Sri Lankans have earned notoriety for ignoring warnings. They drive and ride like bats out of hell without caring a damn about warning signs on the roadside and meet with fatal accidents. Politicians also do likewise; they, too, turn a blind eye to warnings and face disastrous electoral defeats owing to their recklessness.  

The SLPP government is rejoicing in typical Sri Lankan style. It is in seventh heaven following the passage of the Budget 2022 with a two-thirds majority on Friday (10). It won 145 seats at the last general election, but succeeded in securing as many as 157 votes for the budget. Obviously, 12 Opposition MPs have joined forces with it, and this is no mean achievement for a government struggling on many fronts. But huge parliamentary majorities could be really deceptive; they do not necessarily mean clean bills of health for governments.

It will be a huge mistake for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government to ignore the unmistakable signs of a political crisis, and dupe itself into believing that everything is rosy on the political front, simply because it is capable of engineering crossovers in the parliament. Those who wield power can buy off MPs in Sri Lanka, as is public knowledge. Schmears—bribes in cash or kind—help make the Opposition MPs seeking expediency switch their allegiance to governments, as they can be lured with huge amounts of money or various favour such as help for those with court cases against them, and diplomatic postings for their family members.

Parliamentary majorities deceptive

Former President Maithripala Sirisena got it right when he declared in the parliament recently that all governments with huge majorities in Sri Lanka had ruined things for themselves. The message in his speech was that the government had to stop antagonizing its coalition partners and asking for trouble.

The SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77) had a two-thirds majority, and even promulgated a new Constitution. But its popularity plummeted with the people undergoing tremendous suffering, and it made the mistake of driving its leftist allies away. Cocky and arrogant, the SLFP leaders thought they did not have to depend on the smaller coalition partners to win elections. They were reduced to eight seats at the 1977 general election, which the UNP won with a five-sixths majority. It was the blunders of the SLFP that made the UNP’s unprecedented victory possible although the credit has been given to the late J. R. Jayewardene.

The JRJ government could not manage its electoral gains properly, and became unpopular so much so that President Jayewardene had to deprive his main rival, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, of her civic rights before seeking a second term in 1982, and even hold a referendum to do away with a midterm general election. His government resorted to large-scale election violence and rigging to win elections and the controversial referendum.

However, despite all the violence and rigging, that regime lost four byelections out of 18, which had to be held in 1983 in the electorates where the UNP lost the referendum. The Opposition won in Matugama, Baddegama, Akmeemana and Maharagama. It would have won the majority of the seats including Mahara if the elections had been free and fair.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015) also had a two-thirds majority in Parliament including some crossovers. It passed the 18th Amendment, and thought the sky was the limit. Just like the current Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, it also rode roughshod over its coalition allies, and antagonized some party seniors. Mass defections led the collapse of that regime as its leaders let arrogance get the better of them. Following the victory of Maithripala Sirisena, the UNP, which had only 47 seats, formed a government with a two-thirds majority overnight and even had the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed!

The yahapalana government, following its victory at the 2015 general election, had a parliamentary majority after the SLFP’s pullout in October 2018. President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa went all out to bring down that administration but in vain, as they could not muster enough numbers to secure a working majority. But the UNF-led government was extremely unpopular despite its parliamentary majority, and the UNP, which retained a working majority in Parliament, was left without a single elected MP at the 2020 general election. Some of the yahapalana politicians that fate by forming the Samagi Jana Balawegaya; the SLFP sided with the SLPP on a winning streak, and secured 14 seats.

The incumbent dispensation, too, is beset with numerous problems. It has angered the farming community thanks to its failed fertilizer experiment. The economy is in bad shape. The cost of living is soaring, and the country’s credit ratings have been downgraded. Three of the Cabinet ministers have moved the Supreme Court against the government decision to divest 40% of shares of the state-owned Yugadanavi power plant to a US company. This is perhaps the worst ever blow a government has suffered at the hands of a section of its own Cabinet, and it augurs ill for the SLPP.

Possible IMF straitjacket

The SLPP government has antagonized the Western bloc, which is rejoicing at its economic woes, instead of throwing a lifeline. It has become too heavy a burden on China, which does not loosen its purse strings unless it is sure of substantial returns on its investment. International human rights groups are exerting pressure on the US to make the most of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis to make the Rajapaksa government carry out its human rights commitments. The Human Right Watch has recently urged the US government to do so.

The government tried its best to shore up the country’s foreign exchange reserves without seeking the help of the Bretton Woods twins. But all its efforts have failed, and it is apparently left with no alternative but to seek IMF assistance, which, however, will come with stringent conditions such as frugal economic management and not allow the ruling politicians to incur unnecessary expenditure for political reasons and line their pockets unlike in the case of commercial loans from China, which is lenient towards regimes given to corruption and abuse of power.

Sri Lankan governments are notorious for going on spending sprees ahead of elections and wasting a great deal of public funds in the process. In 2014, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government spent as much as 600 million rupees belonging to the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission on the distribution of white cloth among the Buddhists who observe sil. Another Rs. 29.4 million out of the Divineguma Department funds was spent on printing almanacs as part of President Rajapaksa’s election campaign. Such expenditure will not be possible under IMF scrutiny, and the government will not be able to throw money around in the run-up to the Provincial Council elections expected next year.

It is a frightening prospect for any government given to profligacy and dissipation to put itself in the IMF straitjacket, especially in an election year. The SLPP is sure to find itself in an unenviable position, having to do as the IMF says. It is apparently without much of a choice. Time is fast running out.


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