who was lynched to death. 

Conversely, JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka mingled with the protesters without an issue. Eventually, the JVP admitted that their entire political machinery had been on the ground managing the protests from the beginning. This admission challenges the notion that the anti-government protests are apolitical. 

Interestingly, while all parties have been losing voter confidence, JVP alone is seeing an upward trend in approval. Over the years since the late ’80s JVP has changed in many ways. It is certainly no longer the impoverished party that had supporters collecting funds in tins on the street. At the same time, its leaders have not been seen in the characteristic flashy vehicles that politicians tend to favour. 

Whether the present JVP still stands for the Marxist principles of its founder Rohana Wijeweera is unclear. As a strong proponent of the Yahapalana Government, that privatised the Hambantota Port, it may be that JVP’s current thinking supports more liberal policies. 

Despite this obscurity there is a marked gravitation of admiration towards the JVP. The attraction is the image of a clean, uncorrupt party that is a fearless whistleblower – though none of their allegations have amounted to anything more than fodder for press conferences. 

Usually, unpopularity of a government translates into the popularity of its main Opposition. Thus, the growing popularity of a political party that had only a voter presence of three per cent at the 2015 general elections and not to the main Opposition is an unusual development. How if this would be reflected at the polls of course remains to be seen. Election results do not necessarily do justice to the crowds drawn at rallies. 

What the Protesters Want

At the Sarvapakshika Aragalakaruwo’s conference a four-point proposal was presented. In a nutshell they want:

  • – The immediate resignation of both incumbent President and Premier, 
  • – An interim government without any corrupt element from the Rajapaksa government, 
  • – Cost of living brought down, promotion of vital sectors and job security,
  • – Executive powers of President pruned. 

How these lofty demands can be fulfilled is the question. At a recent interview with the Al Jazeera, Wickremesinghe candidly admitted, “We are buying fuel either using Indian credit lines or the foreign exchanges we get from remittances. The remittances are a small amount, but nevertheless, we sometimes get a billion dollars or a billion and half. The rest of the reserves from what we got from the creditors have already been busted.”

This is how we have been living – “busting” all we earn and borrow on consumables. This leaves very little money to invest in our economic engine. We have now declared ourselves to be a bankrupt nation. As such, we no longer have the luxury of rolling from loan to loan. This is because creditors are most unwilling to lend to a nation that cannot repay their debts. 

Our next option would be to privatise our assets if we are to prioritise the first part of the third demand – i.e. reducing the cost of imported essentials that are anyway already subsidised. Then, we cannot fulfil the second part of this same demand – i.e. promoting vital economic sectors and assuring job security. 

Therefore, the obvious choices before us are:

Improve our income by increasing revenue avenues, reducing waste and eliminating corruption so that these imports deemed essential are affordable; 

Or

Beg, borrow, sell or do what it takes to continue to binge as we always had done. 

Clearly, we can no longer live as a first world country with a third world economy. We will have to make our choice fast if we are to make peace with the All-party Interim Government and Governments thereafter. 

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(The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ceylon Today)

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe