Saturday 5th June, 2021
A 51-year-old woman is reported to have been arrested in Hungama for holding a Grama Niladari at knifepoint to have her name included in an electoral register. What possessed her to do so? This is the question those who are not familiar with politics in this country may ask, but such is the love Sri Lankans have for their franchise, although not all of them are given to violence. They have an irresistible urge to vote for the parties and candidates of their choice. They religiously exercise their franchise, come hell or high water, as if their very survival were dependent on that. They have even braved bullets and bombs to vote. But what have they got in return? Precious little apart of handouts they may receive in the run-up to elections. Most of them expect jobs among other things, but have not got even jabs to protect themselves against the current pandemic.
Voter enthusiasm that translates into high turnouts at elections is good for a country’s democratic wellbeing; it nourishes democracy. Franchise or any other right, for that matter, should be exercised regularly like muscles lest disuse atrophy should set in. But how come the Sri Lankan democracy has not benefited from people’s keenness to vote?
Paradoxical as it may sound, democracies with relatively low voter turnouts such as those in the West are healther than ours. What has gone wrong? It is perhaps the deification of electors, who have apparently evolved into a privileged class of sorts sans accountability, in addition to patronage politics, which makes electors kneel in supplication before the elected. In advanced democracies, the elected fear electors, but it is the other way around here. In Sweden, not even the Speaker of Parliament has an official vehicle, and the incumbent Finnish Prime Minister is in real shtook, having used public funds to pay for her family’s breakfast at her official residence.
The Hungama woman obviously brandished a knife, threatening the state official concerned in a bid to be able to vote for her favourite political party at the next election. But, now, it is highly unlikely that anybody will come to her rescue—not even those she may have been faithfully voting for all these years will come forward to save her from the long arm of the law—for fear of getting bad press. One can only hope that what has befallen this woman will serve as a lesson for others who, blinded by political allegiances, take unnecessary risks to support politicians and political parties.
The elected in this country may take on one another in Parliament, but they get on like a house on fire as regards their perks and privileges. When the government recently sought to present a supplementary estimate for the purchase of more than 200 luxury vehicles for the MPs, no political party represented in Parliament raised objections. Some Opposition bigwigs even feigned ignorance of the government move, when questioned by the media! All these MPS must be ashamed of themselves for trying to feather their nests while millions of people are struggling to keep the wolf from the door due to lockdowns. This being their callous disregard the elected have for the woes of electors, why should the ordinary people court trouble in a bid to vote for the wily elements that contest elections with a view to living in clover?
The present-day youth, who are better informed and more conscious of their rights than elders, thanks to their exposure to the outside world early in life, have spurned the present political culture characterised by the servility of electors and the hubris of the elected. They give vent to their pent-up frustration via social media to the point of sounding anarchist. Salutary as this trend may be, it can be thought to presage trouble in that the youth are becoming increasingly cynical and disillusioned with the political establishment, which is rotten to the core. Given their frustration, they might not vote at all at future elections unlike others including the aforesaid Hungama woman.
Return of state terror
Monday 6th February, 2023
The spectre of state terrorism raising its ugly head again looms over the country. The Brownshirts of the incumbent regime, as it were, are now free to operate alongside the police to crush anti-government protests. Old habits are said to die hard. Those violent characters were seen in action on 03 February night at Maradana, where a group of people staged a peaceful protest against the government over the widespread waste of public funds, abuse of power, suppression of democratic dissent, economic mismanagement and the resultant hardships.
It was unfortunate that on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the country’s Independence, which was celebrated on a grand scale with public funds, the people were denied their right to protest.
The UNP has a history of unleashing state terror to silence its political opponents. In fact, it has got this down to a fine art. It did not spare even upright judges and human rights lawyers in its heyday. Its goons targeted independent journalists, and their violence left thousands of people dead in the late 1980s. They would swoop on polling centres, and stuff ballot boxes with the police looking the other way. Some senior police officers would stoop so low as to kowtow to the UNP thugs like Gonawala Sunil and Soththi Upali!
The Rajapaksa regimes also have had goon squads, which killed their political enemies, torched media institutions, and rigged elections with impunity. Their goons were free to crush Opposition protests in full view of the police. Friday night’s attack at Maradana reminded us of an incident that took place on the Independence Day in 2011, when the thugs working for the then Rajapaksa government attacked a protest march conducted by the UNP in Borella. Everybody knew that the goons were led by Mervyn of Kelaniya but no action was taken against him. The UNP condemned the Rajapaksa government for suppressing the Opposition’s right to protest. In April 2022, when the pro-SLPP goons attacked the peaceful Galle Face protesters, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe himself issued a statement, not only condemning the savage attack but also calling upon the entire government to resign. But he joined the repressive regime as its Prime Minister shortly afterwards! Today, the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe are cocking a snook at the people.
The fact that political stability is a prerequisite for economic recovery cannot be overstated. But the government does not seem keen to pacify the resentful people. What provokes the public into holding street protests is the government politicians’ cavalier attitude, cronyism, abuse of power, corruption and waste. Schools and hospitals are crying out for funds, but the government is spending public money on ceremonies, politicians’ junkets, etc. The SLPP and UNP are behaving as if they were deriving some perverse pleasure from people’s hardships. One wonders whether the ruling politicians are inflicting suffering on the people by way of punishment for rising against them. They robbed the country and bankrupted it and now they are trying to use its bankruptcy to stay in power without elections while suppressing people’s rights! What is playing out is like a gang of robbers punishing their victims with the help of the police and the armed forces!
The SLPP-UNP combine seems to be labouring under the delusion that it will be able to prevent another wave of political upheavals by crushing protests before they spread. Hence the deployment of thousands of police personnel at the drop of a hat. Let the government be warned that its strategy is bound to fail, and it is playing with fire. Public anger has already passed the tipping point, and the next wave of popular uprisings may be only a matter of time. When a tsunami of public anger makes landfall, there is no defence whatsoever for a repressive regime; the police and the military will not be able to defend it however pampered they may be.
Friday’s goon attacks at Maradana could be considered a dry run of what the government is planning to do on the day of the upcoming local government elections, which it cannot win. There is hardly anything that a beleaguered government that fears an election will not resort to avert a crushing defeat in midterm. The Election Commission, the Opposition, the media and election monitors should remain Argus-eyed. The SLPP local government politicians demonstrated what they were capable of when they took on the Galle Face protesters last year.
It is very clear at present that the new income tax net cast by the Ranil Wickremesinghe government has provoked a situation that may well become unmanageable and ominous signs of this are clearly emerging. Strident protests from groups including doctors, university academics and others including port and airport employees and many others have been becoming increasingly strident over the past several days. Hints of direct trade union action, obviously meaning strikes, have been made. Whether a government, already on the back foot following Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Convenor Vasantha Mudalige’s release on bail and angry public opinion railing against blatant efforts to postpone the scheduled local elections. can fend off the tax protests remains to be seen.
All those protesting on this account well know that the government is desperately cash strapped and needs to urgently harness revenue to keep the wheels of state turning. On its part, the government also is too well aware of the inability of most of the protesters to bear the new income tax burden in the face of galloping inflation, particularly food, electricity and a host of other goods and services are concerned. But there is very little that it can do about it. Wickremesinghe’s and his government’s obdurate refusal to abandon or cut down on Saturday’s 75th Independence anniversary bash, said to have cost Rs. 200 million, has only aggravated public fury about the new income tax burden placed upon the people.
The very small number of personal income tax payers in this country have always felt unfairly treated, believing they have been singled out for harsh treatment while the vast majority remained untouched. They could not be more wrong. All the people of the country pay taxes and how! As one famous newspaper editor of the past pungently put it, “every time you strike a match or flush the toilet, you are paying a tax.” We all know the platitude that the only thing that is certain in life is death and taxes. Indirect taxes unlike those that are direct (like income tax) by far account for the lion’s share of tax revenue. Populations of developed countries, particularly in Europe and North America, pay high income taxes. But they, unlike us in Sri Lanka, get good returns for what they pay. We, in this land like no other, can only grin cynically when we see signs proclaiming “Your tax rupees at work” at road digs and construction sites and think “like hell” to ourselves.
Equity is a basic principle of taxation long ignored in this country. Go back to 1977 and the early years of opening our long shackled economy by the J.R. Jayewardene government with Ronnie de Mel as finance minister. That was when public service emoluments were freed of income tax on the argument that top public servants were paid much less than their private sector counterparts and this hindered government’s ability to hold competent managers in the public sector hierarchy. The contention was not altogether without merit but there were many fallacies as well. Public servants from the colonial days have enjoyed non-contributory pensions which is not the case (with very few exceptions) in the private sector. Dr. N.M. Perera, as finance minister in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s United Front government of 1970 tried, without success, to withdraw the pension benefits from new entrants to the public service. He sensibly proposed that they be paid a retirement benefit like what is offered by the EPF to private sector employees with contributions from both employer and employee. The failure of this effort has left a ticking time bomb on the taxpayer’s lap to this day.
At a post-budget press conference following freeing public sector salaries from income tax, then Finance Minister De Mel was asked whether parliamentary emoluments too would be similarly exempted. He ducked the question saying “that hasn’t been decided yet.” Of course the benefit was extended to MPs too. Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardene told a post-cabinet news briefing a few days ago said that the IMF wanted all those earning Rs. 45,000 a month to be made liable to income tax. The government tried its best to push it to a monthly Rs. 150,000 and finally settled at Rs. 100,000. There were those who didn’t believe the minister on the premise that an institution like the IMF would not have got into micro details but would have broadly prescribed a percentage of GDP that must be gathered as tax revenue. However it wasn’t long before the president himself confirmed Gunawardene’s claim.
There’s no avoiding the reality that Sri Lanka’s income tax base is far too narrow and needs to be widened substantially. This would mean that people who have never paid income tax would caught up in the tax net and would deeply resent being compelled to pay. This is particularly so in the context of the value of money reducing sharply, most so in recent months. The country is also saddled with an Inland Revenue Department entrenched in a tradition of harassing already squeezed lemons to increase tax collection in a society where evasion is widely prevalent, often among professionals who should know better. The government must also be cognizant of the untaxed, lavish non-cash benefits of politicians deeply resented by the people. However that be, whether the government will be allowed to implement the announced scheme or be compelled to backpedal remains to be seen.
Independence, democracy and franchise
Saturday 4th February, 2023
The SLPP-UNP regime is celebrating ‘Independence’ on a grand scale today while trifling with people’s sovereignty, which includes the power of government, fundamental rights and franchise. It makes no bones about the fact that it is all out to delay the local government elections and deprive the public of an opportunity to exercise their franchise. It is pulling out all the stops in a bid to throttle the electoral process by denying the Election Commission funds for conducting the mini polls scheduled for 09 March.
The government is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP promised in its manifestos presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls. It does not heed public opinion at all and bulldozes its way through. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them, and therefore they must be able to exercise their right to vote and thereby express their opinion on how the country is being governed. A regime that undermines people’s power of government and franchise cannot be considered democratic.
The SLPP-UNP government also stands accused of violating people’s fundamental rights. Convener of the Inter-University Students’ Federation Wasantha Mudalige, who was released on bail recently, has levelled a very serious allegation against the government. He says an attempt was made to kill him while he was in police custody. Besides, it has now been revealed that he was wrongfully arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); the Colombo Magistrate’s Court has cleared him of charges pressed against him under the PTA. He is planning to file a fundamental rights violation petition against the police and others responsible for pressing trumped-up charges against him and his illegal detention under the PTA.
The incumbent dispensation has thus proved that it does not care two hoots about the people’s fundamental rights, power of government and franchise. It is therefore without any legitimacy to exercise people’s legislative, executive and judicial powers.
Mudalige’s serious allegations against the police evoke one’s dreadful memoires of the reign of terror in the late 1980s, when abductions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings were the order of the day. The politicians and their hired guns who committed heinous crimes in the name of counterterrorism, in that era, and some former southern terrorists and their hit squad members are still around.
Old habits are said to die hard. It is being argued in some quarters that the wave of retaliatory violence that swept across the country following SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters on 09 April 2022 bore the hallmarks of southern terrorism the country witnessed in the 1987-89 period; widespread arson attacks on the ruling party politicians’ properties were well-coordinated and swift; they were far from spontaneous, and the same is true for the abortive attempt to take over Parliament in July last year. The UNP, which unleashed barbaric counterterrorism, is in power, and the JVP is threatening to launch a wave of protests if the mini polls are postponed.
It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The J. R. Jayewardene government made a colossal blunder by doing away with the 1982 general election, and holding a heavily-rigged referendum, instead, to retain its five-sixths majority in Parliament. Its interference with the country’s electoral process intensified public anger, which the JVP effectively tapped to fuel its second insurrection. The youth were resentful and rose against the repressive regime. Mahinda Rajapaksa took up the cudgels for the rights of the victims of state terror and returned to national politics in the late 1980s. But today, his party, the SLPP, and the UNP have closed ranks, and are apparently creating conditions for another conflagration.
If a general election had been held in 1982, that would have helped defuse tensions and release pressure in the polity, and the JVP would not have had a casus belli to take up arms and mobilise the youth.
One can only hope that the local government polls will be held as scheduled and the people provided with an opportunity to give vent to their anger democratically and jolt the government into making a course correction so that the country will not witness another catastrophe.
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