Deepening Crisis & Political Muddling

By Rajan Philips –

Rajan Philips

“I can’t go as a failed president” – Gotabaya Rajapaksa

“I am the crisis Prime Minister” – Ranil Wickremesinghe

“Our family is better at politics than at governance” – Basil Rajapaksa

It is now a month after Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister. Apart from his plethora of statements, endless announcement of committees, and the eccentric suggestion for a whole new ‘youth parliament,’ there is no change in the country’s day to day economic life. It is no exaggeration to say that without India’s almost daily shipment of supplies, Sri Lanka will not be able to meet its daily requirements of essentials. Is India going to be the sole source for essential supplies until agreements are reached with the IMF? Talks with IMF take time and both the IMF and the World Bank have indicated that no financing arrangement will be possible until an acceptable macroeconomic framework is in place. IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice told reporters in Washington last week that it is still “too early” to indicate either the magnitude of IMF financing or the timing of its agreement. The picture cannot be grimmer.

Without an IMF agreement including debt restructuring, the Sri Lankan government cannot approach individual countries for supplementary assistance which will be needed in the short to medium term. In obvious desperation the government has asked United Nations help to mobilize international assistance to meet the country’s urgent needs in health care, food and agriculture, and emergency protection. The UN agency in Sri Lanka has already launched a Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) Plan, calling for US$47.2 million for providing assistance to 1.7 million people affected by the current crisis. An estimated 5.7 million women, children and men are in need of immediate life-saving assistance. These are the stark realities.

But there is no desperation or urgency on the political front. Even as the economic crisis deepens, politics has shifted back to its business as usual mode of operation. It is classic muddling-through mode in parliament despite the burning crisis all around. Last week was full of muddling political moves, none of them with any concern for the economic crisis. Every move was self-serving political jostling.

The week began with the usually uncommunicative President opening himself to Colombo’s foreign media last Monday and offering somewhat of a resigned ultimatum. “I can’t go as a failed president,” he said. “I have been given a mandate for five years. I will not contest again.” The President’s statement is at once a soft ultimatum, an admission of failure and resignation to being a one-term President. All of which are significant victories for Aragalaya.

The President’s interview was followed by the Prime Minister who in fact has been making statement after statement almost to the point of pre-occupational rambling. Last week before addressing parliament yet again, Ranil Wickremesinghe called himself “the crisis Prime Minister” in an interview with NDTV. Champika Ranawaka tried to steal some limelight midweek by announcing that he will switch from SJB and be an ‘independent’ MP in parliament, calling for an interim national government but vowing not to be a Minister in the current Administration.

Thursday was all Basil-day, as Basil Rajapaksa made headlines with the brother of all resignations. The younger Rajapaksa has been at the centre of media criticisms for allegedly trying to scuttle even the highly watered-down 21A because it includes a provision to bar dual citizens from being MPs. He finally threw in the towel and decided to leave parliament but not politics. And he clarified his departure as ‘retiring from governance’ but not from active politics. Then he added this gem of a nugget for good measure: “I think we can see that our family is better at politics than at governance.” Lastly, he showed his absolute ignorance of not only Indian history and politics but also Sri Lankan history and politics by comparing the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India.

Within a day after Basil’s resignation, the SLPP, Basil’s Party, announced that business tycoon Dhammika Perera will be replacing Basil Rajapaksa as its new National List MP. Mr. Perera may or may not prove to be a worthy member of parliament, but the question is what special skills he will bring to bear for addressing the current challenges. Earlier, there was much talk about bringing professional economists as National List MPs into parliament and taking them into cabinet as key ministers to deal with the current crisis. But professional economists do not carry the same political IOUs as business tycoons. After all the talk about a lean and diverse cabinet of ministers, the new Ranil-Rajapaksa cabinet continues to keep expanding and it is inclusive not of any special talent but of only old bandicoots.

What lies ahead

Looking ahead, most pundits will likely weigh in advising Aragalaya protesters that they should accept the President’s offer to leave after one term (some worthies may even consider it magnanimous), and not insist on having the pound of presidential flesh by way of calling for his resignation by next week. The way Basil did last week. Insofar as Aragalaya is a spontaneous eruption in response to unbearable objective conditions, it is difficult to see who in Aragalaya is to be advised, and who could take advice for Aragalaya.

Those who rush to advise Aragalaya should also examine if they have any advice to offer to the President – how he should conduct himself and what goals he could set for himself for the remainder of his one-term presidency. Without this President and the manner of his presidency, there would not have been any cause for, or any outcome like, Aragalaya. In the same way, the future course of Aragalaya will be shaped by the economic and the political crises facing the country and how the President, the Prime Minister and Parliament deal with these crises in the weeks and months ahead.

Between the President and his Prime Minister, the President hardly says anything on the economic crisis and the Prime Minister hardly stops saying too much about the two crises – the economic and the political. Even in his “wide ranging interview” with the foreign media, the President did not say anything substantial on the economic crisis after indicating that he plans to serve out his first term. He is already a failed President and if he wants that tag removed before he leaves office, he should say something about what he is going to do differently over the next two years, from what he has been doing over the last two.

As for the political crisis, and its constitutional implications, the President pontificated: “Either the presidency should be abolished or the parliament is kept out of governing. You can’t have a mixed system. I experienced this and now know. People may blame me when I tell this but that’s the truth. What is this executive (powers) of the president? My personal opinion is that if you have a presidency he must have full powers. Otherwise abolish executive presidency and go for full Westminster-style parliament.”

This is profound presidential confusion. What power is he lacking as President that has led Sri Lanka to its current crisis? Or in what way has Parliament, where his SLPP was having two-thirds majority, interfered with the exercise of his powers that he could not prevent Sri Lanka from sliding to its current mess? Obviously, the President doesn’t get it that there cannot be any system, purebred or hybrid, where without having an elected body to pass laws, usually called parliament. Parliament cannot be kept out of governing in a democracy.

With the President saying that he intends to serve out his one term as President, the SLPP MPs will likely assume that they are safe for the rest of their tenure as MPs. They may even fancy their chances in the next elections – they can claim credit if the economy turns around, or blame Ranil Wickremesinghe if it doesn’t. In this set up, it is difficult to envisage significant constitutional changes. If at all the watered down version of 21A that Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is championing may get passed. Then it will be even more business as usual politics.

But everything can change on a dime depending on how the economic situation unfolds. The situation is not going to get better any time soon, and it will likely get worse than what it is now. The people when they have to suffer more will not remember kindly the opportunities that are being missed now by the Ranil-Rajapaksa dyarchy. Aragalaya will rise again. By then, hopefully, it would be time for Aragalaya protesters and the political parties who support their cause, to set their sights beyond the current parliament and to transform parliament itself by weeding out the old and corrupt MPs and replacing them with young reform MPs.

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