In spite of the landslide victory to the SLPP at the local polls, the acrimonious campaign between the MS-RW couple, driven almost to the verge of permanent divorce, and the theorization of constitutional pundits and soothsayers about the future design of the government, the country is back to square one with the same faces and with the same policies. How much of pressure from international players like India and the US was brought in to save the MS-RW matrimony one can only guess. The main question now facing the country is, what next?
The voters who showed their utter disgust of the MS-RW regime in the local elections are not worried about any constitutional changes or who holds which ministry in the cabinet. (In fact the voters know the character and background of each of the ministers, their deputies and other representatives in the parliament. Nothing is a secret in a country like Sri Lanka). But the voters’ main concern is about the rising cost of living and corruption in government circles. In a way these two evils are interlinked. Corruption in public administration is partly the cause for rising cost of living. On the one hand, the government’s commitment to work within a neoliberal open economy makes it hard to contain cost increases, a greater part of which is imported. If the regime decides to intervene in setting prices arbitrarily, that will earn the wrath of its international managers, which will prove detrimental to the regime’s international dealings in the future. On the other hand corruption adds to the imported costs, because the middlemen will always pass the corruption cost on to the final consumer. Eradicating corruption will certainly remove the locally added component of the cost of living. The problem is therefore systemic and cannot be tackled in a piecemeal fashion.
On corruption, Transparency International has shown that the situation remains as it was when the new rulers came to power in 2015, although with the promise of eradicating it. Their failure to bring the culprits from the former regime to books and allowed the new ones to escape from justice demonstrates either the government’ lack of commitment or its incompetency or both to cure this cancer. No wonder they received the drabbing from voters in the local elections. When the echelon at the top itself is corrupt cleaning up the subaltern is an impossibility. With the issues of cost of living and corruption remaining unresolved the government’s confidence deficit in the eyes of the public will only widen.
What is the alternative? The SLPP cannot expect it to be swept to power at the next general elections simply on a protest vote against the current regime. In fact, there is no guarantee that their success at the local polls will be repeated at the national one unless its economic policies and solution to the ethnic issue manifest radical changes. The former MR regime was also working within the neoliberal open economy paradigm in spite of its close links with China. One important lesson that China’s rapid economic development teaches to the world is the way it operates its markets. The market is given freedom but within the parameters set by the Chinese Five Year Plans. This is why some economists describe the Chinese economy a ‘bird cage economy’, where the bird is the market and cage is the plan. To apply this model to Sri Lanka will involve systemic change but will go a long way in containing the rise in cost of living provided corruption is also tackled at the same time. Is the SLPP or any other opposition party prepared to undertake this radical alternative?
The ethnic conundrum is a running sore in Sri Lankan polity. No national party irrespective of its hue wants to solve the problem, because by solving it the party loses the trump to win another election. Ever since SWRD let the ethnic genie out of the bottle no political party, including the ethnic parties, has demonstrated a sincere commitment to put the genie back where it was, in the interest of the country and nation. From JR to MR and MS and from FP to LTTE and TNA this had been the sad story. SLMC of course is an irrelevant element when it comes to national issues.
Corruption demands a clean and heavy hand at the top to be eradicated. The current one at the top has disqualified itself by its proven incompetency and lack of commitment. Corruption also was the major problem to the MR regime, which brought its downfall in 2015, in spite of its victory in the civil war.
The country is now back to square one politically after the latest hullabaloo, but is nowhere near to find solution to its ailing problems. It is time a new leadership emerges to take the nation in a new direction. Some argue that Sri Lankan democracy has matured by adopting a two party system. Yet, what is the difference between the two? One is Pepsi Cola and the other is Coca Cola.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia