“Everywhere under the vast Heaven
There is no land that is not the king’s.
To the borders of those lands,
There are none who are not the king’s servants.”
Shijing (The Book of Odes – believed to have been compiled by Confucius)
Lankan democracy is facing a terminal crisis, caught between the Scylla of the IMF and the Charybdis of China. The IMF and China are very different animals. But the sum total of their lending practices could existentially undermine Lankan democracy by enabling the return of the Rajapaksa rule in its most virulent form, a Gotabhaya presidency.
The devastating societal consequences of the recent sharp hike in fuel prices need no belabouring. The knock-on-effects will pile up over the coming months, hurting the already fragile living conditions of ordinary Lankans. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s inability to learn any meaningful lessons from its crushing defeat at the February LG polls is evident in the in-your-face-manner in which the oil price increase was implemented. A price increase was inevitable given the sudden hike in global crude oil prices. But this could have been done in stages to minimise the direct and indirect effects on the more vulnerable segments of the populace.
If the government had wanted to see the deleterious effects of a massive oil price hike, it could have studied the Rajapaksa experience of 2012. The Rajapaksa regime implemented a massive oil price hike in February 2012, causing an across-the-board increase in the prices of consumer essentials. Fishermen carried out protests against the steep increase in kerosene oil prices. On February 14, 2012, the police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Negambo, killing Anthony Fernando, a young fisherman.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has announced its intention of ‘adjusting’ oil prices every two months, in accordance with global crude prices. Thanks to the policies of President Donald Trump, global oil prices are likely to go up in the coming months. Taking the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, shifting American embassy to Jerusalem and giving Israel and Saudi Arabia carte blanche do deal with their politico-religious enemies cannot but further destabilise an already volatile region. The electoral outcomes in Iran and Lebanon, the undeclared war in Yemen and the massacre of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators by Israel forces in Gaza will be fodder to the political and sectarian fires consuming the Middle East (some commentators are even talking about the possibility of a shooting war between Iran and Israel). Given this context, global crude prices are likely to increase rather than decrease in the foreseeable future.
If that is the case, what will the government do? Increase oil prices every two months, with three elections in the offing? Even without further price hikes, the government’s fate at the first round of provincial council elections, scheduled for November 2018, is almost sealed. The UNP and the SLFP will get another drubbing in November. Add once-in-two-months oil price hikes to the equation and the extent of the government’s defeat will turn phenomenal. That defeat will reignite a national political crisis as well as crises within the SLFP and the UNP, and transform a Gotabhaya presidency into a near inevitability.
The twin pincers of the IMF and China
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government entered into an Extended Debt Facility agreement with the IMF in 2016. About half of the money is yet to be released and gaining access to the next tranche would have depended on fulfilling at least some of IMF conditions. That they included aligning national oil prices with global prices is no secret. The hike in oil prices is thus – at least in part – an outcome of the IMF’s insistence on its pound of flesh before releasing the next tranche of its loan.
The IMF facility is scheduled to end in 2019. The releasing of the final tranche too is likely to be subject to further price hikes – just in time for presidential elections. If Maithripala Sirisena or Ranil Wickremesinghe expects to win the presidency under such conditions, they are as out of touch with reality as the technocratic bureaucrats of the IMF.
The IMF – unlike China – cannot be accused of having a preference for Rajapaksa rule. But wittingly or unwittingly, its inability to understand that an economy does not exist in a vacuum and its resultant insistence on politico-electorally devastating economic policies will open the door even wider for a Rajapaksa return. When the obituary of Lankan democracy is being written, the IMF and its decision to push a democratic administration to the wall should deserve special mention.
True, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for the worsening of Lanka’s debt crisis. It came into office criticizing the Rajapaksas for pushing the country into a debt trap through corruption, waste and extravagance. Instead of making a clean break with Rajapaksa economics – as if pledged to do – it opted to follow the same disastrous path. The decision to go ahead with the Central Expressway Project (hardly a necessity given the country’s economic and financial woes, not to mention environmental factors) and the manner in which it is being implemented demonstrate that this government knows no other way than to follow Rajapaksa footsteps towards financial ruin and political disaster.
A recent report by the Centre for Global Development, a leading think-tank based in Washington, placed Sri Lanka among 25 countries highly vulnerable to Chinese debt distress. As The Economist pointed out, “The Hambantota schemes were vanity projects for the then-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. His closeness to China was one reason for his surprise defeat in elections in 2015. A rising interest bill forced the government of his successor, Maithripala Sirisena, to agree on a debt-for-equity swap that gives China a 99-year lease on the port.”i
The Chinese, like the IMF, do not hesitate to demand its pound of flesh and more from countries caught in its debt trap. In Sri Lanka, they were not satisfied with getting the Hambantota port on a 99 year lease. They also wanted 15,000 acres to set up an exclusive economic zone. The government gave in.
The effects of this disastrous deal are already evident. The government is being forced to shift a wind farm in Hambantota because the port’s new overlords are demanding rent payments – naturally. Once the clearing of the jungle begins, the direct effects on the neighbouring communities will become apparent, from the drying up of scarce water sources to the exacerbation of elephant-human conflicts. And these deleterious effects will start being felt just in time for presidential and parliamentary elections.
In Buddhist literature there is a story about a man faced with three life-threatening dangers. He is hanging on to a branch. Below him is a pit with a cobra; around him is the thick jungle with a none-too-friendly elephant; coiled around the branch is another snake. The man ignores the three deaths and eats honey off a bee hive.
That is the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration. Its fate is written in the political firmament. If living costs are not tamed – a seeming impossibility – the UNP and the SLFP will lose, and lose badly, at the provincial council election. The victorious SLPP will launch a political campaign, demanding an immediate general election. The anti-Maithripala forces in the SLFP and the anti-Ranil forces in the UNP will gain a new lease of life. A powerful section of the SLFP will demand that the president ditches the alliance with the UNP and forms a pact with the Rajapaksas. A powerful section of the UNP will clamour for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s immediate ouster from the party leadership. As the crisis escalates, the SLFP will experience one or more schisms – and so might the UNP. The political crisis will worsen economic conditions. The crisis in the government will become transformed into a governance crisis. Even if the government survives, it will be mortally wounded and dependent on artificial respiration to defer death until the presidential election.
Both Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Sirisena have expressed their desire to contest the presidency. Clearly neither has learnt any of the lessons from the electoral drubbing of February. The government might have a chance – albeit a very slim one – of overcoming its existential crisis, but only if it acts as a unity. Neither the UNP nor the SLFP can win if it contests separately. For the government unity is not a choice; it is a necessity. Unity in itself cannot ensure survival for the SLFP and the UNP; but sans unity, both will die.
Beijing Man, in Colombo?
Empires set trends, not just sartorial or socio-cultural but also political. A recent article analysed how China uses the Belt and Road project to extend its technical standards beyond its shoresii. Given China’s status as nascent global power, it will make a conscious effort to transmit, regionally and globally. its own set of political and economic standards as well.
To a world that is becoming disillusioned with democracy’s inability to live up to its promises China’s way of doing things might hold a perverse attraction. For many especially in the third world, the idea of a paternalistic state willing to walk the talk might seem a better alternative, even if it involves losing those basic freedoms which marks the difference between citizen and servant. That bargain has been made before in history. Democratic people often have this secret yearning for a bit of useful/functional tyranny. Tyranny cannot be compartmentalised and enjoyed in digestible bits, but by the time a free people understands that reality, they are no longer free to unmake their choice.
Take for instance China’s new Social Credit System. It was proposed in 2014 and is supposed to come into effect nationally this year (versions are being implemented in parts of the country). According to this Orwellian system, if you are good the state will reward you (a visa to Singapore, for instance); it you are bad, the state will punish you (no airline or even train tickets). The System is supposed to rank the entire Chinese populace according to a number of criteria ranging from how they do their school work to their political activities. The underlying ethos is supposed to be to be, in the words of China’s Strongman-for-life President Xi Jinping, “Allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”iii
Chinese political activist Hu Jia calls China not a police state but a police empireiv. And the expansion of Chinese power and influence will encourage anti-democratic ideas and choices, especially in those third world countries caught in the Chinese debt trap. Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has become quite amenable to Chinese demands, the dissemination of Chinese influence will be naturally advantageous not to the government but to the Rajapaksa project.
Currently, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is busy reinventing himself as an intellectual-technocrat. He has even started dictating a weekly column to Lankadeepa, an irony given his well known opinion of the media. According to the pro-Rajapaksas website Lanka c news, Mr. Rajapaksa went to China on March 30th to undertake a month’s course on economic management and governance. (‘Gotabhaya summoned to China—-leaves today itself—-taught a secret course on governance and economic, proclaimed the caption).v This course was probably a fast-training for his political debutant ball, held fittingly at Shangri La. The hotel has been built in the land which housed the army headquarters. According to a media report, the land was sold by Mr. Rajapaksa because he wanted to build a Pentagon-style behemoth in Akuregoda to house all three forces!vi
The government is probably hoping that sibling-rivalry will torpedo the Gotabhaya project. That is engaging in wishful thinking of the suicidal variety. The Rajapaksas have internal differences but at crucial moments the family will work as a family to the greater glory of the family. If the JVP’s attempt to introduce the 20th Amendment fails, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is likely to be the presidential candidate of the SLPP. And unless a miracle happens, he is likely to emerge, if not the outright winner, at least the highest vote getter.
Democracies with strong traditions, enduring institutions and an aware public can survive anti-democratic leaders. Donald Trump might admire tyrants; he might wish he can be one. But he cannot in the US. Countries like Sri Lanka are quite another matter. Here, democracy can be undermined and negated from within, as we discovered during the Rajapaksa years. It can happen again, and in a far more terminal way, if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency. All it would take would be a few deaths.