Storm clouds gather over a nation

As Maithripala Sirisena’s second year in office begins, Neville de Silva takes a look at the discontent and disappointment that have attended his presidency.

In a country where astrological predictions continue to determine the life of many and politicians hardly make important moves without consulting their favourite soothsayer, superstitions often sway people.

So when President Maithripala Sirisena’s band of faithfuls were preparing the nation to celebrate the completion of his first year in office on January 8, a music video eulogising him suddenly surfaced in public. Not only did Sri Lanka’s plethora of electronic media air it, even mobile phone providers were asked—by officials of the presidential secretariat, one website insisted—to use the song as the Ring Back Tone (RBT).

But then the dung hit the fan, as they say. The lyrics of the presidential panegyric recalled the golden days of the Sinhala kings of Polonnaruwa, Lanka’s second capital and President Sirisena’s home town, known in ancient times as Raja Rata.

BETRAYAL: Many in Sri Lanka are now disillusioned by Sirisena
BETRAYAL: Many in Sri Lanka are now disillusioned by Sirisena

The lyrics praised the ancient kings such as Parakramabahu ‘the Great’, who built vast tanks or reservoirs to preserve water and canals to carry it to the fertile plains and turn the country into the ‘granary of the East’, as it came to be known in the distant past.

These great works were an intrinsic part of the country’s internationally acknowledged hydraulic system that began 200 years before Christ and lasted 1000 years.

The song for the president, by implication, elevated Sirisena to the pantheon of great Sinhala kings, though nothing he has done up to now deserves such celebration, nor is he likely to achieve self-sufficiency—not in agriculture, anyway.

Social media, which former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga said had played a key role in the defeat of then president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the victory of Sirisena at the January 2015 presidential election, went to town, castigating the lyricists for showering undue praise on a president who had failed to fulfil some of his major election promises and blatantly violated others.

Within a couple of days, the video—titled in the Sinhala language ‘You are one of us’, apparently to publicise Sirisena’s rustic background and common touch—disappeared from the airwaves.

The presidential secretary quickly dissociated his office from sanctioning the composition. But interestingly, one of the lyric writers was a senior consultant of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, an institution directly under the president.

The president’s office had urged the public to display the national flag on the first anniversary of his electoral triumph. That this request went largely ignored and some shops discreetly selling national flags withdrew them from view, only one year after the massive show of public support for Sirisena, is testimony enough to the fast-fading popularity of the man who came from the shadows to grab the presidency from an overly confident and nationally popular leader.

Eulogists of Sirisena, the common opposition candidate, and strident critics of Mahinda Rajapaksa who were determined to see his exit from power and had worked strenuously to achieve it, immediately labelled the January election result a ‘people’s revolution’, a ‘silent revolution’ and the ‘rainbow revolution’, after the disparate forces of varied ideological hues that combined to back Sirisena’s candidature.

But by the seventh month after his victory, when he gave party nomination to Rajapaksa to contest the August 2015 parliamentary election and paved the way for the former president’s possible return in a more diminished role as prime minister, many who had backed Sirisena began talking of a revolution betrayed.

Now, one year on, the common talk in Sri Lanka is of a rainbow revolution that has lost much of its colourful lustre and is increasingly turning monochromatic, with Sirisena desperate to consolidate his position and quietly minimise the influence of his main partner in government, the United National Party (UNP), if not ditch it all together in circumstances permit.

Public discontent with what is seen as the betrayal of the forces that fought for change, even endangering their own lives had the battle been lost, is becoming more visible as Sirisena enters the second year of his incumbency, gradually abandoning the pledges he held out to the people before and after his election.

When the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, a highly respected and erudite Buddhist monk, who formed the ‘National Movement for a Just Society’ and provided the impetus to create the coalition of forces that backed Sirisena, passed away last November, many said the venerable monk had begun to lose faith in the Sirisena-led government and died prematurely of disillusionment.

Among the charges levelled at Rajapaksa was that nepotism was a hallmark of his nine years in power, besides alleged corruption and amassing of wealth by the Rajapaksa clan and those in tow. This was a constant refrain during the opposition election campaign and Sirisena promised to end such practices when he installed his ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) government.

This is also precisely what a disgruntled and disgusted populace were looking forward to after nearly a decade of abuse and misuse of power and corruption by Rajapaksa’s inner circle and the ruling class.

Yet within two weeks of Sirisena assuming office, he violated one of the basic tenets of his manifesto by appointing one of his younger brothers as chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, a huge public quoted company. Since then other relatives have been given jobs under him, and his daughter and son have been thrust into the limelight or given joy rides to the UN in New York.

The rot set in at that point as other ministers in an ever burgeoning cabinet seemed to take a cue from their president and appointed friends and relatives to key positions in a government that had pledged to eschew cronyism.

Though Sirisena’s 100-day programme—in which he promised to abolish the executive presidency, make constitutional changes and introduce a new electoral system—did not pass muster largely because of parliamentary filibustering by a hard core of Rajapaksa supporters, he was able to push through some impressive reforms.

One was to introduce the 19th amendment to the constitution, which repealed the 18th amendment brought in by the Rajapaksa government, lifting the two-term limit on a president so he could continue in office and embracing a clutch of new powers.

Sirisena brought back major provisions in the 17th amendment, which had established, among other things, independent commissions such as the National Police Commission, Judicial Service Commission and the Public Service Commission and reduced the powers of the presidency.

Admittedly it was not an easy task as there were groups within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), over which Sirisena had now assumed leadership, who wanted to retain some of the powers of the executive presidency.

Through some hard negotiations with sections of the SLFP or by attracting to his fold some former Rajapaksa supporters and doling out ministerial and deputy ministerial posts, Sirisena managed to secure the two-thirds majority in parliament to pass the constitutional amendments.

Despite these successes during the early days of his presidency and his pre-presidential alliance with the UNP, the traditional rival of the SLFP, which was formalised as the National Unity Government (NUG) after the August parliamentary election with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, cohabitation was always going to be a bumpy ride, given their historical backgrounds and policy differences.

The SLFP was largely a rural-based left-of-centre party with Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist credentials. In foreign policy terms it had from its inception followed a non-aligned and pro- Third World policy.

This is in sharp contrast to the pro-Western, cosmopolitan and neo-liberal free-market oriented UNP, which had its origins in the country’s landed-gentry and the entrepreneurial class.

These two parties have alternatively ruled this country since independence in 1948, though the SLFP did, now and then, coalesce with the country’s long established Left such as the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP-Equal Society Party) and the Moscow-leaning Communist Party.

It was the common cause of ousting the increasingly autocratic Mahinda Rajapaksa government from power that brought them together, along with nearly 50 civil society and political groups.

Given the policy disparities between the two parties, both in domestic matters and foreign relations, observers of Sri Lankan politics have suspected for some time that this marriage of convenience will come increasingly under threat as the days drag by.

The more superstitious believe that the unfortunate fate of the music video produced to celebrate Sirisena is a bad omen and the coming days will bode ill for Sirisena and his government.

One does not have to be a believer in the occult to understand that visible strains in domestic politics and emerging global trends are going to cast a giant shadow on Sri Lanka, with possible ominous consequences.

Their divergent policies on the domestic and international fronts are bound to be aggravated ahead of the local government elections due sometime this year. Of crucial concern will be the impact the downturn in the global economy will have on Sri Lanka’s own economy, already suffering from a balance of payments crisis.

Sri Lanka’s prestigious Sunday Times said recently that the major economic problem facing the country will worsen in the months to come. The publication’s economic analyst wrote:

‘The current economic and financial crisis has come about owing to the cumulative impact of successive fiscal deficits over many years. Containing the fiscal deficit to five per cent of GDP in 2016 and continuing to reduce it further in the next four years is vital for stabilisation of the economy and economic growth.

‘Fiscal consolidation is difficult as the policies needed to increase revenue and reduce expenditure are politically unpopular. They evoke political dissent, protests and opposition. Unless the government recognises the severity of the fiscal imbalance, its adverse repercussions and the urgency of containing it, it would not have a strong political resolve to take firm measures to bridge the fiscal gap.

‘The reduction of the fiscal deficit is vital as it would otherwise increase the public debt further. The large debt servicing cost absorbs the entirety of government revenue, leads to further borrowing, inadequate resources for expenditure in vital areas for development, distorts priorities in expenditure and endangers economic stability and growth.

‘In as much as large fiscal deficits have been the underlying reasons for the large public debt and unbearable debt servicing costs, the expenditure on servicing the debt is itself an important cause for increasing debt. This cyclic nature of the problem makes it imperative to put in place immediate measures for decreasing the fiscal deficit.’

The tough question facing the government is whether collectively it is ready to take the necessary steps to increase revenue and to cut back on government spending by a process of rationalisation that could call for curtailment of public enterprises that are soaking up government revenue.

While there are several issues, some politically complicated—such as the drafting of a new constitution, or amending the existing one as some pro-Rajapaksa factions demand, and implementing the highly controversial UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015 calling for accountability trials for war crimes allegedly committed in the last months of the military conflict with the separatist Tamil insurgents—a more pressing problem is the looming economic crisis.

The editorial of the Sunday Times put it succinctly: ‘The more immediate issue that this country faces, however, is the state of the economy; buffeted as it is by declining Balance of Payments, large re-payable loans, a rupee that is on the edge of a precipice and a collapsing world economy to boot.’

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has told the country that the government is talking to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a loan facility. During the Rajapaksa administration the US and some other Western countries, using their substantial power and influence in the IMF, blocked a loan request.

This time round, with a government more acceptable to the West in Colombo, the IMF loan is expected to be approved. Still, the IMF will demand its pound of flesh.

The fact that the government has turned to the IMF is a sign it realises how close the country is to an economic crisis and points to austerity ahead. The IMF will lay down its terms, which are likely to include tough dealing with state-owned, loss-making enterprises, cutting back subsidies, raising taxes and shedding excess labour in government institutions.

The UNP, more aware of the economic consequences of not dealing rationally with the problems at hand and concerned with building a sustainable economy in the long term, might well be willing to agree after negotiation to some of the IMF’s terms as the prudent way out.

But changing the structure of state-owned enterprises (leading even to privatisation), reducing subsidies and cutting back on labour, which could make thousands jobless, are not the solutions that Sirisena’s SLFP, conscious of the upcoming local government elections, a referendum on the revamped constitution and a rejuvenated Rajapaksa faction breathing down its neck, would want.

So the next few months are bound to see increased strains on the marriage of convenience put together only to stop Rajapaksa continuing in power. Storm clouds will loom over domestic politics, compounded by a struggling economy.

But if Sirisena sticks to his guns over not allowing any international involvement with the proposed war crimes trials, as he told BBC recently, thus complicating relations with a currently amenable West, more clouds will not be far behind.

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