Presidential putsch: The financial strangulation of electoral democracy

The Wickremesinghe administration is engaged in the financial-bureaucratic strangulation of the local government election. The argument of insurmountable financial constraints can be elastically extended to all elections and the ruler’s personal temptation to do so would be greater at a national rather than local election. Logically therefore, this must be understood as an attempt at the financial strangulation of Sri Lankan democracy in general. The independent commissions are also under siege. It is a presidential putsch.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is making at least two major mistakes. Firstly, he is double-crossing the USA after having assured Victoria Nuland that Sri Lanka would vote on 9 March, an assurance she repeated on the public record in good faith, risking her credibility and that of her country.

When President Biden has framed the existential issue of our time as between democracy and autocracy and defined democracies as countries in which the people freely elect their leaders, Ranil Wickremesinghe had just made it more difficult for the Biden administration to defend its support for Sri Lanka in talks with the IMF before the US Congress.

Secondly, Ranil is running the risk of activating John Locke’s Second treatise in which he articulates the people’s Right of Revolution when a government violates the Social Contract and acts in a despotic manner.

Ranil belongs to the political class that sacked 60,000 striking employees in 1980, violently disrupted the District Development Council elections in 1981 and postponed General Elections through a fraudulent Referendum in 1982, plunging the country into a cycle of civil wars and external intervention. I belong to the political generation that sacrificed personal prospects and risked life and liberty to fight actively against these crimes.

He who obstructs elections renders his rule illegitimate, and the struggle to end it, legitimate. He who makes peaceful change impossible, makes forceful change necessary and probable. Only the Supreme Court can save us from going collectively over the precipice.

Radical rightwing project

Why risk a popular uprising by being obdurately obstructionist about a local authorities election? Could the provocation of a popular upheaval be part of a plan to smash the trade union and student movements and clear the path for the IMF package, domestic debt restructuring as demanded by the private bondholders, and the implementation by a ‘Big Bang’ of Ranil’s more extreme economic ideas (way to the right of today’s IMF)?

The ideological rightwing in Government and Opposition will cynically wish that the JVP-JJB and the FSP-IUSF will be crushed by the state when they have no option but to hit the streets, or will be militarily destroyed if pushed into militancy, thereby taking it off the board and clearing the space for economic shock therapy and the implementation of Ranil’s entire economic agenda dating back at least to his Prime Ministership of 2001 (and shared by his proteges in the Opposition). This is the Augusto Pinochet-Milton Friedman (‘Chicago Boys’) scenario.

In this reactionary fantasy, the Left will be eliminated and the elitist ideologues of the economic Right will be the only ones left standing in the Opposition space to succeed Ranil and continue his trajectory, reunifying or forming a united front with the UNP.

It won’t work. The JVP-JJB is no longer a youth movement turned murderous militia; it is now a people’s movement and (unlike before) will be protected and supported by swathes of the citizenry including the peasantry.

To eliminate or paralyse it, state repression will have to be deeper and wider than ever before and that is more than the military will have the stomach for with its own extended families and hometowns suffering economic collapse. Even if the instruments of repression are the STF and armed gangs of UNP stragglers and SLPP MPs, the job is socially too vast to be done.

If polarisation, radicalisation and a descent into civil conflict are to be avoided, all democratic political and social forces without exception or exclusion must form a broad bloc that can lead a truly immense, inexorable movement for the restoration of electoral democracy and the living standards of the people.

13A boosting and racist revival

Is Ranil’s high-risk venture of pledging the full and swift implementation of the 13th Amendment, part of the plan of provocation and crackdown?

If President Ranil Wickremesinghe wished to comply with the request of Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar at a moment that Sri Lanka badly needed India’s goodwill in swinging the IMF, all he had to do was to cut the Gordian (or Ranilian) Knot that prevents the holding of Provincial Council elections, or hold those elections under the old regulations. He didn’t do that. He hasn’t yet spoken of elections to the dormant Provincial Councils created by the 13th Amendment. Implementation of the 13th Amendment begins with the (re)activation of the Provincial Councils.

Instead, what Ranil did was to list in his ‘Throne speech’ three pieces of legislation passed by the Premadasa administration, for ‘amendment’:

“…It is alleged that due to certain practices of the Central Government, the powers of the Provincial Councils have been reduced… Therefore, we envision bringing new laws regarding the implementation of powers of the Provincial Councils in these fields.

Amendment will be introduced to the following Acts in order to regularize and streamline the delegation process. The Transfer of Powers (Divisional Secretaries) Act, No. 58 of 1992, the Provincial Councils (Consequential Provisions) Act, No. 12 of 1989 and Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act No. 28 of 1990.” (President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Policy Statement – Full Text)

Prime Minister Premadasa, a critic of the Indo-Lanka Accord and the IPKF presence was no opponent of devolution. Despite a civil conflict raging outside, he unhesitatingly moved the 13th Amendment in Parliament and began implementing it when he won the Presidency.

As Premadasa introduced the Pradesheeya Sabha system as his main delivery vehicle for development to reach the grassroots, and (unrelatedly) the confrontation initiated by the North-East Provincial Council grew and climaxed (I had resigned from the NEPC Cabinet in the first quarter of 1989, a year before the UDI controversy, and was working with President Premadasa), he moved those three Acts to regulate and fine-tune the Provincial Council system.

It is these three pieces of regulations that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has now targeted. If they are removed or gutted, provincial devolution will lose its anchor.

Ranil’s critics allege that he is aiming for the Tamil vote at a presidential election, but he isn’t headed for any election, and anyway, he knows that he will lose many more Sinhala votes over this than he would gain Tamil ones.

Why then is Ranil rushing into this? He seems to have assimilated a few lessons and experiences from his elders. Firstly, the value to the UNP of triggering a Southern Sinhala-Buddhist reaction which can negatively impact on rivals from the populist centre and the left. In 1958 that was SWRD’s SLFP and the LSSP-CP. In 2023 it is Sajith Premadasa’s SJB in the populist centre with the JVP-JJB, FSP and the Aragalaya consciousness on the left.

Already, the Sinhala racists and Sinhala racist discourse driven away by the Aragalaya are vociferously back in business, peddling their ideological drugs. This is not a tactic that Ranil hasn’t used before. Sinhala-Buddhist ultranationalist organisations like the Sihala Veera Vidhana which trashed President Kumaratunga’s overly liberal autonomy packages of 1995 and 1997 as well as the less objectionable one of 2000, stayed totally silent during Ranil’s one-sided Ceasefire agreement (CFA) with Prabhakaran which proved exceedingly costly for the Sri Lankan military.

Researchers date the rise of contemporary Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to the phenomenon of Ven. Soma thero. Ven. Soma’s regular, rabble-rousing sermon was removed from the Government’s ITN by President Kumaratunga but prominently and immediately appeared on the privately-owned TNL.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe used a proxy tactic to peel Sinhala-Buddhist support away from his main rival the SLFP. At elections from 1999 to 2005, this tactic backfired. The Sinhala-Buddhist votes that were broken by these proxies did not come as he expected, from the SLFP, but precisely from the UNP itself, in suburbia.

Ranil’s sole ally the SLPP will haemorrhage whatever residual support it enjoys over the fast-tracking of the full 13A. Even his military backup will prove shaky.

Why risk a popular uprising by being obdurately obstructionist about a local authorities election? Could the provocation of a popular upheaval be part of a plan to smash the trade union and student movements and clear the path for the IMF package, domestic debt restructuring as demanded by the private bondholders, and the implementation by a ‘Big Bang’ of Ranil’s more extreme economic ideas (way to the right of today’s IMF)?

Sucking India In

The external dimension, basically the Indian factor, may explain the alacrity with which Wickremesinghe committed to the full implementation of 13A while removing Premadasa’s safeguards.

Though an Indian peace-keeping element was factored into the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, the actual deployment was hastened by President Jayewardene and Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, who, viewing with alarm the anti-Accord riots while in a helicopter, perceived an acute security threat and urged the Indians to deploy ahead of schedule in the North and East and do so massively enough that Sri Lankan troops could be immediately rotated out of that theatre to the South to quell the unrest.

In the year that followed (1987-1988), the dominant faction of the ruling UNP government –which did not by any means include Prime Minister Premadasa—derived a sense of personal security and political arrogance with what it thought was a permanent Indian security prop, Black Cats and all.

From an enlarged Indian footprint in the Northeast i.e., the energy hub including the oil tank farm, to the unmooring of the 13th Amendment, it occurs to me that Ranil’s moves may be to entice and enmesh India in an equation in which it seems in India’s interest to entrench Ranil’s rule with a military backstop.

To have such foreign support readily available on the island, it would be necessary to give the external power a stake in the status quo: what better than an economic sphere of influence in and around Trincomalee?

Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM having given China a larger footprint in Hambantota than Mahinda Rajapaksa ever did, triggered Indian apprehensions. Why not compensate and secure political benefit too by giving India the equivalent of China’s Hambantota footprint in Trincomalee?

This would give India a reason to maintain a force in Trincomalee to protect and defend its economic investment, as most big powers have done all over the world for centuries.

That would also give President Wickremesinghe a reserve of military power he could seek deployment of through urgent lobbying by his (and Gota’s) ally, High Commissioner Moragoda.

To draw on such external support, a ruler would require a manifest threat to his rule which should be perceived also as a threat to the neighbour’s interests, while the incumbent’s rule should be perceived by the external power as imperative, necessary or beneficial to its strategic and/or economic interests.

That threat has already been artificially incubated by reviving the Sinhala-Buddhist ultranationalist forces through the abrupt declaration of the full and fast-track implementation of the 13th Amendment, removing Premadasa’s three safeguards. An Aragalaya-2 caused by legitimate civic, socioeconomic and democratic grievances may now be infiltrated with Sinhala ultranationalist provocateurs using the July ‘83 playbook. Our giant neighbour may be sold the story of a populist, radical, xenophobic uprising, and military support may be sought by an unelected ruler.

Ranil’s game seems to be to provoke rebellion by postponing elections; boost Sinhala ultranationalism by boosting 13A without brakes; photoshop Sinhala chauvinism onto legitimate southern socioeconomic protests; give India a large footprint in Trincomalee; and entice external military support for his despotic rule.

Ranil’s game seems to be to provoke rebellion by postponing elections; boost Sinhala ultranationalism by boosting 13A without brakes; photoshop Sinhala chauvinism onto legitimate southern socioeconomic protests; give India a large footprint in Trincomalee; and entice external military support for his despotic rule

It’s the economic theory, stupid!

The 14 February SJB’s Economic Summit which rolled-out the Economic Blueprint by the Economic Policy Unit (EPU) of the party, blamed ‘leftism’ and ‘popularism’ (sic) for the crisis.

The proceedings displayed no understanding whatsoever as to why the 1977 open economy, qualitatively an advance on the ‘closed economy’ of 1970-1977, was nonetheless a causative factor of the massive second insurrection of the JVP (as predicted by dissentient Prime Minister Premadasa), and had to be re-balanced, re-targeted and replaced by President Premadasa’s ‘growth with equity’ model within an overarching open economy.

The SJB’s economic policy troika takes the lopsided 1977 open economic model, not the newer, balanced 1989-1993 Premadasa model as both start-line and pinnacle achievement.

One flagged the private medical college of the 1980s and the more recent SAITM, both of which mightily revived student militancy and radicalisation, as examples of the SJB’s educational policy.

He also urged the slashing of costs by slashing the SOEs – a unilateralist stand which went contrary to Sajith’s campaign pledge to protect the state sector through dialogic, consensual reform, and an electorally obtuse stand while the postal votes were imminent and the JVP-JJB the main rival. Were LG elections to be held this could have been the equivalent of Mangala’s MCC implementation pledge in November 2019. Ex-bankers who cannot win votes in their hometowns should not evangelize on contentious policy issues such as privatization during elections.

The EPU cheered Ranil’s economic policies of 2001-2004 and 2015-2019, both of which led to decisive electoral defeats and finally wrecked the UNP. 2001-4 produced the MR presidency; 2015-2019 the GR presidency. Finance (and Foreign) Minister, Mangala Samaraweera couldn’t run for re-election. Ranil didn’t get elected, nor did a single UNP candidate. The SJB’s EPU must eschew the suicidal economics they learned and practiced under Ranil, and eagerly seek to repeat.

In the Q/A an EPU member mentioned BR Shenoy whom no self-respecting Indian economist, leave alone international economist mentions in public. Nobody mentioned Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen.

The evangelical incantation that an ‘independent Central Bank’ as envisaged during Ranil’s tenure in 2019, is a silver bullet in this crisis, arises either from obfuscation or ignorance of the role and fate of Alan Greenspan, the ‘independent’ tzar of the US Federal Reserve, who broke down under Congressional questioning and admitted that the underlying paradigmatic assumptions and formulae that he and his team operated with, were utterly wrong, did not and could not foresee the 2008 Great Recession, and possibly contributed to it.

The keynote speaker was marginally better than his two colleagues – a low bar – but inhabited a policy time-warp, unaware that at Davos last year, the end of the golden age of the Open economy and Washington Consensus globalization had been explicitly acknowledged, and replaced by mix-and match combinations of more mutable nationally-driven policies.

Joe Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Larry Summers, Jeff Sachs and James K. Galbraith are major economists whose broadly congruent ideas seem to have passed the SJB’s and JVP-JJB’s ‘Jurassic World’ economists by.

Premadasa’s progressive pragmatism

Opposition Leader and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa’s speech at the 14 February Economic Summit was different, progressive: “…Social Democratic…we are following a third way, middle path…growth with equity”.

His reply during the Q/A regarding the IMF negotiations (invoking his father’s experience and example) was a model of progressive realism.

From the panel at the Economic Summit, Sajith denounced the President for striving to sabotage elections and reiterated his refusal to let an SJB administration be bound by international agreements arrived at by an incumbent who has no popular mandate and is therefore an illegitimate ruler.

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

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