Though Ranil Wickremesinghe prefers to shoot from the mouth, he is neither Pinochet nor Lee Kuan Yew and would chicken out at the sight of one big orchestrated protest against life-saving economic reforms.


Ranga Jayasuriya

The rallying cry in political circles nowadays is a call for snap elections as if that would produce a magic wand to solve the economic crisis. This coterie of newly minted champions of electoral rights comes in all hues, many of whom do not see eye to eye on many issues.

By extension of their argument, the current government does not have a political mandate to fix the country’s broken economy, implement the IMF program or pursue debt restructuring.

Similarly, ultra-nationalist monks and usual race baiters argue that the president has no mandate for the full implementation of the 13th amendment- irrespective of the fact that the 13A is already part and parcel of the Constitution.

What percentage of the Sri Lankan population considers elections as the immediate priority is unknown. Opinion polls that survey the blatantly obvious- such as whether the public is unhappy with the country’s current status- have not asked whether the people want snap Parliamentary elections or provincial council elections.

Would a fresh electoral mandate provide a semblance of legitimacy, coherence and efficiency to implement the economic reform agenda?

Never mind, ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected in a landslide.

Most destructive of his economic policies, such as sweeping tax concessions and his carbonic agricultural policy, were taken right off from his election manifesto.

The stubborn fact is that Sri Lankans historically have never voted for economic reforms or to drag the country out of its persistent subpar economic performance. Like it or not, they have voted against it.

Call it economic illiteracy or an inflated sense of entitlement. Sri Lanka’s modest welfare state and the government that had inflated its role to do every other work have also thrown breadcrumbs at every quarter of the society.

Most voters were more content with retaining this lowly but complacent status quo than supporting reforms that would, in the short term, upset, but in the long term, uplift their lives.

Also, decades-long protectionism and ideological dogma might have prevented the Sri Lankans from collectively dreaming big, though individually, every parent, who could afford, to send their offspring overseas.

So the bottom line is that an election, whether a local government or Parliamentary, would not provide a mandate for reform; instead, it would undermine it.

The other main concern is the sort of political dispensation that would emerge from elections. The dire economic conditions tend to make the winners out of the far left and far right, who offer no solutions but are good at exploiting public discontent.

In Greece, the Euro crisis saw the election of the far-left Five Star Movement, and in Argentina, a far-right rabble-rouser won the Presidential primaries last week.

That is the same textbook strategy adopted by those like the JVP and Peratugamies, though the latter may not have the slimmest chance to enter parliament, let alone rule.

However, as much as polarized, the Sri Lankan electorate is also risk aversive and would not vote overwhelmingly for the untested.

That would mean the most likely outcome of a snap General Election held this year, or even the first half of next year, would be a hung Parliament, split among three or four parties.

Such a government would be a hostage of its constituent parties and their trade union allies and unable to implement any policy, let alone IMF reforms.

Shortage not in free elections- but right policies

Sri Lanka’s problem is not the lack of competitive elections or a democracy deficit but the populist economic policies pursued since the independence, which have finally been vindicated as a self-inflicted disaster. The economic crisis has driven home a sense of urgency to fix that broken economy and unshackle it from monopolistic and protectionist interests that have cannibalized it.

That requires unpalatable reforms, ranging from divesting or restructuring State-owned enterprises, cutting the government to its optimum size and liberalizing many sectors that the government is monopolizing.

Instead of pumping money into loss-making SOEs and unsubstantial subsidies, the government should invest in what matters most, human capital and promote public-private and private investment in education.

Higher education, which has been a luxury of less than 10 per cent of youth, should be open to all of the nation’s children, backed by tuition fee loans from the government.

But these are the kind of reforms that would be vehemently opposed by those who have benefitted from these restrictive measures (Which are designed to limit the supply and kill the competition in the skilled labour market) and brainwashed drones who spew dogmatism.

A succession of governments has backed out in the past. You need someone driven by conviction to withstand that. Elections would not only distract but also weaken the government’s resolve for economic reforms.

There is one last stubborn fact. Though Sri Lanka’s economic collapse was unique, for it happened too quickly right before our eyes, Sri Lanka is not unique in having been held back all too long by self-imposed strictures that effectively robbed our prosperity.

Only a handful of countries have managed to break the mould of low economic development during the last fifty years in their own right (minus new East European entrants to the EU, who were showered with general finances).

And they, from South Korea to Singapore and Chile to Taiwan, were neither democracies nor held competitive elections during their development era. Nor are current high-growth economies, China and Vietnam.

Bangladesh, a Tiger by night, was held hostage by its two feuding widows for decades until Mrs Sheik Hasina, the incumbent, politically destroyed her rival Kalida Zia, who was sentenced to prison over alleged graft.

Some folks even fret about India’s democratic credentials, though whether India could pull off its sustained high growth without Modi’s populist authoritarianist approach is open to question.

Democracy and economic development do not have a positive correlation. The most important requisite for economic growth is not democracy in a classical sense but political stability and right business-friendly economic policies.

That does not mean democracy in Sri Lanka should be put on hold to facilitate development. Rather, that would mean hypocritic cants should not be used to undermine the mandatory economic reforms when they are most needed for the survival of the very state.

More so because, though Ranil Wickremesinghe prefers to shoot from the mouth, he is neither Pinochet nor Lee Kuan Yew and would chicken out at the sight of one big orchestrated protest against life-saving economic reforms.

That might serve the political aspirations of a few but would doom the country for another generation. Sri Lanka should fix the economy first, then go for elections. Not the other way around.

Courtesy:Daily Mirror