A caged jumbo, elephantine woes and a ‘red wedge’
A pall of political instability has descended on the country and taken a heavy toll on all vital sectors, especially the ailing economy. The government is busy trying to solve its own problems on the political front, but in vain, neglecting critical issues faced by people.
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are in an unenviable position, having to contend with seemingly intractable internal problems. They are fighting for their own political survival.
Desperate to prevent a further erosion of the SLFP’s vote base and a possible rebellion against his leadership, Sirisena seems to have taken a leaf out of Wickremesinghe’s book. He has promised to restructure the SLFP. But he cannot afford to carry out a party overhaul, at this juncture, and is likely to emulate Wickremesinghe and keep his trusted lieutenants in key positions of the party, while effecting some cosmetic changes. The SLFP’s problems are far too serious to be tackled with reforms.
Pressure continues to mount on President Sirisena, from the SLFP MPs who lost their ministerial portfolios, for backing a no-confidence motion against PM Wickremesinghe, to sever links with the UNP. The other section of the SLFP parliamentary group wants him to remain in the yahapalana government. Sirisena is torn between the two warring factions. His plight is similar to that of the old Brahmin who had two wives of different ages. The young one, not wanting him to look his age, started removing all his grey hair while the other, out of jealousy, did exactly the opposite. The poor man ended up as bald as a coot.
President Sirisena will have his work cut out to reconcile the two factions of his parliamentary group. He is in a catch 22 situation. He seems to have adopted a fatalistic attitude for want of a better alternative.
Elephants on the rampage
The recently introduced party ‘reforms’ have not worked for the UNP, which is in the same predicament as the SLFP owing to its disastrous defeat at the Feb. 10 local government polls. The UNP leadership pretends that the party has put its internal dispute behind it, but the crisis is far from over. UNP backbenchers are now on the warpath again, dismissing the party reforms as complete eyewash. Claiming that they have been taken for a ride again, they are rebelling against the party leader openly and boycotting parliamentary group meetings. They are a force to be reckoned with, in that they are echoing the views of party organisers at the grassroots level. Their rebellion portends more trouble for the UNP, which has to brace itself for another electoral battle without further delay. The government cannot go on postponing the provincial council elections indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the UNP’s position on former Minister Ravi Karunanayake has raised many an eyebrow. He was reappointed the Assistant Leader of the party, the other day, amidst opposition from some party seniors. Former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera resigned from the UNP Working Committee (WC) in protest against Karunanayake’s reappointment. But the decision-making body held in Karunanayake’s favour. If the UNP considers him clean enough to function as its Assistant Leader why hasn’t it gone the whole hog to have him reinstated in the Cabinet?
Some political observers argue that Karunanayake has been left out because the SLFP is not amenable to giving him a Cabinet post. But, the UNP does not allow itself to be dictated by the SLFP, does it? It has reappointed Tilak Marapana and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to the Cabinet. Marapana had to resign as the Minister of Law and Order, over the Avant Garde floating armour controversy. Rajapakshe was also accused of having links to the Avant Garde owner. The UNP itself raked him over the coals for what it called his collusion with the heavyweights of the former government and abusing the Justice portfolios to shield them. It went so far as to have its backbenchers to traduce him and finally sack him, claiming that he had violated the principle of collective responsibility of the Cabinet by criticizing the Hambantota Port lease agreement. Nobody would have thought he would ever be reappointed a Cabinet minister.
It will be interesting to see Karunayake’s reaction. He is an ambitious politician and will not take everything lying down.
Dark clouds on the economic front
The rapid depreciation of the rupee has already had a devastating impact on the economy with the prices of imports going through the roof. The government is lost between a rock and a hard place, where fuel prices are concerned. It has to either reduce petroleum taxes or increase fuel prices. Both these options are bound to have an adverse political and economic fallout. If fuel prices are jacked up, the general price level will go up further due to an increase in the cost of transport, much to the consternation of the public who have already defeated the SLFP and the UNP at an election, because of their economic woes. A tax reduction to maintain the fuel prices at the present level will translate into a corresponding revenue loss to the government, which is already struggling to fund services such as education, healthcare and infrastructural projects.
Debt servicing and the allocation of more funds for subsidies in a bid to win over the farming community have aggravated the government’s pecuniary difficulties. The situation is sure to take a turn for the worse within the next few months.
The Central Bank says it is confident of arresting the free fall of the rupee with the help of the money to be received from China for the Hambantota Port lease. But it is being overoptimistic. Funds expected from China may help the rupee stabilise temporarily, but how to manage the situation in the long term is the question, for there is no way shoring up the country’s foreign reserves without foreign direct investment (FDI). Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has sought to paint a rosy picture of the situation. He claimed, at a ceremony to mark the 25th Death Anniversary of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, on May 01, in Colombo, that foreigners were falling over themselves to invest here and the government found it difficult to provide them with required facilities. But, the free fall of the rupee has given the lie to his claim. Even a student with some rudimentary knowledge of the dismal science knows that if there is an inflow of FDI, it should cause the appreciation of the local currency.
Exporters gain from the rupee depreciation, as claimed by the government. But the same cannot be said of the country, because the foreign exchange earned by most exporters does not find its way back here; it is stashed away overseas.
President flexing his weak muscles
President Sirisena is like a caged elephant, which can only trumpet and rattle chains on its feet by way of protest. He finds himself in a constitutional strait jacket aka the 19th Amendment, which has curtailed his executive powers to a far greater extent than he thought. The late Ranasinghe Premadasa, while he was the Prime Minister under the late President J. R. Jayewardene, famously, lamented in Parliament that he was as powerless as a peon in a government office. He told the truth. The Prime Minister is a virtual figurehead when he belongs to the same party as the incumbent President. But he becomes the de facto head of state when he and the President happen to represent two different parties. What we witnessed from 2001 to 2004 is a case in point; Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) virtually governed the country, undermining as he did President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s position. Wickremesinghe even entered into a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, without informing Kumaratunga, who also had to stomach many an indignity at Cabinet meetings, where a bunch of hostile UNP ministers even claimed that she was carrying a handbag fitted with a camera and a voice recorder. Chandrika being Chandrika did not turn the other cheek; she returned like for like, and finally sacked the UNP-led government, citing national security reasons. The rest is history.
Hell has no fury …
Hell hath no fury like an executive president short-changed. But President Sirisena cannot do a Chandrika, for several reasons. Chandrika could take on the UNP without worrying about the consequences of her action, because she had won the 1999 presidential election, on her own, and had the SLFP behind her though there had been some defections to the UNP. She also wielded power to dissolve Parliament. Sirisena is without that luxury. He would not have been able to secure the presidency without the help of the UNP, upon which he is currently dependent to hold the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by the Rajapaksas, at bay. Worse, he controls only a small section of the SLFP. If the UNP ditches him, he will be far more vulnerable as a lame duck president. He will be up the creek without a paddle. So, he has had to assert himself as the executive president while honeymooning with the UNP, which is undermining his position. He has prorogued Parliament by way of muscle flexing.
Sirisena will be able to make a public show of the fact that he is the President when he inaugurate the next parliamentary session on May 8th.
Will Sirisena seek a second term?
President Sirisena has, true to form, refused to be drawn on his future plans. He prevaricated when BBC asked him, the other day, whether he was planning to run for President again. He said it was too early to answer that question. He must be having a good reason to dodge the issue, but procrastination is no problem solver. The SLFP will have to decide on its presidential candidate without further delay.
The UNP has already declared that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be its presidential candidate. No less a person than the newly appointed UNP General Secretary and Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam made that announcement last week in Kandy. He has apparently sent a trial balloon.
It is popularly believed that the incumbent Prime Minister in the presidential fray has odds stacked in his favour. All prime ministers who contested presidential elections—Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988, Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005—secured the much-coveted presidency. However, in politics nothing is as certain as the unexpected. It was also thought that the incumbent Presidents, seeking fresh terms, always succeeded. But President Rajapaksa lost in 2015.
JO and JVP’s red wedge
The JVP has made a smart move—for once! The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution has caused a rift in the JO, where opinion is divided on the abolition of the executive presidency. One cannot say for sure whether the 20th Amendment is the JVP’s brainchild or if it was conceived by some other party. But, the JVP has claimed paternity of the proposed Bill and one is without evidence to the contrary.
The loyalists of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is enamoured of the moves being made to scrap the executive presidency, because their hero cannot contest another presidential election. Not all JO bigwigs are favourably disposed towards the idea of fielding Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at the next presidential election. Some JO seniors are of the view that Basil Rajapaksa, being a seasoned politician, will be a better choice.
Blood is said to be thicker than water, but this does not hold true in power politics, as has been our experience. The UNP, which lost two presidential elections and ran away from another two, is not in a position to face the next one. It is likely to back the JVP’s 20th Amendment. Mahinda Rajapaksa will have to make his position known officially, on the JVP proposal when it is presented to Parliament. The JO leaders who are for retaining the executive presidency, too, will have to do so. The JVP leaders must be laughing up their sleeves.