The current dispensation has apparently set a new Sri Lankan record; never has any other government made so many U-turn during the first two years in office. Its latest volte-face has been on its controversial agrochemical ban.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to go ahead with his organic fertilizer programme despite farmers’ protests against the prevailing fertilizer shortage. But it was obvious from the very beginning that he was fighting a losing battle because the government did not have a contingency plan to address issues arising from the ban in question.

The government has finally succumbed to farmers’ pressure and allowed the private sector to import agrochemicals, and as a face-saving exercise reiterated that no chemical fertilizers will be made available under its fertilizer subsidy scheme. It has lost its face, but gained financially; it does not have to spend foreign exchange on chemical fertilizers!

U-turns, however, are the least of the government’s problems. What worries it most is its waning popularity. No opinion surveys have been conducted to gauge the government’s popularity, and therefore there are no scientifically ascertained quantifiable data to support the aforementioned claim, but the anti-government sentiments among the people are palpable.

The government cannot be unaware of rising public anger. The Lankadeepa newspaper has recently quoted State Minister Sasheendra Rajapaksa, a member of the ruling family, as saying that the government would lose if an election was held at the present juncture. Some of the SLPP coalition partners have also awakened to the fact that public opinion has turned against the government, and issued warnings to the powers that be.

Perhaps, no elected government in this country has become more unpopular than the incumbent one within the first two years of its formation. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the country, and crippled the economy, restricting the government’s ability to deliver. But this alone is not the reason for the government’s poor performance. Other countries, especially the ones in the South Asian region have also been battling coronavirus for about two years, and suffered economic setbacks, but their situation has not been this bad.

One tends to think that the SLPP government would not have been able to retain its popularity or remain efficient even if there had been no pandemic around. What it is currently faced with is more or less common to all governments with steamroller majorities in this country, for they become cocky, take public opinion for granted, and do not care to mend their ways.

Myths about power

The government’s failure to deliver in spite of its two-thirds majority and the 20th Amendment, which restored the executive powers of the President has given the lie to the claim that there is a correlation between power and a government’s efficiency.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa performed better before the passage of the 20th Amendment. The 19th Amendment was not without flaws, but it had a sobering effect on the President and made him act with restraint.

Governments become dysfunctional due to various factors including strained relations between the Executive and the Legislature or the President and the Prime Minister. The Yahapalana government became so dysfunctional that even national security suffered as evident from the ease with which the National Thowheed Jamath terrorists carried out the Easter Sunday attacks. That administration failed because President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe fell out over a power struggle with the latter being accused of usurping the powers of the former with the help of the 19th Amendment.

Clashes between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe would have occurred anyway, without or without their animosity towards each other, because of a serious flaw in the present Constitution; the Prime Minister becomes more powerful than the President when they happen to represent two different political parties. We saw this situation first in 1994, when the SLFP-led People’s Alliance formed a government with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as the Prime Minister while D. B. Wijetunga was the President. Thankfully, the President and the newly elected Prime Minister got on well from August to October in 1994. A similar situation arose after President Kumaratunga lost power in the parliament in 2001, and Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister. There were clashes between the duo, and their hostility caused the UNP-led government to fail and be dislodged by Kumaratunga in 2004.

Another dysfunctional government?

Some political commentators argue that the current administration is also dysfunctional. This claim sounds true to some extent if the government’s poor performance is any indication. But this situation is not due to any clashes between the Executive and the Legislature. President Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda is the Prime Minister and the 20th Amendment has strengthened the President’s position. Above all, the PM is maintaining a very low profile, and has allowed the President to have total control over the SLPP parliamentary group. So, it may be argued that the government’s unsatisfactory performance is attributable to the collective failure of all those in the ruling coalition. But the critics of President Rajapaksa argue that the buck stops with him.

Welgama’s tirade

Former SLFP Vice President and current SJB MP Kumar Welgama launched into a tirade against President Rajapaksa in the parliament, the other day. The former tore the latter to shreds, claiming that he had warned PM Rajapaksa that the SLPP and the country would face a disastrous situation unless an experienced political leader was nominated to run for President in 2019. He claimed that any other senior SLPPer would have made a better President. He placed the blame for the mess the country as well as the government is in solely at the President’s feet.

Welgama has been a bitter critic of Gotabaya, and it is said that he is resentful because he also had presidential ambitions and fell out with the Rajapaksas when he realized that no one other than a member of the Rajapaksa family would be able to run for President. He is therefore prejudiced, but his coruscating attacks on Gotabaya go down well with the irate public, especially social media activists. A video clip of his speech has gone viral on the Internet.

The Rajapaksas cannot stop Welgama, who is headstrong and no respecter of Presidents. He has taken on Presidents J. R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa and Maithripala Sirisena. His frontal attacks on Gotabaya will embolden others to take on the government in a far more aggressive manner. How the government will deal with Welgama remains to be seen. He has inflicted considerable damage on the President and the government.

Transmission problem

Social media influencers claim that the government is like a vehicle with only two gears—the first and the reverse; it either goes forward very slowly or moves backward. Perhaps, there is a better analogy. The government is like an articulated lorry, or juggernaut, with a transmission problem; it has a very powerful engine, but lacks torque, and therefore, makes little progress.

Beginner’s luck works in politics. But it runs out fast unless beginners begin to learn and deliver once ensconced in power. President Rajapaksa has publicly admitted that he lacks political experience, but it is no excuse for the government’s failure to fulfil what it promised to the public. The SLPP raised the people’s hopes by making various pledges, and gave it huge mandates. The President needed more power, and he is now as powerful as his brother, Mahinda, was from 2010 to 2015. He has control over the parliament and the public service, and the semblance of independence other state organs had was gone with the passage of the abolition of the Constitutional Council, which has since been replaced with the Parliamentary Council.

What ails the government cannot be put down to one or two factors. It is multifactorial. Some of them are too much of power that leads to cockiness and cavalier attitude on the part of government leaders; the absence of a clear vision and a roadmap; bad economic management; flawed foreign policy, which has antagonized the developed world and its investors; the presence of too many family members in the government, causing resentment among others; the President’s inexperience, impulsiveness and inflexibility; the inefficiency of most Cabinet members and key public officials, especially political appointees; the unprecedented problems caused by the pandemic; corruption; the arrogance of power, and internal problems.

The task before the government is to sort out the problems that prevent it from improving its performance to the satisfaction of the public and prepare itself for a midterm election expected next year. Unless it gets its act together fast, there will be little it could do to avoid the fate that befell the previous Rajapaksa government. It had better stop duping itself into believing that its parliamentary majority and the debilitation of the Opposition will ensure its survival.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here