This is a battle for political survival and not economic recovery
US Ambassador Julie J Chung (L) and President Ranil Wickremesinghe (R)
In the second week of June, the Yahapalana Government dispatched several high-ranking loyalists to the UK or else instructed those, who happened to be in that country or were planning to visit for other business to lobby UK citizens of Sri Lankan origin against Brexit.
Harin Fernando, Harsha de Silva, Rosy Senanayake, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Dilan Perera and Susil Premjayantha are reported to have done the canvassing at the time.
The majority of voters (51.89%) voted in favour of Britain exiting the European Union. The exit was formally written into law on January 23, 2020.
At the time, with Brexit impending, Ranil Wickremesinghe, then Prime Minister, was reported to have said that Sri Lanka should look to the East. Specifically, he outlined long-term plans to forge stronger ties with Asian countries (China, India, Japan and Korea). He spoke of fast-tracking ETCA (Economic Technology Cooperation Agreement) with India and Free Trade Agreements with the aforementioned economies.
It took Brexit, then, for the darling of Neoliberalism in Sri Lanka to ‘see’ the neighbourhood. Fast forward to 2022, Ranil Wickremesinghe, now President, ‘shockingly’ resorted to rhetoric that was almost a throwback to the policies of the United Front government of the early 1970s.
He has eased off that kind of stuff since, understandably so given a long-standing fascination with Neoliberalism which, in current circumstances, requires repeating the mantra ‘IMF is God’ and following relevant precepts.
From day one it has been a case of wanting to get money from wherever in order to make people feel things are better. ‘IMF’ has been thought of as a means to secure further loans and attract investment on account of a relatively rosier picture of general economic health.
The first is essentially about adding to the debt burden and getting deeper into a default cycle. The latter just doesn’t work that way. The government just doesn’t have any solid, sustainable plan to sort out the foreign exchange problem.
The focus instead has been on political viability and, on the economic front, ticking ‘IMF Boxes.’ Among them is a condition on restructuring domestic debt. Problem: local banks are saying ‘No can’t do.’ And why should they, anyway? They are not obliged to bail out Governments.
What are the options, then, if the boxes remain unticked? China.
Wait. Julie Chung won’t be happy about it, right?
The lady might think that it is time for Wickremesinghe to exit! Perhaps this is why Presidential pretenders like Patali Champika Ranawaka have adopted an unusually US-friendly position. Perhaps this is why the pro-US Al Jazeera calls him a ‘dictator.’ That’s the first salvo of vilification and discrediting. Expect more of the same. ‘Unless,’ is the word unsaid followed by the do this and do that of arm-twisting.
Right now, there’s a tightrope to walk. A fine line. On the one hand, the government is unable to tick certain IMF boxes. On the other hand, Chung shouldn’t be displeased.
Something has to give. Or, put another way, something has to be given. The devils have to be appeased. SOFA? MCC? Don’t be surprised, folks; this is a battle for political survival and not economic recovery, alleviating miseries or a plan to get the country out of a rut and ensure it doesn’t slip back.
It helps when you are ideologically happy embracing such servility and facilitating such outright plunder. Bottom line: whatever it takes, never mind the people, the resources, who gets short-changed, who gets enslaved, what gets looted, the potential pillage etc.
All this is framed by the question of legitimacy. We have a legally appointed President who has a serious legitimacy deficit.
Right now he’s dependent on numbers provided by a party that has severely discredited itself since the 2020 election and a few who have reneged from parties such as the SJB and SLMC.
Naturally, he would prefer to be a President elected by the people and not their representatives.
Thereafter, he could stir the coalition soup to obtain the consistency required for political stability. Easier said than done.
He does have the advantage of an Opposition that’s not only divided by confusion, not to mention the fact that it is composed of groups and parties led by ego-maniacs who themselves stand discredited in the eyes of the people. All that, later. What of the here and now?
Maybe the most serious issue is that a politically beleaguered leader just doesn’t have the space to develop a solid, pragmatic and sustainable plan of action.
Tossing out a date (2048 in this case) just isn’t enough. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government is like a bunch of specialist bowlers batting on a minefield and being attacked by unforgiving bowlers while being surrounded by the sharpest fielders ready to pounce on edges produced by each and every false stroke. And no one to cheer either, for it is, for all intents and purposes, an ‘away match.’
The world has changed a lot after Brexit. The West is in decline; only the West doesn’t want to admit it or else just doesn’t believe the writing on the wall. Wickremesinghe knows this though. Ranawaka knows it too but probably thinks the bad days are still far away — therefore it is a warm enough embrace to achieve political ambitions.
Wickremesinghe is in the hot seat, not Ranawaka. Right now he’s struggling to appease those who seem to have run out of patience and at the same time is wary of considering the obvious alternatives.
There’s one thing he can do though: Address the larger and most worrisome issues at hand. What’s the plan? What’s the plan to fix the foreign exchange crisis? What’s the plan to encourage industry even as you implement austerity measures? Industries have to compete in a global economy. They have margins to worry about. Why not engage with them?
Coherence. That’s probably a good thing to be framed by at this point. The sheer lack of clarity on all matters will not help. And it would be good to revisit the post-Brexit thinking. There’s some distance from thought to action, but Wickremesinghe did get it right in 2016. There were no other options then. There are none today either.
Could work, subject to the non-negotiable condition of the national interest informing all engagements. He’s a tad poor on that. Indeed, he’s not alone there. All major political parties and their leaders are equal to him in this regard. Or worse.