Wednesday 26th August, 2020
Washington heaved a sigh of relief when Sri Lanka successfully conducted a general election amidst the Covid-19 pandemic about three weeks ago. It also exhorts governments here to uphold democratic values, hold free and fair elections and respect people’s verdicts. America’s concern about Sri Lanka’s democracy is to be appreciated, and, now it is up to Colombo to reciprocate by urging Washington to ensure a free and fair presidential contest in the US, in November 2020, for no less a person than US President Donald Trump has complained of a sinister attempt to ‘steal’ the election. “They’re using Covid to defraud the American people,” he said at the Republican Convention in North Carolina, on 24 August.
President Trump maintains that mail-in ballots could lead to a vote fraud. He is confident of his victory although he is lagging behind his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in opinion polls. (However, he won the presidency despite losing the popular vote in 2016.) “The only way they [Democrats] can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Trump said at the convention, declaring, “We’re going to win!” There has been a huge increase in mail-in votes owing to Covid-19. Commissioner of the Federal Election Commission Ellen Weintraub has pooh-poohed Trump’s claim, saying, “There is no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud.” But Trump is convinced otherwise.
Trump’s oft-repeated claim of attempts to steal the November election has given rise to speculation that he might reject polls results in case of his defeat and try to stay put. (This is what the US-led international community and their Sri Lankan allies feared the then incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa would do in 2015, when he faced a presidential election to secure a third term, albeit in vain. But he conceded the race gracefully.)
US democratic system is certainly much stronger than Trump, and he does not look equal to the task of crashing it single-handedly, but any attempt to do so will have a devastating impact on the US democracy. One may recall that about 145 years ago, the US experienced a situation similar to what is being anticipated. The closely-contested 1876 presidential election led to chaos following the submission of conflicting electoral certificates by three States. That sparked a political battle in the Congress, which was unable to decide which certificates should be accepted. The situation became chaotic as main candidates, Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) and Samuel J. Tilden (Democratic), who was leading in popular votes, claimed to have won the election. The Congress set up an ad hoc Election Commission to settle the dispute. Luckily, the two parties reached a compromise and Hayes became the President. A new law was made the following year to help deal with such situations in the future, but legal experts have found some serious deficiencies therein. There’s the rub.
The US had another disputed presidential election outcome in 2000. Democratic Candidate Al Gore lost amidst a controversy over ‘hanging chads’ and ‘pregnant chads’ in Florida, where the Governor was Republican Candidate George W. Bush’s brother. Following weeks of legal and political battles, Al Gore conceded the election, and Bush became the President. A crisis was thus averted.
Unless Trump is defeated decisively with huge margins in both popular and electoral votes, in November, he is not likely to concede the race easily, or at all. It is highly unlikely that he will poll more popular votes than Biden, but nobody knows what is in store as regards the Electoral College. Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton beat Trump in popular votes, in 2016, although she failed to win the presidency. She obtained 2.1% more popular votes than Trump. She has been ranked third among the candidates who swamped their rivals in popular votes but failed to make it to the White House, the first and the second being Andrew Jackson (10%) in 1824, and Tilden (3%) in 1876, respectively.
Among those puzzled by the US Electoral College (EC) mechanism was the genius who ushered in the Nuclear Age. Albert Einstein famously said he could not understand the EC. So much for the way the US Presidents are elected.
All democratic nations are duty bound to rally behind the US, which is on a global crusade to protect democracy; they must help prevent what the US President fears—an election fraud—from coming to pass.
When incompetence fuels crisis
Wednesday 29th June, 2022
What was feared has come to pass; the country has run out of oil to all intents and purposes. But the government’s lame excuses are not in short supply. It says it will restore the oil supply on 10 July, and until such time fuel will be issued only for essential services. What guarantee is there that enough dollars will be raised within the next two weeks for fuel imports? Are we being made to wait for Godot? It is very likely that on 09 July the government will ask for two more weeks to make fuel available.
Now that the government has closed the country owing to its inability to make fuel available, the question is whether it has any moral right to stay in power. Its leaders have only demonstrated their incompetence and shamelessness. If they continue to be in power, they will inflict far worse damage on the country. They are already conducting a fire sale of state assets, and all out to deprive the country of its energy sovereignty; they have invited multinational oil companies to commence operations here. Some of them will laugh all the way to foreign banks.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have ordered that dollars be released for fuel imports urgently. Whom is he trying to fool? He cannot be unaware that there aren’t enough dollars for fuel purchases. Is he trying to deflect criticism by issuing such directives? The SLPP government bankrupted the country by stealing public funds, slashing taxes, granting massive pay hikes to some categories of public sector workers, throwing money around in the name of pandemic relief, and using forex reserves to defend the rupee in vain, despite repeated warnings from the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry officials. Various rackets such as the sugar tax scam have also taken their toll on the economy. The country is therefore without enough dollars to pay for essential imports including fuel, and there is no way either the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry could find foreign currency for fuel imports in a hurry simply because the President asks them to do so. Perhaps, the only way to pay for fuel imports immediately is to make the corrupt government politicians who have helped themselves to public funds, all these years, return part of their ill-gotten wealth hidden overseas.
SJB MP Champika Ranawaka has flayed the government for the fuel crisis. He has said the country’s image will have to be repaired before foreign assistance is sought. It will not be possible to overcome the present crisis so long as failed politicians continue to be in top posts, he has said. One cannot but agree with him. He is one of the few Opposition members capable of strategic thinking although he was a member of the failed yahapalana government. He has said he is willing to be actively involved in crisis management if a truly multi-party, interim government is formed with a timeframe set for a general election. He would have been able to take over the Power and Energy Ministry if the SJB had accepted the President’s offer to form a government, last month. He and other SJB MPs should have brought pressure to bear on their leader Sajith Premadasa to form a caretaker government together with other parties. They should do so, at least now. A new interim government may not be able to contain the crisis overnight, but it will help prevent the likes of Basil Rajapaksa from manipulating ministers to compass his ends. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is at the mercy of the Rajapaksa family, which controls the SLPP. The incumbent administration is a collective of self-seeking strange bedfellows who are willing to further the interests of the Rajapaksa family; the sooner it is got rid of, the better. That will be half the battle in managing the crisis.
Meanwhile, the government ought to find ways and means of holding racketeers at bay to ensure that fuel to be imported will be dispensed in an equitable manner. It has to devise a rationing system to prevent hoarding. Otherwise, a part of the next fuel shipment will also end up on the black market via hoarders’ dens, and the ordinary people will be left without petrol, diesel or kerosene.
Lanka’s crisis and NATO leaders
Tuesday 28th June, 2022
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has proved that it is incapable of controlling the runaway economic crisis, which has taken a turn for the worse with pumps running dry at most filling stations. Neither President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe nor Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera knows when or whether the next fuel shipment will arrive. The country is grinding to a halt for want of fuel. Schools have been closed, and many other state institutions including hospitals are on the verge of closure. The day may not be far off when the food supply chain also collapses, and food riots erupt.
Instead of finding solutions to the power and energy crises, the government has resorted to the divestiture of state assets. It has already agreed to hand over an unspecified number of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation filling stations to the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) if what Minister Wijesekera has recently told the media is any indication. He has admitted that the LIOC influenced the government decision to effect the latest fuel price hike. The Electricity Act has been amended to allow India’s Adani Group to construct a wind power plant. The government has also cut a questionable deal with a US company over the Yugadanavi power station. The country is thus losing control over the power and energy sectors while the Rajapaksas are wrapping themselves in the flag and bellowing rhetoric.
Sri Lanka finds itself in the current predicament, defaulting on foreign debt and begging for dollars because of its NATO (No Action Talk Only) leaders. President Rajapaksa summons experts and treats them to long lectures instead of learning from them. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has become a crisis commentator, as it were; he gives ball-by-ball commentaries with ominous warnings thrown in for good measure. Minister Wijesekera is all at sea, and most other ministers are a bunch of somnambulists. Opposition top guns are laying it on too thick.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa would have us believe that the world is eagerly waiting for the formation of an SJB government to help straighten up the Sri Lankan economy. Speaking at a ‘Project Leopard’ event in March, he declared that three West Asian countries had agreed to supply fuel at concessionary rates to Sri Lanka for two years under a future SJB government. If so, the blame for untold hardships the people are undergoing owing to the fuel crisis should be apportioned to the SJB, for it spurned an opportunity to form a government last month. Premadasa turned down President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s invitation to take over as the Prime Minister. He remained intransigent, demanding that the President step down. Subsequently, he had a change of heart, but the President had already decided to appoint Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. However, it’s never too late, as they say.
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has declared over the weekend that his party is capable of saving the battered economy and granting the people much-needed relief. He wants the reins of government offered to the JVP on a platter for that task to be accomplished. It was only the other day that he said his party was ready to join others in making a concerted effort to resolve the ever-worsening economic crisis. At the same time, it is pushing for a general election!
Supposing Parliament resolves to hold a snap general election, will any Opposition party be able to form a strong government? The SLPP is bound to suffer a humiliating defeat, come the next election; it is in fact the political version of a dead man walking, but the possibility of the next Parliament being hung cannot be ruled out. Political instability will continue to elude the country in such an eventuality. IMF assistance will be further delayed in the event of a general election being held before the end of this year. So, the best time for all the parties that claim to be able to help the country overcome the crisis to walk the walk is now. The current administration has failed and has to step down. If the SJB helps others, especially the SLFP and the SLPP dissidents, to form a truly multi-party interim administration, joins it and brings down the promised oil shipments at concessionary prices, besides helping enlist international support, the country will gain tremendously. Soapbox oratory will not do.
When Americans bear gifts
Ambassador Mahinda Samarasinghe has had an audience with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office itself. They are reported to have discussed matters of bilateral interest, and the US has pledged to help Sri Lanka. No sooner had the duo met than a high-level delegation representing the US Department of State and the US Department of Treasury flew to Colombo. The members of the delegation include Robert Kaproth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Asia, and Ambassador Kelly Keiderling, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, according to the US Embassy in Colombo. Why is this flurry of diplomatic activity?
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis cannot be the sole reason why President Biden granted an audience to Ambassador Samarasinghe. The US government says its officials will ‘explore the most effective ways for the US to support Sri Lankans in need, Sri Lankans working to resolve the current economic crisis, and Sri Lankans planning for a sustainable and inclusive economy for the future’. They may do so, but it cannot be altruism that has made them fly all the way here. What’s up Uncle Sam’s sleeve?
Speculation is rife in diplomatic circles that Washington has resumed efforts to get Colombo to sign SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement). About two years ago, the US decided to terminate an offer of USD 480 million as development assistance under the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCCC) when Sri Lanka turned it down on the recommendations of a special committee President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed to look into it. Prof. Lalithsiri Gunaruwan, who headed the four-member committee, told this newspaper in December 2020 that the MCCC, if signed, would undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The committee report said that although the US compact was categorised as a development programme, if coupled with ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) and SOFA, it could pose a threat to Sri Lanka. It is against this backdrop that Washington’s renewed interest in supporting Sri Lanka at this juncture should be viewed.
It is being argued in some quarters that the perpetuation of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is advantageous to the western bloc bent on taming China, which has Sri Lankan leaders on a string, and that may be the reason why Colombo is not receiving any more financial assistance for fuel imports. The fuel crisis is making Sri Lanka’s economy scream and people riot. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was expecting an extension of the Indian credit line for fuel imports, but its hopes have been dashed; it is now willing to do anything for a few million dollars.
Any port in a storm, as they say, and given its sheer desperation for dollars, Sri Lanka may choose to sign any agreement if there is forex in it. It is a case of Hobson’s choice for Colombo thanks to the Rajapaksas, who ruined the economy. The western bloc accused the Chinese of having made Sri Lanka cough up a port by goading it into a debt trap. The country is now apparently in an aid trap, and at this rate it may be left with no alternative but to sign SOFA. One may recall that Ambassador Samarasinghe, who was seen at the White House, the other day, was the Minister of Ports when the Hambantota harbour lease agreement, which was favourable to China, was inked!
The unfolding events lend credence to the Opposition’s claim that the Rajapaksa government systematically ruined the economy and created conditions for the country to become increasingly dependent on the rivals of China, especially the QUAD members, and do their bidding. The opponents of this argument will have a hard time explaining why Basil Rajapaksa, as the Finance Minister, did not care to manage the country’s foreign currency reserves and seek IMF assistance. He even skipped parliamentary sessions after presenting Budget 2022, and did not meet the Central Bank bigwigs for months, according to media reports. He just looked on while the economy was getting into a tailspin, and today a fire sale of Sri Lanka’s strategic assets is on. Maybe he considers his missions accomplished, as his political rivals say.
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