Left vs. Right
It is becoming increasingly apparent by the day that the government is coming under mounting pressure to lock down the country and at least slow, if not halt, the roaring Covid pandemic gaining steam by the day. The daily statistics beamed into homes countrywide by the prime time news bulletins of the different television stations, publicize the growing number of infections and death. Each day’s numbers are higher than the previous day’s. The third line in the statistical tables, giving the number of recoveries so far, is intended to cast at least a single ray of sunshine into an ever-blackening picture. But given the current situation, even that hardly serves to dispel the gloom.
Word came on Friday afternoon after this (now revised) comment was written that the government, or really President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who took the last call, had finally caved into the strident demands dinning his ears these past several days. The ‘too little too late’ accusations will now follow as surely as night follows day. Even the ranks of Tuscany must, and do concede, that the president and his government were confronted with a ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ situation. There is no disputing that the logic presented by the best health professionals in the country pushing hard for a lock down is iron clad and rock solid. But the economic consequences of such a measure for the country as a whole and its very large daily wage earning population is equally terrible.
The Mahanayakes joined the chorus on Thursday demanding a week’s lock down. Others want a considerably longer period running for three weeks, a month or even more. Obviously any lock down for too short a period will be an absolute waste. It is better to bite the bullet and not lock down at all rather than engage in a less than useless exercise. Though Friday’s lock down announcement said it’ll run till the end of this month, whether it will be extended or ot will depend on how things pan out. The minor parties in the Pohottuwa coalition, 10 in all and mostly left inclined, also pushed for a lock down just before it was finally imposed. We all know that most of their leaders now in Parliament, would have not been electable had they not run under the Rajapaksa colours or secured themselves patronage appointments under the Pohottuwa National List. But they are not without influence within the government as the East Container Terminal episode amply demonstrates.
Along with their lock down demand now conceded, there is the concurrent pressure to support the least affluent segment of society including the daily wage earners, who live hand to mouth eking out their existence, in the best way possible with essential food packs, cash allowances and whatever if the country is closed. This was resorted to last time round with some measure of success but a larger measure of failure as has been the case in most (if not all) poor relief attempts including Janasaviya, Samurdhi and whatever, not excluding the various long established schemes of the Social Services Department and various local bodies. We believe that the Colombo Municipal Council continues to run its long established Charity Commissioner’s Department, and many of the other larger Municipalities would also be doing the same.
It is well known that that a large number of persons not qualified to receive Samurdhi and other benefits draw them while perhaps a larger number in desperate need of such support are left out in the cold. Time was when the Communist Party’s Aththa newspaper exposed the case of the parents of a Member of Parliament receiving Samurdhi. These schemes are highly politicized and politicians obtain benefits for their supporters in return for votes. The writer is personally aware of an instance where a domestic aide hailing from an estate in Badulla, working in a well-to-do Colombo home, insisted on going to her line room to cast her vote at an election. When the employer pointed out to her that she would have to bear a travel expense of at least a thousand rupees and an exhausting journey, she said she must vote or her family’s Samurdhi benefits will be at risk. This, unfortunately is the way the papadam crumbles.
There is no need to labour the fact that if, indeed, a lock down is imposed as it now has been, any relief scheme for those most in need will not work as it should. But there is no escaping the reality that something is better than nothing. A very large question mark also hangs over the government’s ability to properly fund such a scheme. Not doing so will obviously add to the discontent. A deserving person seeing his neighbour getting a benefit he does not will naturally seethe with resentment. There will be those who will urge the government to resort to the printing press to meet such emergency expenditure. Money printing has already reached record levels and its effects are all too evident.
It is clear that a Left vs Right contest has emerged in the lock down or not debate. The majority of Pohottuwa constituents who on Thursday urged the president to lock down are left inclined. So are many of the unions pushing for this measure. Much of the organized private sector tilts towards staying open both in their own interest and that of the national economy. Such interests supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Many of their employees were on fully salary during the last lock down although some did suffer pay cuts. Public servants, a sizable segment of the work force, were on full pay and pensions were paid. All this reflected on the huge pressure exerted on the president and his government by the contending forces. We have now seen which way the tide eventually turned. Whatever happened, the country and its people will have to pay through their noses to survive Covid and support the unfortunate pinned with their backs against a wall.
Tissue of lies and other issues
Monday 27th March, 2023
There is no bigger lie than the oft-repeated claim in some quarters that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution has helped strengthen democracy by ridding vital state institutions of dirty politics. Perhaps, the doormat at the entrance to the President’s Office receives better treatment than the supposedly independent Election Commission (EC), which suffers many indignities at the hands of some government politicians.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was economical with the truth, which he also stretched and bent, in Parliament on Friday, when the Opposition questioned him on the postponement of the local government (LG) elections. The PM, who is also the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, said he would meet the members of the EC for a discussion on poll-related issues soon. There is nothing to be discussed about elections! The government should either allocate funds for the LG polls or officially inform the public that it is scared of facing an electoral contest and therefore cannot hold the mini polls. Its refusal to release funds for elections on some flimsy grounds has only eroded public confidence in the electoral process, and given a turbo boost to anti-politics, which is manifestly on the rise and rapidly eating into the vitals of the state.
It is a pity that PM Gunawardena, who gained national prominence by standing up to a dictatorial UNP government under President J. R. Jayewardene, taking up the cudgels for the people’s franchise and winning the Maharagama by-election, in 1983, against tremendous odds, is now backing those who are all out to put off elections. President Jayewardene scrapped the 1982 general election for fear of losing his five-sixths majority in Parliament, and held a heavily-rigged referendum instead, undertaking to hold by-elections in the electorates where the UNP would lose. He had to hold 18 such by-elections, four of which were won by the Opposition despite large-scale rigging and violence unleashed by the UNP. Anil Moonesinghe, Richard Pathirana and Amarasiri Dodangoda won the Matugama, Akmeemana and Baddegama electorates, respectively. Forty years on, Gunawardena and the late Pathirana’s son, Ramesh, are backing Jayewardene’s nephew, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is putting off elections!
Unfortunately, it is Finance Ministry Secretary Mahinda Siriwardena who has had to take all the flak for not making funds available to the EC. He has become a soft target that everybody who lacks the courage to take on President Wickremesinghe turns on. Government Printer, Gangani Liyanage, is also in a similar predicament. Siriwardena allocated funds for the EC, albeit in dribs and drabs, before being asked by the Cabinet and the President in no uncertain terms to stop doing so. The government has pinioned him to the wall, and the Opposition worthies are punching him, and not those who deserve their blows. Let those heroes be urged to pluck up the courage to attack the President instead of turning on the public officials whom the government has put in the straitjacket of zero-based budgeting. These mandarins find themselves in an unenviable position; the government is preventing them from carrying out their duties and functions according to their conscience, and the Opposition is bashing them.
The SLPP MPs keep saying that they want the LG elections held. It is they who postponed the mini polls first, in 2022. However, if these politicians who are as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks are being truthful for once, then it will be seen that all members of Parliament, save the single UNP member and perhaps several others who have pledged their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe, are against the postponement of elections, and, worse, the President is refusing to allocate funds for the LG polls against the will of the vast majority of MPs! Parliament controls public finance, and therefore it must be allowed to decide whether to allocate funds for elections. Let a resolution be presented to Parliament to that effect and a vote taken thereon urgently.
Minister Kanchana Wijesekera informed Parliament, on Thursday (23), that President Wickremesinghe had asked for a division by name on the government’s agreement with the IMF so that the public would know who was supportive of the IMF programme and who was not. The same modus operandi could be adopted, if a vote is taken anent the LG polls, so that the public will know who actually wants the elections put off. This is the most democratic way of deciding whether to hold the LG polls or postpone them.
North Korea is reported to have recently tested a secret weapon capable of causing tsunamis. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime, which often warns that Sri Lanka might end up being a country like the hermit kingdom unless its economic programme is followed, has resorted to an ill-advised course of action that is fraught with the danger of triggering a tsunami of public anger. Its members have apparently forgotten the firenado, as it were, which hit them in May 2022.
More heavy lifting to be done
As President Ranil Wickremesinghe tirelessly stressed, the signing off on the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) with the International Monetary Fund marks a new beginning. “Forget the past and the old games,” he has said seeking the cooperation of both the opposition and the media for a great leap forward. He has made the point that the IMF arrangement of USD 2.9 billion opens the doors for further credit adding up to USD 7 billion from elsewhere. When he met editors and other media heads on Thursday he said we have to continue negotiations with bilateral and multi-lateral lenders as well as private creditors which he admitted would be the most difficult.
The bad news when this was being written on Friday was that unless there is a dramatic change of heart on the part of the executive, the likelihood of the scheduled local government elections in the foreseeable future appears more than remote. There are, of course, a clutch of cases before the courts at present and which way the determinations will go is not clear right now; also in which direction the dice will roll once the courts rule. But it is patently clear that both the president and the government want these elections as much as they want a hole in the head.
There is no need to labour the reason why the incumbent establishment does not want local elections at the present moment. This, notwithstanding SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam’s mealy-mouthed protestations that his party does not wish these elections put off. The electorate is very well aware that these elections cannot mean a change of government. Wickremesinghe is safely ensconced on his presidential throne until Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term runs out in November 2024. Wickremesinghe is constitutionally empowered to dissolve parliament whenever he wishes from now until then. That’s the whip-hand he holds over his SLPP backers who made him president. It will safely ensure that they will not rock the boat during his tenure.
Just as much as the president and his government do not want any election in the short term, the opposition parties are literally panting that these be held soonest for reasons that are all too obvious. The last time the country elected local bodies was in February 2018 and the Rajapaksa party was the comfortable winner. The credit for this within the SLPP was widely apportioned to Basil Rajapaksa, its national organizer. That election victory heralded the coming of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 and the Mahinda Rajapaksa government the following August. This is why the opposition, principally Sajith Premadasa’s SJB and the JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP), is striving might and main to have this election one way or another. The present signal is that they will not succeed in this endeavour. But as in cricket, there is no certainty in the outcome.
Though the president requested that the old games must not be played any longer, his supporters don’t practice what he preaches. There was a vulgar display of firecracker lighting, in true Sri Lankan style, greeting the announcement that the IMF deal was through. Everybody and his brother well know that this polluting lighting of strings of firecrackers greeting election results, politicians arriving at meetings and other similar events are funded by the politicians themselves. Some ghouls even lit crackers when President Premadasa was assassinated. We don’t know whether last week’s cracker lighting was a command performance or of old habits persisting. Whatever it was, it was unseemly.
The mere fact the IMF deal is through does not mean that the country is going to emerge from the economic morass in which it is mired. A great deal of heavy lifting remains to be done. The initial benefits cannot be more than a trickle. Possibly the June negotiations down the road may be an opportunity to offer some tax relief to professionals loudly protesting that the new rates are totally unrealistic. We run a letter from a retired Commissioner General of Inland Revenue in this issue who says that in his view, the problem is not with the rate of taxation which is between six and 36% but with the exemption threshold.
He rightly says that given today’s hyper-inflation. high cost of electricity, water and essential food, the Rs. 1.2 million exemption threshold is far too low. He believes that if this is raised to at least Rs. 1.8 million a year, it may be possible to win the unions over and reduce the tax burden on high income professionals. He has said this should not impact on the IMF agreements and the time has come for a compromise between the government and protesters. Clearly the now retired writer will not have access to actual numbers. But given his long service in the tax department, he would have an instinct for these matters.
It is also pertinent to say here that it is time the government makes a statement about the safety of the country’s banking sector. There are many worries on this score particularly after what happened recently in the U.S. and in Switzerland. It is well known that our state banks have been captive lenders to insolvent state-owned enterprises with such loans underwritten by the government. The fact that the IMF deal was successfully concluded, no doubt, is a reassuring factor about the stability of our commercial banking system. Nevertheless, a statement from the government will reassure constituents.
Political pole dancing
Saturday 25th March, 2023
There is no such thing as national interest in Sri Lankan politics, as is public knowledge. What looks like it is only self-interest in disguise. One often has politicians in this country saying they are promoting national interest, but what they are actually doing is pursuing self-interest. It is against this backdrop that former President Maithripala Sirisena’s claim that his love for the country has driven him to call for a national government to tackle the current economic crisis should be viewed.
Sirisena is full of praise for President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the government for having secured an IMF loan, and insists that there is nothing wrong with the conditions on which the extended fund facility has been made available! Sirisena was one of the bitterest critics of the incumbent dispensation, and there was bad blood between him and Wickremesinghe, but he is now backing them to the hilt. What has made him do an about-turn?
Sirisena has chosen to perform political pole dancing, as it were, to humour the government leaders since last January, when the Supreme Court (SC), which heard a fundamental rights violation petition against him and several others, ordered him to pay Rs. 100 million by way of compensation for his failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage in 2019. The SC order prompted those who are seeking justice for the victims of terrorist bombings to renew their demand that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena, as recommended by the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the Easter Sunday terror strikes. Sirisena is now at the mercy of President Wickremesinghe, who alone can prevent the Attorney General’s Department from taking criminal action against anyone.
During the final stages of the Yahapalana government, Sirisena wronged Wickremesinghe, having secured the coveted presidency with the latter’s help in 2015. He stooped so low as to join forces with the Rajapaksas in a bid to sack the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe although he had made a solemn pledge to throw them behind bars for what they had done during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. In an unexpected turn of events, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas are now savouring power together; Sirisena is seeking a political menage a trois in a bid to save his skin more than anything else.
Unfortunately for Sirisena, the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has no need for him. It knows that he is only trying to make a virtue of necessity, for most of the SLFP MPs (elected from the SLPP) numbering 14 have already crossed over! But Sirisena is not likely to abandon his efforts to make himself attractive to the government, given his desperation to avoid criminal action over the Easter Sunday bombings.
If Sirisena’s worst fear comes to pass, he will find himself in jail, and his political career will come to an end in such an eventuality. So, he is doing his darnedest to be in the good books of President Wickremesinghe and the government and will not hesitate to subjugate the policies of the SLFP to his self-interest.
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