Wednesday 17th May, 2023
The worst that can happen to a democracy is for its serving generals to savour political power, which is as addictive as heroin. They go to any lengths to keep their hold thereon. Hence the need to ensure that the military keeps away from politics so that generals do not develop a taste for power. The countries that failed to do so are in serious trouble. Pakistan has been struggling to extricate itself from the clutches of a heavily-politicised military, which recently plunged that country into utter chaos by engineering the arrest and detention of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Thankfully, the Pakistani Supreme Court has moved to bring the situation under control by having Imran released.
Thailand is another nation plagued by greedy generals’ political ambitions. The meddlesome Thai military and its political puppets have suffered a massive setback at the recently-concluded general election; reformist parties have trounced incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s United Thai Nation party, which could obtain only 36 seats, despite military backing. Harvard-educated Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, has led his newly-formed Move Forward Party (MFP) to victory by winning 152 seats, and proved pollsters wrong. Pre-polls surveys placed the Phue Thai Party (PTP) led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in pole position, but it came second with only 141 seats. The Shinawatra family, however, has retained its support base in rural areas, but urban Thailand swung for the MFP overwhelmingly.
Impressive as the MFP’s electoral win is, Pita does not have the required numbers to secure the premiership under his own steam. The MFP needs about 100 more seats to muster a working majority in the 500-member lower house. Luckily for Pita, the PTP has expressed its willingness to close ranks with him to form a government, and it is said that they together with some other parties will be able to secure more than 300 seats. The coming together of the two main Opposition parties must have gladdened the hearts of those who are seeking a system overhaul in Thailand and want the military brought down a peg or two, but there is no guarantee that Pita will be able to become the Prime Minister even with the help of like-minded allies because Senators numbering 250 are nominees of the military and have a say in electing the PM under the junta-era Constitution. Having undertaken to write a new Constitution, amend the draconian lese-majeste laws and curtail the powers of the overbearing military, Pita has his work cut out to muster the support of the pro-military Senators.
If Pita chooses to dilute his policies to thrash out a compromise formula, which has become necessary, he will alienate the youth, who have fully backed his party and are demanding a radical departure from the existing political culture. Thus, he has had to perform a political high-wire act, and the harsh reality is bound to have a mellowing effect on his idealism. In coalition politics, expediency takes precedence over principles, and it will be interesting to see how Pita clears the first hurdle in his path and ‘moves forward’.
Thailand is one of the countries that are no strangers to military coups, and how the Thai political generals will react to the humiliating electoral blow they have just suffered remains to be seen. Fear is being expressed in some quarters that there might be an attempt to abolish the election results and/or form a minority government. Pita has sought to discount the possibility of such a course of action, and gone on record as saying that the people of Thailand will not allow that to happen. One can only hope that the MFP leader’s wishes will come true, and what is playing out in the Land of Smiles will not be a false dawn.
An indictment of SLPP leaders
Wednesday 7th June, 2023
The easiest task in Sri Lanka is perhaps to distract the public. In ancient Rome, the patricians used bread and circuses to take the plebeians for a ride, but there is no need for bread to hoodwink the masses in this country, where a mere political circus can make them forget even the pangs of hunger. In fact, not even circuses as such are necessary here to divert public attention from the many burning issues that the government has failed, or not cared, to solve; only a propaganda gimmick will do the trick. A stand-up comedienne, who is far from outstanding, a self-styled prophet, and a cantankerous Buddhist monk have found themselves up a creek for having failed to exercise control over their tongues, and the SLPP-UNP government has undertaken to protect Buddhism for political reasons. Besides, everybody is now talking about the next presidential election, which cannot be advanced without a constitutional amendment; the much-delayed local government and Provincial Council polls have apparently been forgotten. The SJB has already named its presidential candidate, and the SLPP remains indecisive with a section of its MPs offering to throw in their lot with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who, the UNP has said, will run for President.
State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe has, in a television interview, declared that President Wickremesinghe is the best leader around and deserves to be popularly elected at the end of his current term. Politicians know which side their bread is buttered, and never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be. So, it is only natural that Semasinghe is fawning over the President, but his statement at issue is proof that the SLPP has become so politically bankrupt that it considers none of its own leaders fit to be the next President! His statement therefore serves as an indictment of the SLPP leadership.
We don’t intend to discuss the possibility or otherwise of a snap presidential election, but Semasinghe’s statement is of interest and much political significance. What it signifies is that the SLPP stalwarts have had to hitch their wagons to Wickremesinghe, whom they condemned vehemently until mid-2022, and even had gone all out to oust as the Prime Minister in 2018, albeit in vain. The claim that the UNP-led Yahapalana government had compromised national security and ruined the country became the SLPP’s rallying cry at the last presidential and parliamentary elections. The SLPP leaders vilified Wickremesinghe and condemned his policies as being detrimental to the country’s interests, and the popular mandate they are flaunting at present to legitimise their hold on power despite their many failures was obtained to ‘save the country from the UNP’. The SLPP has made a mockery of its mandate by elevating the person it used as a foil to promote its leaders as capable patriots, to the highest position in the country. More importantly, it is doing the very obverse of what it undertook to do in its election manifestos. Inveighing against the Yahapalana regime for the sale of state assets, the SLPP leaders declared that never would they resort to the divestiture of public enterprises, which they promised to protect and develop. Today, the SLPP has made a volte-face and is going hell for leather to sell state ventures and other public assets at fire-sale prices.
By making Wickremesinghe the President and helping him carry out his economic policies, the SLPP has unwittingly caused the people to conclude that the UNP-led Yahapalana government would have done what the current dispensation is doing and therefore should not have been voted out. It has thus forfeited its raison d’etre, delegitimised itself well and truly, and lent much weight and credibility to the Opposition’s call for an early general election. In fact, it lost its right to wield power, the day it declared the country bankrupt and began inflicting unprecedented suffering on the people, especially those who had reposed their trust in it, expecting a better future for their children. Efforts being made to straighten up the ailing economy with the help of the very politicians who bankrupted it are as futile and stupid as enlisting Lalith Kotelawala’s support to revive Golden Key and grant relief to its depositors crying out for justice!
Whether Semasinghe has rendered any noteworthy service to the public, as the State Minister of Finance, may be debatable, but he certainly deserves praise for his indictment of the SLPP leadership, unintended as it may be.
Best antidote to exploitation
Tuesday 6th June, 2023
Most people are labouring under the misconception that every prospect pleases in this country and only politicians are vile. Hence the unprecedented rise of anti-politics during the past several years and the demand that all 225 MPs go home. It is popularly thought that all we need to do is to cleanse politics, and, hey presto, the country will be a better place. The focus of last year’s Aragalaya, which sprang as a people’s response to unbearable economic hardships, corruption, etc., and was later hijacked by some ultra-radical elements with anarchical agendas to compass their sinister ends, was also on ridding the country of corrupt, failed politicians. The battle was lost and won; the popular uprising led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but the Rajapaksa family has retained its hold on power by other means. In a way, it has been a case of swings and roundabouts for the general public, who expected a ‘system change’. But the question is whether their lot would have improved significantly even if they had been able to see the back of every corrupt, failed politician. There are many others who are as selfish as politicians and exploiting the public ruthlessly.
The Sri Lankan rupee has thankfully rallied against the major foreign currencies, especially the US dollar, over the past several weeks, and import costs have dropped significantly. The prices of essential food items and fuel including cooking gas have decreased, but the benefits thereof have not been passed on to the public; bakers and eatery owners fleece consumers by keeping the prices of their products extremely high. Private bus operators have benefited tremendously from diesel price decreases, but refuse to bring down their fares. They trot out lame excuses. The same goes for the unscrupulous taxi operators, who have refused to reduce their fares despite decreases in petrol prices and an increase in the fuel quota. The less said about the private hospital Mafia, the better; they exploit the sick with impunity. It has been a double whammy for the public; the state-run hospitals are experiencing various shortages and cannot cope with the demand for free healthcare, and the private sector health institutions fleece them.
Everybody is preoccupied with economic and political reforms these days. The IMF has rammed a slew of economic reforms down Sri Lanka’s throat, and they include the restructuring of some key public sector institutions. One can only hope that this bitter medicine will prove efficacious, and there will not be any social upheavals, which usually result from the IMF bailout conditions. The government has doubled down on its efforts to raise tax revenue and curtail its expenditure. Besides, some law and political reforms are on the drawing board, and much is being talked about the need to usher in a new political culture and bring about a system change. But it is doubtful whether these economic, political and law reforms will yield the desired results unless they are coupled with a robust social reform movement, which alone will help engineer an attitudinal change in people, empower them, inculcate a work ethic, and mobilise them to fight for their rights and work towards common good.
Traders, private bus operators, eatery owners, and others are having a field day at the expense of the public because people are not organised. The most effective antidote to exploitative business practices is for the public to boycott products and services that are unreasonably priced and are of poor quality. In this day and age, the public can be mobilised via social media easily. This is a task for opinion leaders and the various civil society organisations, especially those who claim to be fighting for the rights of the hapless consumers.
A question of legitimacy
Monday 5th June, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking at the National Law Conference, in Nuwara Eliya, on Saturday, urged the political parties represented in Parliament to join forces and help rebuild the economy. One cannot but agree that all political parties are duty bound to sink their differences and unite, for the sake of the country, to put the economy back on an even keel, for all of them have contributed to the process of ruining it albeit to varying degrees. The President also said that political parties should do so instead of calling for elections. There’s the rub! Does this mean that elections will not be held until the economy is turned around? How long will the government take to accomplish that task? What guarantee is there that it will succeed in doing so? What if it fails to straighten up the economy in the foreseeable future? Will the country be without elections indefinitely in such an eventuality? Efforts to revive the economy, we believe, must not be at the expense of the people’s franchise.
President Wickremesinghe argued that none of the parties with parliamentary representation enjoyed the support of 50% of voters. Opinion may be divided on whether his claim holds true for all political parties; those who endorse or challenge this argument will do so without empirical evidence. The best way its validity can be tested is for the government to hold the much-delayed local council elections, which will not lead to a change of government but enable the people to exercise their franchise, express their will, and, more importantly, help defuse the build-up of anger in the polity.
The SLPP has lost popular support though it polled more than 50% of the total number of valid votes at the presidential election in 2019 and the parliamentary polls in 2020; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit and Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down as the Prime Minister due to public protests. They would not have done so if they had been confident that the people who had voted for them overwhelmingly were still with them. The UNP polled only about 2% of the votes countrywide at the 2020 general election and has only one MP. Thus, the SLPP-UNP administration lacks legitimacy to govern the country, and that is why an early general election has to be held so that the people can elect a new parliament; ideally, it ought to stop manipulating numbers in the current Parliament to retain its hold on power and seek a fresh mandate from the people by holding a snap general election, or at least face local government/Provincial Council elections without further delay.
Public resentment is palpable, and the government has become dependent on the police and the military for its survival, and keeps postponing elections. Political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, will be at risk as long as the people remain resentful of a failed government, which clings on to power in spite of having bankrupted the country. What the current regime is doing is tantamount to a rapist retaining the custody of his victim! It is only natural that the people have lost faith in the government.
President Wickremesinghe also said at Saturday’s National Law Conference that the majority of people had lost faith in elections, and politics, and whether it was the parliament, the judiciary, the media, trade unions or professionals, the people lacked trust in the entire system. There is a general consensus on this assertion.
The abuse of the National List (NL) mechanism by political parties to bring in defeated candidates and persons of their choice as appointed MPs is one of the main causes of the erosion of public faith in elections. The NL is a constitutional wormhole, as it were, which has to be sealed. Thankfully, all is not lost if relatively high voter turnouts at elections are any indication. Anti-politics, which means people’s hostility towards established political systems, parties, institutions or practices, is manifestly on the rise, and this situation is attributable, among other things, to the presence of many undesirable persons among politicians and people’s representatives, rampant corruption, the abuse of power and public funds, and the prevailing culture of impunity.
Most of the factors that gave rise to last year’s socio-political upheavals are still there; they have the potential to trigger another popular uprising of tsunamic proportions. Hence the need for the government to mend its ways and tread cautiously without suppressing democracy and provoking the public.
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