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Editorial

Numbers Game

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Wednesday 30th March, 2022

The government, which used to flaunt its huge parliamentary majority, finds itself in an unenviable position. On seeing its predicament, one might say karmic forces are at work; those who stand accused of having borrowed heavily for Ozymandian projects and enriched themselves at the expense of the country have now been burdened with the task of shoring up the economy they ruined; they also run the risk of being ousted if they fail to accomplish the uphill task. It is also a case of antho jata, bahi jata (conflicts within, conflicts without) for the present-regime; while struggling to assuage public anger, which is welling up, it is troubled by a crippling internal problem, which is worsening. The SLPP no longer ridicules its coalition partners, much less dares them to leave the government; its leaders are bending over backwards to accommodate the interests of not only the SLFP but also the TNA, which it wouldn’t touch with a barge pole a few months ago.

In a bid to pacify the people, who are turning aggressive towards government politicians, as evident from instances of angry crowds hooting at VVIPs, and even hurling projectiles at them, the government has chosen to grant poor families Rs. 5,000 each in view of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. If more money is being printed to fund this relief measure, which is like an attempt to douse a raging wildfire with a can of water, inflation will increase further, affecting everyone. The only thing the current dispensation is adept at seems to be printing money.

Nothing worries politicians more than the prospect of losing power. SLPP leaders must be having sleepless nights owing to their rivals’ determined bid to engineer a regime change. Prominent among those who are trying to oust the government are its dissident MPs. The Opposition may not be able to topple the government under its own steam, but the SLPP dissidents are confident they can raise enough numbers in the House to have Parliament dissolved. Former Minister Udaya Gammanpila has shown the dissidents’ hand in a television interview. He says Parliament could resolve to dissolve itself with a simple majority, and that is an option the rebel group is contemplating.

The highest number of votes the government has been able to muster in Parliament is 156 (for the 20th Amendment), Gammanpila says. The rebel group consists of 30 MPs and can enlist the support of more than 20 other members of the SLPP parliamentary group, thus depriving the government of a working majority, he has said, claiming that the SLPP rebels have even bargained for a situation where some of them might switch their allegiance to the government, lured by ministerial posts and perks, and plans are ready for such an eventuality. He says he thinks the ranks of the dissident group will swell as the economic situation worsens with public anger rising, and the government is bound to lose its majority in Parliament.

Having publicly called for a snap general election, the SJB and the JVP will have to back a move to dissolve Parliament through a resolution in the House. The TNA will not be able to defend the government, which has been branded as chauvinistic. This seems to be the basis on which the SLPP rebels have done their calculations. However, rarely do things go as planned in politics. Nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics. What happened in 2018 may serve as an example. A bid to oust the UNP-led UNF government went pear-shaped because President Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to muster a working majority in the House. In 2001, the Chandrika Kumaratunga government collapsed because the People’s Alliance could not retain a simple majority in the House. In 2015, the UNP with only about 40 MPs, ousted the UPFA government, which had a two-thirds majority, and grabbed power. So, the current government has its work cut out to keep hold of power, and throwing around 5,000-rupee notes, again, will be of little help.



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Editorial

Of that presidential monkey wrench

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Thursday 7th July, 2022

The Opposition has, after weeks of dillydallying, agreed to form an all-party caretaker government. The JVP remains noncommittal but it will have to make common cause with other Opposition parties if it is not to be branded a spoiler. The SLPP, however, has not taken kindly to the Opposition’s move; it is seeking to have one of its MPs appointed Prime Minister.

Some Opposition parties have claimed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is against the proposed all-party interim government. If so, he is asking for more trouble. It was to oust him that the people took to the streets, first. Their main slogan was ‘Gota Go Home!’, but the President managed to deflect them from their purpose and save his skin by throwing others including his elder brother, Mahinda, to the wolves. First, he got the entire Cabinet except Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, but as pressure continued to mount, he had Mahinda resign and appointed a new Cabinet with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. Those measures have not helped contain the crisis and grant relief to the public, and it is only natural that the people’s anger is rising. If the President tries to prevent an all-party interim government from being formed, the people, and the Opposition will go all out to oust him. He will be without any defence.

President Rajapaksa has failed; he has made colossal blunders on his own admission, and they have inflicted irreparable damage on the country. The current economic crisis would not have come about if assistance had been sought from the IMF about two years ago, and the rupee floated much earlier without being defended at the expense of the country’s scarce foreign reserves. Ill-advised, politically-motivated tax cuts led to the prevailing rupee crisis and excessive money printing, which has led to hyperinflation, and the rupee devaluation. The President’s disastrous experiment with organic farming has taken a heavy toll on the agricultural sector. That is why the people launched the ‘Gota Go Home’ campaign. Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister, undertaking to play a messianic role, and the UNP made him out to be a miracle-man capable of attracting billions of dollars in next to no time because he was in the good books of the developed world. But the crisis has taken a turn for the worse since his appointment as the PM. It has now been revealed that an amendment to the Exchange Control Act in 2017, when he was the Prime Minister, stood forex racketeers in good stead and paved the way for the present dollar crisis. Newly-appointed Minister Dhammika Perera, who was brought in as a National List MP to promote foreign investment, has declared that PM Wickremesinghe is obstructing the country’s efforts to bring in foreign exchange, which is the be-all and end-all of any economic recovery programme. He has called for the latter’s resignation as the Finance Minister. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera does not seem to know whether he is coming or going. The only thing he does efficiently is to increase the prices of fuel, which is in short supply.

The incumbent government has manifestly failed and is not capable of resolving the crisis. There is a massive build-up of public anger in the polity, which is a simmering volcano. The Opposition is planning to go on protesting until the President steps down, and such a course of action will plunge the country into anarchy, and let the genie out of the bottle. The only way to defuse tension, and foreclose protests that are bound to debilitate the economy further is to form a multi-party interim government so that the Opposition will have to stop protesting and put its shoulder to the wheel to help turn around the economy and ameliorate people’s suffering. The formation of a national unity government will also go a long way towards regaining the confidence of foreign investors, lenders and well-wishers. It will be plain political suicide for President Rajapaksa to try to throw a monkey wrench in the works.

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Editorial

All bark and no bite

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Wednesday 6th July, 2022

Parliament was thrown into turmoil once again yesterday, when a group of Opposition MPs staged a boisterous protest against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presence in the House. They shouted themselves hoarse, asking the President to step down. The whole country has been asking the President to go home, but he carries on regardless. Politicians who savour power never give it up of their own volition; they are like limpets. So, no amount of shouting will help the SJB, the other Opposition parties in Parliament, and the public see the back of the President, as it stands. It looks as if the Opposition had to change its strategy.

The government still has a working majority in Parliament; it therefore has the edge in shouting matches in the House and can secure the passage of bad laws. Yesterday, there were dozens of government MPs shouting in support of the President. The Opposition has its work cut out as regards its plan to topple the government by mustering enough numbers in Parliament, and this may be the reason why it has taken its battle to the streets. A similar situation arose towards the latter stages of the yahapalana government. The UNP-led UNF retained an absolute majority in the House with the help of the JVP and the TNA although it was losing popular support rapidly. The SLPP intensified its campaign outside Parliament and turned the tables on the yahapalana regime; it won the presidential and parliamentary polls with huge majorities. But this time around, there is neither an election in sight nor a guarantee that the next government to be elected would be a stable one, and the present crisis would go away even if Parliament resolved to dissolve itself and a snap general election was held anytime soon. There’s the rub. The SJB, other anti-government forces, and the country will stand to gain only if all parties get together to break the back of the crisis before the next general election.

It has been reported that the Opposition is planning to launch a continuous protest soon to pressure the President to resign. The President is not likely to step down due to protests, but if he happens to find himself in a situation where he is left with no alternative but to sacrifice Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoint a new government with someone else as the PM, to save his skin, he will not scruple to do so. After all, he had his own brother, Mahinda, step down as the PM, didn’t he? In fact, he offered the premiership to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa before appointing Wickremesinghe PM. Anything is possible in politics.

The Opposition may have thought yesterday’s protest against the President would go down well with the irate public, languishing in queues and skipping meals, but such gimmicks will not help solve their problems. People are so indignant that they may love to see the President and other government grandees being ridiculed, but that does not serve their purpose. The interests of the public will be served only if all political parties, which are responsible for the mess the country has got into over the years, albeit to varying degrees, speak with one voice and act unitedly to resolve the crisis.

President Rajapaksa may have sought to prove MP Wimal Weerawansa wrong by attending Parliament yesterday. The latter said on Monday that the President was nowhere to be seen, the implication being that he was in hiding. But the President’s presence only led to a serious disruption to parliamentary proceedings in a time when the national legislature should remain maniacally focused on how to contain the crisis. The IMF and foreign governments have told Sri Lanka with one voice that it has to get its act together to qualify for financial assistance, but its political leaders are jousting for supremacy instead of sinking their differences and working out a common agenda to save the economy.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe threw down a challenge to JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who claims to be able to revive the economy in six months. He said he would resign, allowing Dissanayake to take over as the PM if the latter could present to Parliament a workable plan to resolve the crisis so fast. Will Dissanayake take up the challenge or continue to protest? The SJB also can reveal to the House how it intends to sort out the economy, and thereafter ask for the reins of government to implement its economic recovery programme. Such a course of action will be much more effective, and beneficial to the country than shouting.

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Editorial

A dangerous trend

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Tuesday 5th July, 2022

Fossil fuel is highly inflammable and has to be handled with care, as is known to everyone. Shortages thereof could also be so, in a manner of speaking, as evident from how tempers flare in fuel queues, igniting violence. There have been countless untoward incidents at filling stations, some of which even had to be closed temporarily as a result. The situation has recently taken a turn for the worse. Now, protesters are clashing with the police and security forces personnel directly. An armed soldier was stabbed at a fuel station in Embilipitiya, the other day, and an army officer was seen kicking a protester elsewhere. This is an extremely dangerous trend. When the armed forces are deployed to control angry crowds, violent encounters are to be expected.

In May, the country witnessed a spate of violence in the aftermath of the SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters. Organised gangs wearing full-face helmets carried out arson attacks in a very systematic manner as if they had rehearsed for those destructive acts. Luckily, they failed to sustain the wave of violence, but they may be able to compass their anarchical ends if clashes between the people and the armed forces erupt.

The best way to defuse widespread tensions is to make fuel freely available, but given the prevailing forex crunch and the attendant shortages of essential imports, the government must at least make a serious effort to ration fuel to be imported and bring profiteers to justice. Cynics say Sri Lanka has become an oil rich country of sorts although pumps at its filling stations have run dry. This situation has come about thanks to hoarders who are making a killing while the ordinary people have been left without any fuel. At this rate, the government might not be able to solve the fuel shortage even if a dozen ships carrying oil were to arrive in quick succession. Raids continue to yield huge amounts of hoarded diesel and petrol, but we believe that the police are only scratching the surface of the problem. If handsome rewards are offered for information that leads to the seizure of hoarded fuel, and raids are stepped up with more decoys being deployed, the police will be able to seize at least a shipload of fuel from hoarders.

What characterises the petroleum sector is utter chaos with racketeers having a field day. Most vehicles, especially trishaws, do not leave queues even after being refuelled; they keep returning and obtaining diesel and petrol continuously at the expense of others, who are left without any fuel as a result. Most trishaws are not available for hire these days, for it is much more lucrative to wait in queues, obtain fuel and sell it on the black market, where a litre of petrol or diesel fetches as much as Rs. 2,000. The success of any strategy to dispense fuel equitably will hinge on the government’s ability to hold unscrupulous elements at bay until fuel supplies are restored to the pre-crisis level. The recently-introduced token system has manifestly failed, and it is only natural that the government has dissociated itself from this harebrained scheme.

The government should introduce fuel rationing urgently. Perhaps, it should seriously consider adopting the odd-even rationing and having fuel stations stamp a mini calendar on the reverse of the revenue licence of every vehicle so that dates on which fuel is issued can be cancelled, at the pump, preferably by the police. This scheme, we believe, may help halve the number of vehicles waiting in fuel queues, infuse the public with confidence and thereby thwart speculation, which results in hoarding.

Meanwhile, when diesel is issued, priority has to be given to vehicles engaged in public transport and tourism, trucks transporting essentials, fishing craft, etc. This does not happen at present; even the owners of super luxury SUVs that do not do more than four to five kilometres to a litre of petrol or diesel have unlimited access to fuel. Many such gas guzzlers have been sighted at the CPC’s Kolonnawa storage terminal, where fuel is said to be issued to the so-called VVIPs, while the majority of private buses cannot operate for want of diesel.

The root cause of the fuel crisis is the shortage of forex, but the government’s cavalier attitude and inability to introduce a proper rationing system have aggravated it and are likely to plunge the country into anarchy with people clashing with the police and the armed forces, much to the glee of the so-called Helmet Brigade waiting in the wings for another opportunity.

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