By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Nations are made not of oak and rock but ofmen,and as the men are, so will the nations be” – Milton Meyer (They thought they were free)
Sovereign defaults have a long history. Imperial Spain, imperial Britain, revolutionary Russia, republican Spain, they all did it. In 2020 seven countries defaulted, Argentina for the ninth time. But the Rajapaksa-sovereign default is in a class of its own. Generally countries do not wait till foreign reserves hit rock bottom before defaulting. We did. Lebanon, which defaulted for the first time in 2020; has a foreign reserve of $ 11 billion. We have a hard time finding a few millions to pay for fuel or medicine.
The dilatory nature of our default was due not to design but to denial. Until late March 2022, the Rajapaksas insisted that we were facing a passing squall rather than a tsunami. Ignorance and the complicity of the upper bureaucracy enabled the Rajapaksas to occupy their separate nothing-much-is-the-matter reality as the economy unravelled.
A similar unwillingness to face political reality is evident in the Government and the Opposition today. The Government is labouring under the delusion that targeted repression of dissenters can bring about political stability. The Opposition seems to believe that ousting Ranil Wickremesinghe is Lankan people’s current preoccupation.
According to the World Food Programme’s Food Insecurity Assessment, 6.3 million Lankans (nearly 30% of households) do not know where their next meal is coming from. 6.7 million Lankans are not consuming acceptable diets, a deprivation that especially affects pregnant women, babies and children. Foreign remittances which increased slightly in May dropped again in June. Exporters are reportedly stashing about $ 800 million a month outside the country. Punitive legislation is not the answer. The only solution is to regain national confidence. That requires not brittle repression but a political truce.
The Rajapaksas not only bankrupted Sri Lanka, but placed her in the crosshairs of a regional power conflict. China’s unwillingness to reschedule bilateral debt is a key factor pushing back an IMF deal. Now Beijing is adding to Colombo’s plight by sending research vessel Yuan Wang 5 to Hambantota, unleashing spy-fears in Delhi. Mahinda Rajapaksa in his megalomania insisted on building an international port in his hometown. Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration in its myopia leased that unprofitable port to China. So here we are, a weak and starving sprat caught between two marauding sharks. Not-so-incidentally, when we lacked funds to import essentials it was India, and not China that came to our aid. Beijing’s ill-timed jingoism may well lose us future Indian assistance.
Sri Lanka is in the chalk circle and the chalk circle is drawn on the rotten bridge that spans the glacier. In this version there is no Grusha. Everyone is doing a Natella, pulling the baby this way and that even as the bridge creaks and abyss awaits. This is not the time for personal agendas or private vendettas. What the country needs is reconciliation between the Government, the Opposition, and the Aragalaya groups, a cessation of hostilities by all parties, a temporary truce until the worst of the crunch time is past. The Government needs to stop the hounding of Aragalaya activists. The Opposition and the Aragalaya groups should give the Government the space to succeed or fail on its own merits.
Where is the justice in arresting a man for stealing President Gotabaya’s iron while giving a free pass to presidential nephew Jaliya Wickremesuriya who confessed to defrauding the State while serving as our ambassador in Washington? What is the sense in compelling the police to chase Aragalaya activists while leaving the streets to assassins?
Once President Gotabaya resigned, the true purpose of the Aragalaya was fulfilled. The activists should have had a victorious meeting, handed over the occupied buildings, and moved aside to decide on the next phase. Their insistence on equating Gota-go-home with Ranil-go-home and the thinly veiled attempts by some sections to function as a parallel government caused their current decline.
The Human Rights Commission has ruled that the IGP was in breach of his duties by failing to protect peaceful protestors at Gota-go-gama on 9 May, and has asked the president to order an investigation into the matter. Will the president ignore this request or will he comply? As Fitch Ratings pointed out, public support for the Government is weak. As absolute deprivation digs its teeth deeper, even the current wait-and-see attitude might wear thin. Once again the essence is time.
The fault in our choices
If our parliamentarians are asked to pick the privileges they would willingly forego, the legislature’s excellent library would definitely make the list. In 2021, 225 parliamentarians borrowed 330 books, less than a book a day. Little wonder then that in February 2022, a special debate on the economy had to be postponed because there was no quorum. Most of our elected representatives had more pressing business to attend to, even though power cuts had begun, pharmacists were warning about an imminent medicine shortage, and the spectre of sovereign default was becoming visible. Even if that debate was held, most of the participants would have used it to hurl insults at each other.
For many decades, Lankan Parliament has not been renowned for its star quality. This one marks the nadir of that downward trend. But before we howl, ‘Down with 225,’ let us remember that we elected all but 29 of them directly. They are a mirror reflecting back to us who we are as an electorate and as a people.
In a recent YouTube interview, parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne narrates a tale he heard from two SLPP parliamentarians. When the SLPP parliamentary group met to discuss the 20th Amendment, President Gotabaya unleashed a one-and-a-half-hour rant demanding these super powers. Didn’t those parliamentarians understand that such a person should not be given the powers he is demanding? Many wouldn’t have made the connection. The few who did too went along fearing the anger of their masters.
Unless the electorate has changed in fundamental ways, an election will not be the panacea many look for. “Even if there’s an election, only people with money will get into parliament,” a citizen, questioned by A5 News as part of a street poll, pointed out. “If a school master and a businessman contests, the businessman will win… People win elections by throwing money. Since the entire district must be covered (people with money) win from whatever party.”
The current electoral system has two main faults which has contributed significantly to the poor quality of our political class and the debasement of our political culture. One is the disproportionate role money plays in the contest. The other is the inordinate weight possessed by hardcore party faithful in picking individual winners. For instance, in the current political climate, someone like Johnston Fernando is likely to be trounced had first-past-the-post system being in place. But in the PR system, he is likely to win thanks to the backing of Rajapaksa faithful. While the next parliament will have less SLPP members, a much larger proportion thereof will be of the more egregious sort.
Sri Lanka is a counter-meritocracy where mediocrity wins and excellence does not, where despair drives the intelligent and the able to migrate. The PR system makes it easier for the worst rather than the best to enter the governing class by winning national, provincial, and local government elections. These politicians then promote bureaucrats, businesspeople and professionals whose main merit is unquestioning loyalty and slavish obedience. A vicious spiral is created ever moving downwards.
President Wickremesinghe was correct when he said that the economic model put in place by J.R. Jayewardene has run its course. So has the political model he bequeathed us. A crisis is a good time to reform and restructure. A calamity, like the one we are going through, makes such transformations a necessary precondition for survival itself.
The idea of a new electoral system which combines first-past-the-post and PR models has been talked about for decades. Perhaps such a model should be put in place before the next election, if we really want that election to be part of the solution rather than a waste of scarce resources. Incidentally, any new proposal should consider limiting professional politicians to FPPS contests making it impossible for them to creep into parliament through the PR list.
Asymmetrical devolution is another option that should be considered. Provincial devolution is needed for the north and the east. The other provinces neither need nor want it. Now that the war is over, the LTTE in no more, and provincial councils have ceased to be a bogey, the question as to whether the system should be limited to the north and the east needs to be asked, if necessary at a referendum.
Even if an IMF deal comes through, we will be a poor and a volatile country for years to come. The time of maintaining, as Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranaike aptly phrased, “a champagne diet on a kassipu income,” is gone. Politics must be made a less lucrative pastime; elected assemblies must cease to be employment agencies for the kith and kin of the governing class. Past extravagances must be questioned and abandoned. If rich countries do not give their ministers official residences and fleets of vehicles, why should we? What is wrong with a politician taking a bus or a train as they once did or living at their own expense instead of the taxpayers? If our political class and our political culture remain at current abysmal levels, teetering from calamity to calamity will be our national fate.
The unholy grail of executive presidency
Unintelligent governance brought us to our knees. A crisis of some sort, even multiple crises, was unavoidable. Calamity was not. If Maithripala Sirisena honoured his solemn promise to abolish the presidency, we wouldn’t be here; if our people didn’t elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019, we wouldn’t be here.
Germany’s Weimer constitution was a semi-presidential one which gave the elected president many discretionary powers, including the power to bypass the parliament in an emergency.
This Article 48 was used by Adolf Hitler not only to come into power through the backdoor (sans a parliamentary majority) but also to turn a tottering democracy into a murderous autocracy. The man who brokered that deadly deal was President Von Hindenburg’s son Oskar. The elected president was senile; behind closed doors his powers were being exercised by a coterie headed by son Oscar. His disastrous political role earned him the sobriquet, the constitutionally unforeseen son of the president.
We too are burdened by constitutionally unforeseen brothers and sons, uncles and nephews. Not to mention a political gene-pool which seem to be favouring the reproduction of ignorance, inanity, and inability at every election cycle, each such product offering to save us from some evil or the other. The presidency seems to have become a honey pot to anyone with unbridled ambition, a raja yogaya, and little else.
Executive presidency is a key reason for the Opposition’s unwillingness to work together. Both the SJB and the JVP/NPP want the presidency and regard the other not as a partner but as a threat. The lure of being uncrowned king will fracture the SJB as well, since others beside Sajith Premadasa in the SJB fold dream of the crown.
President Barack Obama, in a 2016 New Yorker interview said, “…at some point you lose touch… By being in this room at some point you get worn down. At some point you get into bad habits.” In a country like the US there are some guardrails to prevent such presidents from acting out their regal and imperial fantasies. In a place like Sri Lanka there are none. Donald Trump dreamed of a third term but even the Republican Party wouldn’t have agreed to such a travesty. In Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa had no problem passing the 18th Amendment removing the term-limit clause altogether.
The argument against executive presidency is not an argument against the system per se. The system may work elsewhere but it doesn’t work for Sri Lanka. It promised to usher in stability, security and development and failed spectacularly in all three. Lankans who were uninterested in the subject even in 2014, now want the presidency abolished by a huge 70%.
The Cabinet has approved the 22nd Amendment reducing some presidential powers. This is not enough, since a future president with a megalomanic bent can do to it what the Rajapaksas did to the 19th Amendment. This doesn’t mean that the 22nd Amendment should be abandoned. On the contrary, its best possible version needs to be passed as a matter of urgency. Simultaneously, work should begin on a new constitution which puts some brakes on political madness by retuning executive power to parliament.
The current calamity is in a sense the revenge of textbook economics. If a country cuts its taxes, prints money to bridge the deficit, and uses its foreign exchange reserves to maintain its currency at an unrealistic level what will happen? This is a question any AL economics student would be able to answer in a heartbeat. Our political system produced a president and a government who knew less and weren’t interested in learning more.
Politics as usual will not enable us to chart a way out. Something different must be imagined and implemented. But such innovative measures, of both the political and economic variety, need cooperation and consensus across divides. If the Government cleaves to unending repression and the Opposition wallows in unrealistic offensives, there will be no political ceasefire and no economic relief. The next wave of public anger could make this week’s overflowing of the Ramboda ella seem mild by comparison.