Photo courtesy of Newscutter
“I won’t make my speech long. I myself have stood in the sun like this and said when they will shut up so we can go back to the classroom.” President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Royal College, 22 February 2023
“Shut up and sit down! I brought you into politics.” President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Parliament, 23 February 2023
The last week of February has turned out to be the busiest for President Ranil Wickremesinghe. On Tuesday he defended the government’s immensely unpopular tax policy at a tax forum organised by the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing. On Wednesday he attended a ceremony at his school, Royal College, with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, making a historical mountain out of the fact that for the first time in Sri Lanka, the country’s two leading faces were classmates. Then on Wednesday he made his most controversial and startling remarks yet about the local government elections, denying that there were moves to delay them on the basis that they had not been officially called in the first place.
These developments strongly suggest that President Wickremesinghe is trying to consolidate all the power he has and all the power he can get. On more than one occasion he has admitted that he remains, then as now, a president lacking a mandate. This has not stopped him from pursuing one austerity measure after another and justifying it all the promise of an IMF bailout in the near future. With protests and a potential reawakening of the aragalaya on the horizon, there is no doubt that he will resort to every trick in the book to reinforce his rule and sabotage the opposition, draining the latter of any credibility.
The opposition, for its part, remains as divided and fragmented as ever. The main party, the SJB, seems to have decided to focus its energies on attacking, not the government but its rival, the left-wing NPP. The NPP is the parliamentary wing of the JVP, a party associated with socialist politics. While the SJB has been indulging in red-baiting vis-à-vis the NPP, the NPP has been anything but coherent in its policy positions; less than a month after an MP stated, in public, that they supported the 13th Amendment, for instance, another party MP declared in a television interview that neither the NPP nor the JVP supported it. This, at a time when the SJB has come out in (somewhat ambiguous) support of the amendment and the president has publicly promised to implement it.
President Wickremesinghe’s remarks on devolution and power sharing, which is what the 13th amendment is all about, have activated a section of civil society as well as mainstream minority Tamil parties to lend nominal, if conditional, support to his government. The mainstream Tamil parties, particularly the TNA, have been sending mixed signals about their stance on the president. But the more right wing parties, including C.V. Wigneswaran’s TMTK, have praised the president’s actions. This has arguably pushed the mainstream to the right, forcing it to make a very difficult choice between opposing an unelected president and supporting his superficially progressive remarks on power sharing.
Superficial is perhaps too strong a word for these reforms, given that they underlie genuine grievances among the country’s minority Tamils. Yet the president’s attempts to pacify the latter been widely perceived and criticised as window dressing, as nothing more than an attempt to secure votes at a time when Sinhala nationalist electorates that gave thumping majorities to the ruling party, the SLPP, have shifted to other parties.
According to a recent Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey (SLOTS) carried out by the Institute for Health Policy (IHP), the SJB and the NPP are running neck to neck and are expected to win a considerable majority at an election. The survey shows that SLPP voters, particularly Sinhala voters, will either defect to the NPP (illustrating very clearly the radicalisation of the middle classes under this government) or not vote at all (showing their dissatisfaction with politics in general). Against such a backdrop, as Rathindra Kuruwita notes in a recent article in The Diplomat, the president has calculated “that he needs the support of Tamil MPs to be able to govern in the next two years.” In other words, he is trying to compensate for the loss of ethnic majority votes by pandering to ethnic minorities.
On the IMF, too, there are tenuous debates. The SJB and the NPP have both admitted that there is no alternative to a bailout from the organisation. The IMF, however, has not been exact or clear about the timing of the bailout. To pacify people the government, specifically President Wickremesinghe and MPs like Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, have in public stated that China is the last and only hurdle in debt restructuring talks. Such remarks belie the magnitude of popular opposition to, and hatred of, the austerity measures that the government has put in place to qualify for the bailout. Not surprisingly, while a number of protesters urged the then administration, led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to go to the IMF last year, the current regime’s reckless pursuit of austerity at all costs has alienated even them from the IMF; barring a few Colombo based think tanks, almost everyone has criticised the President Wickremesinghe government’s dealings with the IMF.
Complicating all this last week were revelations by a prominent political analyst about the IMF’s stance on austerity in the country. The analyst made two startling exposes: first, that the IMF had urged the recent electricity tariff hikes as a precondition for assistance and second that around this time last year, the then Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa had been negotiating a significant loan with the Chinese government. This puts the Central Bank’s decision to default in April 2022, when only debt servicing on $78 million was needed to be settled that month and payments for a larger International Sovereign Bond (ISB) of $1 billion were due only in July, and the many projects being signed by the government on the basis that they will help the country achieve financial stability, under question.
In this context, it’s interesting to note that even Colombo based think tanks have begun to disagree significantly with the government’s engagements with the IMF. Nishan de Mel, Executive Director at Verité Research, has in an interview with The Morning contended that the government is “farming out” the task of policymaking to third party institutions which are barely cognizant of local realities. Dr. De Mel’s point is that such a mechanism will not yield “optimised” solutions. What he leaves out is that the government’s decision to outsource what it should be doing to institutions which are not accountable to locals points at another, even bigger problem – the widely held perception that the government itself lacks a mandate and is acting as though it does not require accountability for anything.
An even more interesting report, compiled by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a governance think tank, shows that among the youth, support for the government’s pro-privatisation agenda is waning. While more than 50% in the survey believe that the state should allow foreign companies to invest in the country and the state should not restrict a person’s earning capacity, well more than 50% believe that government corporations should not be privatised and that they are necessary for the country’s development. This is at odds with think tanks, academics, economists, government officials, and even opposition MPs who argue that State-Owned Enterprises need to be privatised and that they are responsible for the financial crisis. To be sure, a majority in the CPA survey believe that the individual, not the state, should find a job. But an equally strong majority also believe that the state should be spending on welfare. Such responses are paradoxical, and they are an indication of popular perceptions about social welfare and government intervention. Yet they are also at variance with the economic establishment’s views on reform.
It is against these developments that the president is tightening his grip, on the opposition and on the swelling tide of dissent against his policies. In this he has been helped by the fact that the main opposition, the SJB, includes several MPs who owe their political careers to him. The point has not escaped the President himself; in parliament last week he more or less shouted at opposition parliamentarians to “shut up and sit down”, adding that they were there in parliament because of him. This is hardly the first time that President Wickremesinghe has betrayed such paternalistic instincts; an irony, given that in front of the the youth he has tried to exude a more placid image of himself as his speech at Royal College makes it clear. That said, he has not hesitated to move the law, and if possible the army, against protesting university students, turning the latter into his bête noire.
For all intents and purposes, President Wickremesinghe is skating on thin ice. He seems to think that the IMF will deliver what the government wants. Colombo’s economic establishment seems to think that the $2.9 billion that the government is aiming at will restore investor confidence. Critics, on the other hand, say this is wishful thinking. In any case, March will turn out to be President Wickremesinghe’s most eventful month. Students from his school associate it with the world’s oldest interschool cricket match. They also associate it with what they call March Madness – a series of vehicle parades and festive events that lead up to that match. For the president and his government, March may also become the month of their reckoning, a fact hardly lost on the regime’s detractors as they get ready for a spate of protests against a never ending cascade of austerity measures.