The anti-incumbency factor is a fact of life any government has to contend with. It chips away at the popularity of governments in power, but their leaders tend to wish it away, albeit in vain. In most cases, it does not have any rational basis and simply emanates from the people’s desire for change. It alone can bring down powerful governments if free and fair elections are held.
The current SLPP-UNP government does not seem to be making a serious effort to counter the anti-incumbency sentiments which are manifestly on the rise. Otherwise, it would have overcome the arrogance of power and handled the crucial issues the country is faced with, such as the so-called cricket crisis, in a different manner. It may not have any leeway in addressing the economic crisis; it has to adhere to the approach prescribed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but, overall, it can handle political and social issues better.
All it takes to spoil a pot of milk is said to be a little bit of cow dung. Likewise, in politics, one’s success or failure is measured in terms of the wrong steps one takes rather than the right ones one is credited with. Hence the need for politicians to mind every move he or she makes and weigh the pros and cons of his or her actions carefully especially when one is required to perform unpopular yet essential tasks like frugal economic management in times of crisis. The fate that has befallen former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a case in point. He used to be a political magnet, and his charisma as well as his way of politicking was known as ‘Mahinda Magic’, but today his popularity has plummeted and even those who hailed him as a hero are denigrating him.
President Wickremesinghe, delivering his Budget speech, last week, likened the economic situation Sri Lankans experienced in 2022 to hell, and laid out what he had done to improve the people’s lot. The government is not short of critics and continues to draw heavy flak for the stringent measures it has adopted at the behest of the IMF to resolve the current economic crisis, but the general consensus is that the country is gradually emerging out of the depths of hopelessness and chaos. The economy, which is contracting at a slower pace, is expected to record a positive growth next year. The people’s satisfaction with the government’s efforts to revive the economy was reflected in the outcome of an opinion survey conducted by Verite Research, a Colombo-based think tank, a few months ago. The government’s approval rating more than doubled to 21% in June 2023 from 10% in February 2023. That was no mean achievement. But it fell sharply to 9% in October 2023, according to the latest round of the Gallup style ‘Mood of the Nation’ poll conducted by Verité Research. The survey has shown that the people’s satisfaction with the state of the nation also dropped by half to 6% from 12% in June 2023. The economic confidence score also fell from negative (-) 44 in June to negative (-) 62. These indicators portend trouble for the government. Public consternation is palpable.
What has caused the government’s approval rating to drop so drastically? Tax and tariff increases have no doubt contributed to this situation significantly, but there is reason to believe that the causes of the decline of the government’s popularity, which showed signs of improving initially, are as much political as they are economic.
The SLPP has been in overdrive to revive itself of late with an eye to the elections expected next year. Its leaders have been more active than they were a few months ago, and are seen to be trying to undermine President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has not heeded their demand that some of the SLPP district leaders in the parliament be appointed to the Cabinet. The President and the SLPP parliamentary group, save a few members, are at loggerheads, but cooperate to secure the passage of vital Bill, etc., for want of a better alternative. If they break ranks at this juncture, they will have to face an election, for the President can now dissolve the parliament at will.
The SLPP leaders recently launched a series of meetings aimed at shoring up their images and recruiting members. Their campaign has suffered a huge setback owing to a recent Supreme Court ruling that some of them including Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers, Gotabaya and Basil contributed to the present economic meltdown. The apex court decision could not have come at a worse time for them. It will be quite a struggle for them to mitigate the political fallout of the ruling, which their political opponents are making the most of to whip up anti-government sentiments.
Another reason for rising public anger at the government is widespread corruption and waste. The newly-ratified Anti-Corruption Act is being flaunted as a panacea, but serious allegations abound against government politicians and state officials loyal to them. The public health sector and Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) are currently in the national spotlight owing to allegations of corruption. The Opposition has accused the government of shielding the corrupt.
The government has, under pressure from the Opposition, the media and anti-corruption campaigners, allowed some high-ranking health officials to be arrested over a pharmaceutical racket, but it has totally mishandled the SLC issue. Instead of allowing allegations against the cricket administrators to be probed impartially, it is seen to be on a campaign to stifle Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe’s effort to sort out SLC. Some ministers have been openly critical of the manner in which Minister Ranasinghe has sought to resolve the cricket crisis. SLPP MP Ranjith Bandara, who heads the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) has come under fire for his alleged partiality to the SLC Executive Committee. The Opposition insists that he used some non-verbal cues to make the SLC officials remain silent when they were asked some pointed questions during a recent COPE meeting. He is seen in a video making a gesture, which, the Opposition members of the COPE say, was a signal for the SLC office-bearers to skip certain questions. Bandara has denied the allegation, but whether the public will buy into his side of the story remains to be seen.
The government does not seem to have learnt from its mistakes that drove the public to stage street protests.