The executive presidency must go. The only question is how. Realistically, the only option is to push for the best possible 21st Amendment as an interim measure and as a bridge to a new constitution.

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Alas poor country!

Almost afraid to know itself.

It cannot,

Be call’d our mother, but our grave.”

– Shakespeare (Macbeth)

Sri Lanka: 2019, a lower middle income country; 2020, a bankrupted, beggared land, dependent on international charity for survival.

“Poor politics has shattered my life and this is my only hope to put food on the table for my children.” The speaker is a 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman who was forced by the unravelling economy to become a sex worker (The Telegraph – 28.5.2022).

Poor politics resulting in bad economics – that was what caused Sri Lanka’s dizzying slide from relative success to absolute failure. At a recent COPE meeting, Central Bank officials and Monetary Board members talked of the massive tax cut and the wasting of billions in foreign reserves to maintain the rupee at 203 to a dollar. Add mass money printing and an abracadabra-style fertiliser policy and you have it: How to ruin a country in four steps.

Dr. Ranee Jayamaha of the Monetary Board informed COPE that the IMF refused to give Sri Lanka a loan for balance of payment support under its Rapid Financing Instrument citing debt unsustainability. That was in the first half of 2020. That warning was swept under the carpet. The Rajapaksas, like the fox in the sour grapes story, cried, ‘Who needs the IMF!’

Why go over that old ground? The house is burnt, gutted; we should focus on putting up a basic shelter to shield ourselves from the worst of the storms. That is the Rajapaksa argument. But unless we understand why the house caught fire, how can we take measures to protect the new shelter from a similar calamity?

Bad politics breed bad economics. One family landed Sri Lanka in this mess. In February 2022, the pharmacy owners association warned that current medicine stocks were enough only for three months. By that time the Central Bank has already sold half of our gold reserves. The Government was too busy to take note. In February, Namal Rajapaksa inaugurated a water sports centre at the Colombo Port City “offering a range of exhilarating sea-borne experiences…aimed at filling an unmet need.” In the same month the President inaugurated the Dharmapala Park in Galle, renovated at Rs. 200 million, under his Strategic Cities Development Program. Even as late as end March, President Gotabaya was planning another visit to a State institution. A letter was issued to the staff of the Central Environment Authority telling them to get the COVID-19 booster shot and undergo an antigen test. The visit, scheduled for April Fool’s Day, was prevented only by the Mirihana protest.

Compared to the Rajapaksas, Nero seems hands on.

The concentration of power which enabled the Rajapaksa clan to bankrupt Sri Lanka must be ended. We must ensure that no one individual (with or without his family) can block our path to recovery and hurl us into ruin again.

Thus the importance of the 21st Amendment. Good economics cannot be without good politics; a new policy framework to raise revenue, cut costs, curb inflations, create an adequate safety net for the old and new poor must go hand in hand with the 21st Amendment.

The ideal shouldn’t be the enemy of possible

The Rajapaksas never left. They merely retreated into the woodwork until public anger subsided. Now they are back. Basil Rajapaksa is as busy as ever, pulling strings. His main concern is to keep formal power in the hands of the family. To do that, he must prevent the 21st Amendment.

The argument that economics must be given primacy over politics is a specious one, concocted in service of Rajapaksa power. The Rajapaksas who gutted the economy are now using the resultant pain to hang on to power. It is obscene but it may succeed, if the Opposition doesn’t get together to push the 21st Amendment through.

If we did not have a presidential system, one man and his family would not have been able to gut the economy with such ease and impunity. If we didn’t have a presidential system, the leader who set fire to the economy would be out of a job now. The executive presidency must go. The only question is how. Do we reject an amendment to reduce presidential powers immediately and hold out for a new constitution? Or do we go for a two-step solution, a 21st Amendment to be followed by a new constitution?

The Rajapaksas know the truth the Opposition is refusing to acknowledge. A 21st Amendment is near-fatal to the family’s dream of making a comeback soon. That is why Basil – and probably Namal – Rajapaksa is rallying the SLPP to delay and destroy the 21st Amendment. If they succeed, there’ll be neither a 21st Amendment nor a new constitution.

A parliamentary election is necessary, but practically impossible in current conditions. The absolute majority of people are caught up in the daily battle for survival, battered by shortages, pulverised by inflation. An election campaign will be a parliamentary session re-enacted on a national stage for five or more weeks. While ordinary people suffer in hunger and want, politicians will be wasting scarce resources on propaganda. That spectacle is likely to cause not an eagerness to vote, but to gut the parliament, metaphorically and literally. An election might act as a spark to ignite public anger against the entire democratic system.

At best, an immediate election will have a low turnout; at worst we will have hungry and despairing people attacking politicians and their meetings. Such a situation will play into Rajapaksa hands since the election will be held with the 20th Amendment extant and presidential powers untrimmed. If expressions of public ire border on anarchy, it might even open the door to military intervention with or without the Rajapaksas.

Realistically, the only option is to push for the best possible 21st Amendment as an interim measure and as a bridge to a new constitution.

The beggaring of Sri Lanka has caused the de-sanctification of the Rajapaksas. Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have lost their halos. The family is weak, and possibly politically divided. Until the events of 9 May, there was certain symmetry in the varying ambitions of different Rajapaksas, giving them an objective reason to work together as a family. Now there is no symmetry between their varying interests.

The Opposition can use this divergence of interests to undermine Basil Rajapaksa’s hold on the SLPP, and through that Rajapaksa power in Parliament (that power was on display during the election for a deputy speaker). If handled correctly, the 21st Amendment can be used to split the SLPP, giving a way out for those who still have some form of vertebrae to save themselves from a lifetime of slavering for Basil and Namal Rajapaksa.

If the SLPP splits, that might persuade Gotabaya Rajapaksa to look out solely for himself. After all, his best interests, as distinct from his family’s, lie in promoting the 21st Amendment and backing the abolition of the presidency. The Rajapaksa family has nothing to lose and a world to regain. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has something to lose, an orderly departure from presidency. He also has something to gain, a grain of redemption as the executive president who finally abolished the executive presidency.

The recent deplorable arrests of leading Galle Face protestors point to the danger of renewed repression. The 20th Amendment re-politicised the police, enabling SLPP parliamentarians to appoint the area OICs of their choice, as was recently revealed. Such a system is particularly conducive to a new wave of repression. A 21st Amendment will act as a bar to the abuse of police powers and further strengthen the judiciary. An election held under the 21st Amendment will be more free and fair, and thus of benefit to all Opposition parties. Incidentally, an election and a referendum on the presidency can he held together. Going by the latest CPA opinion poll, most Lankans would vote to abolish the presidency. The incoming parliament can then turn itself into a constitutional council and draft a new democratic constitution.

In his comments on the lessons of 20th Century, Italian historian and anti-fascist fighter Leo Valiani said, “Our century demonstrates that the victory of the ideals of justice is equality is always ephemeral, but also that, if we manage to preserve liberty, we can always start all over again…” (quoted in The Age of Extremes – Eric Hobsbwam). The 21st Amendment is the essential first step in saving Lankan democracy both from a Rajapaksa power grab and a military intervention.

The JVP has at least come up with their conditions for supporting the 21st Amendment. The SJB and other Opposition parties are yet to do even that. The battle for the 21st Amendment is for Opposition’s to lose. Will the Opposition hold out for the ideal, thereby preventing the possible and enabling the very worst to make a triumphant return?

Build back differently?

Let’s face reality. Without India, Sri Lanka would have come to a standstill literally weeks ago. If India doesn’t grant us the new loan we are seeking, we may come to a standstill yet. This is not the time to embrace politics of anti-Indianism. It is impolite, and self-destructively stupid. If India washes her hands off us, can we eat Kachchativu or the Trinco oil tank farm?

Similar help from China is unlikely for China is scaling back, having overstretched itself. Pacific and not the Indian Ocean is Beijing’s new focus. The West is focused on Ukraine. India and to a lesser extent Japan are our only hope.

There is something we can learn from China’s own economic troubles. According to Michael Pettis, a professor at Beijing University, President Xi has recently warned about the difference between genuine and inflated GDP growth: “Broadly speaking, genuine growth can be thought of as sustainable growth generated largely by consumption, exports, and business investment (with the last of these elements aimed mostly at serving the first two) whereas ‘inflated’ growth consist mainly of non-productive or insufficiently productive, investment in infrastructure and real estate” (The only five paths China’s economy can follow).

Physical infrastructure development and stock market were what passed for growth and development in Sri Lanka for a long time. We piled up debt, with very little to show for it in terms of actual benefits to real people or lasting economic improvement.

Sri Lanka’s poverty rate is probably over the 50% by now. As Steve Hanks of John Hopkins University pointed out, “Inflation is crushing the poorest…” (Al Jazeera – 28.5.2022). Retrenchment will drive up unemployment, pushing entire families into poverty. According to the Stand Up Movement Lanka (SUML), an advocacy group for sex workers, “There has been a 30 per cent increase in women joining the sex industry in Colombo since January” (The Telegraph – 28.5.2022). The numbers can only increase. The Thriposha factory has been closed; its impact on child malnutrition levels will be devastating. There will be more babies born underweight, more children growing stunted, more students dropping out of school, more child and maternal deaths, more destitute elderly. Social achievements of seven decades will be wiped out. Several generations will be lost, thanks to the imbecilic power hunger of one family.

Much will depend on the new economic policy framework and the budget Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has promised. Will the Government stop pulverising the poor and raise revenue by increasing personal and corporate income taxes and introducing a wealth tax targeting our own 1%? Will military expenditure and capital expenditure be pruned and resultant savings used to protect the poor from starvation? Will there be focus on solar power and on improving public transport, as a way of alleviating the power and the fuel crises?

Or will there be just talk, and no action leading to a vicious cycle of oppressive economic policies and violent protests, State violence and popular violence?

Two examples, one new and the other old. BPPL Holdings PLC, a Lankan company which collects used plastic bottles and turns them into recycled polyester for international sports brands, was awarded a $ 15 million loan from the United States International Development Finance Corporation. While Sri Lanka’s failed state is hard pressed to obtain even a loan of a million dollars, innovative private and social enterprises can still access international grants and loans.

When Ranasinghe Premadasa came up with the idea for a free midday meal program for schoolchildren, the cabinet of President Jayewardene turned it down due to lack of funds. The country was indeed in a politico-economic mire. But child malnutrition too was becoming rampant. PM Premadasa and Mayor Sirisena Cooray came up with the idea of implementing the program in Colombo, where around 50% of the people lived below or close to the poverty line. To find the funds, Sirisena Cooray replaced the CMC’s usual practice of increasing rates every five years by a large sum with an annual and much smaller rate increase. This program became the precursor of the free midday meal program implemented nationally during the Premadasa presidency.

Accept reality, think creatively, and don’t let better be the enemy of good. We need the 21st Amendment, higher taxes on the rich, and a safety net to stop the old and new poor from being driven to violence. Both together; both now.

Courtesy;Daily FT