Promises to keep and miles to go

As we come to the end of another Gregorian calendar year, it is stock taking time on the State of the Union.The beginning of the year was a watershed in the recent annals of this country. A once exceedingly popular leader, described only by his detractors as a ‘dictator’ and referred to in the foreign media as ‘strongman’, whose authoritarian rule brought about both, positive and negative results was hauled down from office by popular vote — but the man himself has refused to go into political oblivion.

It wasn’t that ‘any broomstick’ could have defeated him. Helped by external forces keen on a ‘regime change’ in Sri Lanka, local opponents presented a credible alternative. That the least the people knew of such a candidate was best, for such a politician would have lesser warts, and given the strong, charismatic persona of the then incumbent, the country opted for a more mellow substitute.

The first words of the former President when elected to the highest office in 2005 was that he would not have any Presidential advisers; that he will only listen to the voice of the people. He ended up having the most number of advisers and listening only to a small coterie. The incumbent President’s first words were that he would do away with the Executive Presidency. And so he will, in 2020 at the end of his term. In an interview with our sister newspaper today he says, even thereafter, he only said he would not be the President.

Those are individual choices a President in office makes, but there is a hint of how such an office changes the mindset of an incumbent; the ‘trappings of powers’. In a functioning democracy, the people will have the last say, some day, on those decisions.

At the end of the first year of a National Unity Government, the credits and debits would arguably even out, with the tilt on the credits. There is confusion all around; there is indecision; there is too much cackle and too little action; but there is an element of tranquility.

The ghosts from the past, however, still linger. And the incumbent President is not secure in the saddle. He is made to watch over his shoulder as his predecessor seeks revenge by unsettling him; in all likelihood forming his own breakaway faction of party (SLFP) faithfuls. Bitter with the incumbent’s own breakaway to link up with the sworn enemy (UNP) such a move will spilt the SLFP in two.

It is not that the headaches are limited to the President. The Prime Minister faces similar undercurrents working with a party other than his towards the magical two-thirds majority needed for a new Constitution. Whether that new Constitution is the panacea for all ills has to be seen. One need not be a soothsayer to predict internecine battles within both the SLFP and the National Unity Government in 2016.

On the economic front, the depreciating rupee, a gaping budget deficit, debt repayments and continuing trade union protests are the likely scenario. By 2020 the repayment of massive loans taken annually by the Rajapaksa administration will start to kick in. There is a four year grace period for this Government to get its act together.

It is not a Doomsday scenario. Yet, it is an uphill task for the nearly new Government. One does not envy those at the helm. Having pushed aside the Mahinda Rajapaksa juggernaut and cleared the roadblock, the collective leadership of the National Unity Yahapalanaya Government is still finding its way on the bumpy road ahead — and there are miles to go in the New Year.

2016: Quo vadis the world?
This was a year of terror and counter-terror, with seemingly confused world powers struggling to quench the very fire they kindled in West Asia by adding still more fuel to it. Yet a political solution, which is often preferred advice to others to follow is not totally out of their reach.

Oil-rich West Asia is burning. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other ravaged places, the suffering people get little attention, while a crazed attack in Paris or California gets the full and sustained media spotlight. A million refugees flee to Europe believing it is better to risk dying at sea than live back home. In Syria alone, more than 250,000 people have been killed and more than half the country’s 24 million population made refugees or internally displaced in four years of violence, the root of which is not so much President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial rule but power politics involving the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other regional countries. Beneath the Arab Spring coating of the Syrian civil war was an effort to undermine Iran’s influence in the region. Knowingly or unknowingly, they all allowed a monster like ISIS aka ISIL aka IS aka Daesh to emerge as one of the most brutal terrorist organisations the world has seen in recent years, and wrest control of vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

The seven decade-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues unabated. However, some sensitivity to the common destiny of the world at large was seen at the Paris global summit on climate change, but again the non-binding nature of the COP21 raises the question of whether it will go the same way of previous Rio, Kyoto and Copenhagen summits which produced no tangible action to control global warming.

With the re-emergence of Russia as a world military power showcasing its armaments in Ukraine and Syria and with the rise of China, there is growing Cold War-like rivalry between the United States and China. While the spotlight is on the US led economic sanctions on Russia over Moscow’s direct support to Ukrainian separatist rebels, what is equally concerning are the tensions in the South China Sea where China and the United States are engaged in tit-for-tat provocative actions. With the US pursuing its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy of checking China, the rivalry is also seen in the economic sphere. To counter China’s Silk Route project, which also includes a maritime silk route incorporating Sri Lanka among other countries in the Indian Ocean, the US has launched a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, defining it as a process where countries like China will not be allowed to write the rules of the global economy. As old as the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is the Indo-Pakistan issue. Friday’s surprise visit by the Indian Premier to Lahore gives new hope that tensions between India and Pakistan will ease and a new beginning of rapprochement will overlap into the New Year.

On the positive side, 2015 also saw Iran signing a deal with world powers to scale down its nuclear programme and Myanmar entering a new phase where pro-democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi is facing a daunting task of establishing democracy under the watchful eyes of the military.

Overall 2015 was more war than peace; despair more than hope; gloom more than light. Quo Vadis the World Order in 2016?