Loss of trust
This is being written before the budget was presented on Friday due to technical demands of printing the Sunday Island on Friday night. Hence our commentary on a subject not focusing on the latest breaking news, but yet on a no less important subject. That is on the very-much-in-the-offing New Fortress Energy (NFE) deal with a US company where it is planned to sell-off a 40 per cent slice of state-owned West Coast Power Ltd., the owners of the 310 MW Yugadanavi Power Plant at Kerawalapitiya. Much has been said and written on the matter strongly opposed by a battery of experts and a formidable group of minority constituents of the ruling Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP)-led government. The CEB trade unions and other important state sector unions too have expressed their displeasure and a national blackout threatened. Nevertheless, the government seems intent on going ahead with the transaction now under challenge in the Supreme Court with the case due to be taken up within the next few days.
What is particularly unhappy about the whole business is that there is a great deal of suspicion that the deal is being pursued not in the national interest but for reasons that can only be called venal. The enthusiasm to finalize it is widely believed to be less than altruistic, with fat kickbacks that have sadly become a fact of life in our country today, being a strong driving force. The mere fact that such deals have been widely alleged, though not definitively proved, to have been corrupt is a sad commentary on the country’s political and bureaucratic establishments that have lost the people’s trust for good reasons. Succeeding governments have set bloodhounds against their predecessors and we have all been treated not to promised criminal convictions – only a dismal four to six percent of cases in our courts lead to such conviction – but to the sight of the supposedly independent Attorney General withdrawing indictments filed by his own department against VIPs following changes of government. Far too many crooks have got off the hook under the guise of political victimization.
We now have a promise that all documents and agreements on the NFE deal, allegedly signed in the dead of night behind the backs of the cabinet and parliament, will be presented to the legislature. The CEB chairman is on record saying that there are non-disclosure clauses in the agreement, a business practice that is not unknown. Whether these too will be made public remains to be seen. Most of us, with good reason, are highly suspicious of such arrangements. Non-disclosure obviously means that somebody wants some details of an agreement kept under wraps for reasons of their own. This is totally unacceptable in arrangements between a sovereign and a commercial entity as commitments between the state and any other party must necessarily be in the public domain. Transparency requires that and total transparency is essential in deals such as this. Let us hope that we will have that.
The debate on the budget for 2022 that Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, presented to parliament on Friday, will necessarily bring matters of governance and the activities of all ministries, departments and agencies of the government under the national spotlight. Given its importance, the NFE deal will (or should) be thoroughly dissected. It is accepted fact that contemporary budget debates are nowhere near the caliber of those of the past where the ability of lawmakers sitting in the legislature was vastly different from what we have today. However that be, there is a great deal of published material for MPs to use in pending discussions and this, hopefully, will happen. They say, not without justification, that under democratic parliamentary rule the opposition can have its say but governments will have their way. Rightly or wrongly this has often happened in our country and the NFE transaction will be no different unless the Supreme Court holds otherwise.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went on record a few days ago asking the very pertinent question that if the people kicked out a government, as happened in 2015, why did they re-elect the same bunch as in 2019/2020? Regular columnist Rajan Philips has in this page trenchantly analyzed this conundrum, reaching conclusions that will not be palatable to the ruling cabal and certainly not to the political class in general, elected, defeated and re-elected in the course of our contemporary political history. Although the voter has regularly said “a plague on both your houses,” he/she has as regularly re-elected their occupants to the great cost of the nation. Why was that? Because there was no credible alternative. Originally it was the UNP versus the rest. If the rest were able to subordinate their ideological differences, the first post-Independence government might not have been UNP. But that is now all water under the bridge.
Thereafter, following the defeat of what some thought was an invincible UNP by an SLFP-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna in 1956, we have had various permutations and combinations of political parties, many of them communal rather than national, contending under the green and blue umbrellas. The reds, unthinkably, were wiped out in 1977. Unfortunately, the people did not get what was good for them. Maybe that’s what they deserved. The cynical viewpoint at this moment of time is that is all they are going to get in the foreseeable future.
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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