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Editorial

Polls postmortems

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Tuesday 18th August, 2020

Critics of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe danced in the streets, the other day, when it was reported that he had finally decided to step down as the UNP leader. But their joy was short-lived; he announced that he would lead the party until his successor was anointed. Now, he says he will be the party leader until the next provincial council elections!

Giving reasons for the UNP’s defeat, Wickremesinghe has reportedly told a group of unsuccessful party candidates, at Sirikotha, that the UNP-led government had to work with a hostile President and face the fallout of the Easter Sunday carnage. Curiously, the Treasury bond scams are not among the reasons he has given for the UNP’s electoral disaster.

The UNP’s fate was sealed the day the bond scams came to light. Its attempts to cover them up only made matters worse. All those who were held responsible for those financial crimes have lost their seats.

The most opportune time for the UNP to face a general election came when it turned the tables on the 52-day government and recaptured power in Parliament in 2018. An abortive attempt by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and his former boss Mahinda Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament, after failing to grab power, unified the UNP, as never before, with all its MPs and rank and file rallying behind Wickremesinghe, who was backed by even Sajith Premadasa. The UNP was revitalised in spite of its defeat at the local government polls a few months back. The SLPP and SLFP/UPFA leaders were reeling from their grand pratfall. Had the UNP caused Parliament to be dissolved at that time and faced a general election, it would not have had to face a disastrous split or the fallout of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, which ruined its chances of winning an election; it may not have been able to win, but its defeat would have been less humiliating.

Wickremesinghe has said that both the UNP and the SJB alienated the majority community. However, this is not solely due to ethno-religious factors. These two parties have not been fully backed by the minority communities either. Issues that led to their defeat are much broader. The TNA’s support base has also shrunk significantly with the SLFP, the EPDF and fringe groups eating into its vote bank. The SJB failed to gain the electoral boost it expected from the SLMC.

Theoretically, what has befallen the UNP, the SJB, the TNA, etc., can be explained in the light of the go-to poli-sci model, Overton window (OW), which basically refers to the range of ideas and policies that voters find acceptable; it transcends ethnic, religious and political boundaries. This window shifts and expands depending on issues and situations. What determines whether a political party will be able to secure enough popular support to win an election or not is its leader’s ability to figure out the OW and respond accordingly. The UPFA, during the second term of President Rajapaksa, failed to do so and faced an ignominious defeat, in 2015. At that time, public opinion was against attacks on democracy, nepotism, waste, corruption, cronyism and the like. But President Sirisena and the UNP-led government made a mockery of their commitment to the democratic ideals they had pledged to uphold, and the OW began to shift towards August 2015, as can be seen from the UNP-led alliance’s failure to secure a working majority in Parliament at the general election a few months after winning a presidential election. The bond scams, unfulfilled election pledges, threats to national security and the coronavirus pandemic upended the OW to the advantage of the SLPP.

The OW is bound to shift with the passage of time, and the anti-incumbency factor will bear on the current dispensation. The economy is in bad shape and most of the election pledges are likely to remain unfulfilled to the consternation of the public. Such an eventuality may provide the Opposition with a window of opportunity to better its electoral performance by the time the country goes to the polls again. This is apparently what Wickremesinghe is waiting for. He is a skilled political escapologist. Hope is said to spring eternal.

 



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Editorial

Cops and robbers

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Friday 19th August, 2022

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Ukraine Udayanga Weeratunga has been questioned by the CID on the infamous MIG deal for the umpteenth time. Police investigations in this country tend to go on until the cows come home when the suspects happen to be powerful politicians and their kith and kin. The MIG probe is likely to go on until or the suspects go the way of all flesh. No wonder corruption has eaten into the vitals of Sri Lankan society.

Weeratunga stands accused of having received kickbacks from the controversial purchase of fighter jets for the Sri Lanka Air Force under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. A close relative of the Rajapaksa family, he has reportedly said former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should also be questioned on the issue. He has been critical of Gotabaya of late, maybe because he thinks he had to languish in a remand prison as the latter did not go all out to protect him. But one should not be so naïve as to expect Udayanga to disclose anything that can be used against Gotabaya; his swipes at the latter are only for public consumption.

Politicians and their allies remain loyal to the oath of omerta, as it were, no matter what; never do they divulge information which could lead to mutually assured destruction, so to speak. Court cases against them are like third-rate mega teledramas, which are an insult to people’s intelligence. Full of dramatic twists and turns, they drag on and have highly predictable ends. They are only a form of public entertainment.

Show trials against the powerful invariably collapse in this country, as is public knowledge. One of the main election pledges made by the Yahapalana camp ahead of the 2015 regime change was to throw the Rajapaksas behind bars for the theft of public funds and corrupt deals, among other things. Those who undertook to act as cops were caught with their hands in the till. Then, there occurred a role reversal with the robbers becoming cops, and vice versa. Today, the cops and the robbers are together, sharing power, protecting each other, and cocking a snook at the gullible people, who try to ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ by changing governments.

The theory of the circulation of elites has gained currency in social science, and is used to explain regime changes and how elites and non-elites become rulers from time to time. As for Sri Lanka, we see a kind of circulation of rogues as well; they acquire and enjoy power almost alternately. The Rajapaksa loyalists who went into hiding following the 2015 regime change owing to charges of bribery and corruption, etc., against them are back in action, protesting their innocence, feathering their nests and even having cases against them dismissed on questionable technical grounds rather than the merit of legal arguments in defence of them. They have proved that they are capable of manipulating legislative and legal processes to protect their interests.

Crooks who defaulted on loans from state banks to the tune of billions of rupees, got off scot-free and chose to lie low after the 2019 regime change, are currently sighted in the exalted company of the powers that be at UNP events. They are now safe and can make up for lost time. At this rate, one need not be surprised even if former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, who fled the country before being hauled up before courts over the Treasury bond scams, returns to Sri Lanka. He has told CNN how he thinks the Sri Lankan economy could be straightened up! When the Rajapaksas during their Opposition days vowed to bring Mahendran back to stand trial for the bond racket, we argued in this space that he would be safe under a Rajapaksa administration and no serious attempt would be made to have him extradited because the Rajapaksas were protected by the UNP-led Yahapalana government. Nobody was sent to prison for the murders of newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, and ruggerite, Wasim Thajudeen, and no action was taken to trace the ill-gotten wealth of the bigwigs of the Rajapaksa administration.

The police had five years from January 2015 to complete the probe into the MIG deal. Having let the grass grow under their clumsy feet, while the suspects were out of power, the long arm of the law is now pretending to go hell for leather to complete the investigation. Let the Police be urged to fish or cut bait!

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Editorial

Gota coming?

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Thursday 18th August 2022

Speculation is rife that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is planning to return to Sri Lanka. The question, however, is not whether he is coming, but what he is doing overseas. The anti-government protesters who engineered his ouster called upon him to ‘go home’; they did not ask him to flee the country. Interestingly, they themselves have gone back home! Gotabaya certainly helped defuse tensions by leaving the country in the aftermath of the 09 July uprising, without ordering a military crackdown on protests, whatever the reason, but it defies comprehension why he has chosen to be in self-exile for so long.

All other SLPP politicians who pauperised the country while claiming to empower its people have not fled the country; they are going places, instead. The protesting public demanded a system change, no less, but what they have got is the same rotten system with some cosmetic change; there is a ‘new’ government consisting of the same old failures and political rejects. So, Gotabaya’s return will not make much of a difference.

Gotabaya ruined the economy. He alone? The economic crisis no doubt worsened, on his watch, but it is not of recent origin. When a nation consumes more than it produces, and spends more than it earns, it asks for trouble and its bankruptcy is only a matter of time. Gotabaya could have delayed the country’s slide into pauperism if not for his obduracy, incompetence, inexperience, the wrong advice he received from a coterie of self-styled experts, and some circumstances beyond his control.

The government would have the public believe that the economy nosedived due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected the country’s productivity, exports and the foreign currency inflow, and the Ukraine war, which has led to massive increases in the costs of imports. It is only causing an affront to the people’s intelligence by peddling this argument. The country could have withstood unprecedented pressure from the pandemic and the Ukrainian conflict, albeit temporarily, but for the Gotabaya administration’s economic mismanagement. Politically-motivated tax cuts took a heavy toll on the state revenue, compelling the government to resort to money printing. The situation took a turn for the worse owing to the distribution of cash handouts by way of pandemic relief. Excessive money printing led to an exponential increase in inflation and the devaluation of the rupee. The government also made a fatal mistake by continuing to defend the tumbling rupee until the depletion of the scarce dollar reserves, and allowing a currency free float thereafter, instead of seeking IMF assistance at the first sign of trouble. Corruption has also cost the state coffers dear, the fallout of the mega sugar tax scam being a case in point. Gotabaya’s disastrous organic agriculture policy backfired because what should have been done over several years cautiously was telescoped into a few months.

Trouble began for Gotabaya with the emergence of two more competing power centres in the SLPP in the form of the Mahinda and Basil camps after the last general election. One may recall that Gotabaya performed reasonably well as the President until the formation of the SLPP government in August 2020. Mahinda, after securing the premiership, reverted to his old ways, which had led to his downfall as the President, and Basil began to leverage his position as the handler of the SLPP to control the government.

Gotabaya was keen to form an all-party government towards the latter stages of his rule. It may be argued that he was only making a virtue of necessity, but the fact remains that he was willing to share power with the Opposition. The SLPP was against any such power-sharing arrangement, and the political crisis worsened, leading to the ouster of Gotabaya. Most of those who contributed to the country’s bankruptcy are back in business and the Aragalaya has withered on the vine. Gotabaya alone is on the run—of his own volition.

Some LTTE sympathisers who funded terrorism, which destroyed tens of thousands of lives and properties worth billions of rupees, and ruined the economy, here, are now free to come back because the current administration has delisted their outfits for political expediency. Gotabaya, the former Defence Secretary, who played a pivotal role in prosecuting the country’s successful war against the LTTE, became the President and resigned, fears to return home!

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Editorial

Trickery and duplicity

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Wednesday 17th August, 2022

The SLPP MPs are said to be divided on provision in the 22nd constitutional amendment Bill for the dissolution by the President of Parliament two and a half years after the formation of a government. The ruling party MPs loyal to the Rajapaksas are reportedly demanding that the constitutionally prescribed period be extended to four and a half years, but the dissident SLPP MPs and the Opposition are said to be convinced otherwise; they reportedly favour the current time limit.

Adversity or expediency may make strange bedfellows but they do not necessarily trust one another in cloak-and-dagger politics. They see more devils than vast hell can hold, and are ready to sink their poniards in each other’s back if they feel that is the way they could protect their interests. What happened during the now infamous Yahapalanaya may serve as an example.

The political marriage of convenience between the SLFP and the UNP in 2015 brought a group of highly ambitious politicians together but these elements were suspicious of one another and had their long knives at the ready and put them to good use three years later. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, who won the 2015 presidential race with the help of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, sacked the latter as the Prime Minister and appointed their mutual enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa to that post in a bid to appoint an SLFP-led government at the expense of the UNP.

Sirisena went so far as to dissolve Parliament only to have his executive order quashed by the Supreme Court. He made that deplorable move because he felt that the UNP was undermining him politically.

The SLPP, which made Wickremesinghe the President, seems to fear that he might do a Sirisena in case he falls out with the Rajapaksas.

The 20th Amendment has strengthened the executive presidency, and President Wickremesinghe is far more powerful than President Sirisena was during the Yahapalana government. Ironically, most of the SLPP MPs who voted en bloc for the 20th Amendment, enabling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament after the expiration of two and a half years of its life, are all out to prevent President Wickremesinghe from doing so!

The Rajapaksas made Wickremesinghe the President to keep him on a string and have caused the Sword of Medamulna to hang from a saataka over his head. They will not be able to control the President if he can dissolve Parliament, for he will not hesitate to leverage this power in case of the SLPP trying to undermine him. He will be able to use of the ruling party MPs’ fear of Parliament being dissolved to make them fall in line: most SLPP lawmakers know that their chances of re-election are remote.

The only way to prevent the President from exercising his or her power to dissolve Parliament is to move an impeachment motion against him or her. But it is highly unlikely that the SLPP will resort to such a course of action: it has lost its two-thirds majority in the House. Having witnessed the disastrous situation during the latter stages of the Yahapalana government, especially the neglect of national security and the resultant Easter Sunday carnage, one can only hope that the Executive and the ruling party will not be at loggerheads again.

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