by Rajan Philips
Halfway through my writing this piece news broke out that a Grand Jury in New York has voted to indict former President Donald Trump on reportedly more than 30 counts in connection with his alleged role in a hush money payment scheme and cover-up of his affair with an adult film star. The sordid affair was before Trump began his presidential run; the crime of payment was committed when he was the Republican candidate. The Grand Jury in the US criminal justice system is a group of citizens who hear evidence from a prosecutor and other witnesses against an accused person and votes in secret to decide if there is enough evidence to charge that person with a crime.
That the Grand Jury in Manhattan, New York, believes that there is enough to charge a former president with a crime is unprecedented in US history, but it should be considered par for the course when it involves Donald Trump. A separate criminal trial with another jury awaits the indicted Trump, but the legal theatre that the Manhattan District Attorney has opened in New York will preoccupy US society and politics for months, even years, to come. America will trundle along with no dramatic changes internally because as a highly federated leviathan it is too cumbersome for swift overhauls. Externally, the US President will have the necessary autonomy to plough ahead, but only with impaired credibility and not without universal derision.
Besides the case in New York, Trump is facing the real possibility of a separate indictment in the State of Georgia over election interference, and the growing possibility of indictments by a federal prosecutor for his involvement in the January 6 (2021) violence at the Congress in Washington and over his handling of confidential government documents and obstructing the course of justice. Trump is still bluffing and believing that the indictments will boost his campaign for another shot at the presidency, but the only ones falling for his bluff are those in the Republican Party – those who believe like him and others who do not have the backbone to call his bluff. Trump has been calling out on his faithful to come out and protest for him, but no one seems to be falling for his demagoguery anymore.
Global protests now are against those in power and for throwing them out. They are not for reinstating someone like Trump who didn’t deserve to get power in the first place, the first time. There will be a lot of drama but nothing like what is going on in France and Israel, or what happened in Sri Lanka last year. Israel is having its own version of aragalaya with nearly a three-quarter million people storming the streets of Tel Aviv last Sunday to protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political scheming to subordinate the country’s judiciary to its legislature. The pretext theory for Netanyahu in Israel, as with others of his ilk elsewhere, is that unelected judges should not be allowed to frustrate the so called will of the people that is conveniently expressed through the governing majority of their elected representatives in parliament. Mr. Netanyahu’s real purpose, however, is to prevent the courts from finding him guilty on charges of fraud, corruption and potentially sending him to jail.
The scale and persistence of protests in Israel are not unlike the explosion of aragalaya in Sri Lanka. But both are different from the protests in France in that they are not about government corruption or an authoritarian President. Also, the judiciary is not implicated in the French standoff between President Macron and the people protesting over the working life span of ordinary French people, especially women and wage workers. Sri Lankan governments and Presidents, like colonial Governors before them, have had their monkeying moments with the judiciary, but the judiciary has been spared of political ignominy for some time after the cowardly impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake by Rajapaksa bullies.
Now there are rumblings that Supreme Court Judges might be hauled before a Parliamentary Privileges Committee to clear up just who the bosses are when it comes to disbursing government funds. This is President Wickremesinghe’s tit-for-tat response to a divisional bench of the Supreme Court directing the Treasury not to withhold funds needed for local government elections that are now past their due date. This is not the same situation that Netanyahu has stirred up in Israel, and it is not likely to stir up the same level of protests as in Israel. Put another way, there will be no aragalaya for the judges in Sri Lanka.
But the judges should feel free to stage their own form of silent protest and rebuff any highhanded call to attend a parliamentary committee meeting. They can take a leaf from Justice TS Fernando’s playbook when he stood up to Felix Dias’s tricks and entreaties to drop the curtain on the proceedings of Sri Lanka’s first Constitutional Court in the 1970s. Such a judicial pushback against a clever-by-half executive will command huge public support and sympathy, even if the people may not take to the streets (or Galle Face) as they did during aragalaya, or as it is going on now in Israel. There are other differences too.
The protests in Israel against Netanyahu’s scheming against the judiciary are also a manifestation of simmering differences between secular Jews and orthodox religious Jews over the future direction of Israel, the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the provocative Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The orthodox religious Jews of Israel generally of Middle Eastern descent are hostile to the courts which often rule against ultranationalist Jewish claims and agendas. The courts are seen to be dominated by liberal judges who are Jews of mostly of European origin.
Israel’s ultranationalist and religious Jews have largely been a fringe force in Israeli politics until Netanyahu reached a Faustian pact with them after the elections last November to become Israel’s Prime Minister for the sixth time in his checkered political career. He cobbled together a coalition comprising rightwing and religiously conservative parties, all of them more conservative than Netanyahu’s Likud Party, to form the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. Their aim is to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank, subordinate the courts to the will of the governing coalition, and transform the state of Israel to become more religious and less secular.
Netanyahu calls his era Israel’s golden age to the dismay of the country’s moderates and its overseas benefactors. The country including the military is gravely divided, and the protests have been successful in forcing Mr. Netanyahu to call for ‘a pause’ to his legislative scheming, to have more dialogue with his opponents. But he has given no indication that he will scale down the changes that he is pursuing. However, the PM’s pause has becalmed sections of the protesters. Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union with 800,000 members, has now called off a general strike after successfully staging a token strike that even included Israeli officials in foreign missions walking out of their embassies.
In France, on the other hand, the unions are demanding that their President follow Israel and call for a pause on the retirement age! The Macron government has responded that it is prepared to dialogue with the unions on any and all of their other grievances except the age of retirement. So, the standoff continues with no end in sight. But neither in France nor in Israel, is there any attempt to clampdown on protesters or declare emergency rule. That happens to be only in Sri Lanka, thanks to President Wickremesinghe and his political machinations.
The IMF and its Discontents
It has been clear that after the tumultuous exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Wickremesinghe has been the beneficiary of a protest fatigue in the country. Strangely enough, it is the President who seems to be bent on poking the protest tiger to give himself the excuse to impose a clampdown. His poking is all political; for on the more critical issue of the economy, the President is shadow boxing because there is no real opposition to his economic initiatives including his ‘pre-historical’ (inasmuch as Sri Lanka’s economic history is just beginning with Ranil at ’74) deal he signed with the IMF. While the Sri Lankan protest universe is mad as hell with the President on specific issues – taxes, LG election etc., no one has the stomach for a general strike over the IMF.
While a strike may have been averted, that was no reason for government bozos to light firecrackers to celebrate the IMF deal. There is nothing to celebrate here. The IMF is not the end of the road, it is only the end of the beginning. At the same time, the old detractors of the IMF seem to be immaturing with age – to borrow Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s classic putdown of Tony Benn, then keeper of the Labour Party’s left-conscience, that “Tony immatures with age!” There is no point in rehashing the rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s against an IMF deal in 2023. Those who eternally bring up the venerable name of Joseph Eugene Stiglitz and his searing criticisms one time of the IMF, may want to know what The Economist said recently about Mr. Stiglitz and the IMF, that they may have “warmed to each other,” after their earlier differences. All of this is table talk that is not going to help Sri Lanka in any way.
Apart from the details of the Ranil-IMF agreement, what is remarkable now is the openness of the IMF officials to engage directly with the Sri Lankan public. On March 21, after the IMF agreement was finalized, there was an extensive Press Briefing and Q & A session conducted virtually from Washington. Quite a few commentators and journalists participated from Colombo, and the IMF website carries the transcript of the whole briefing and exchanges. Questions and answers were free and frank, and covered, besides details of the agreement, even the timing of local and presidential elections in Sri Lanka. The exchanges were livelier and more informed than one might come across in today’s parliament in Sri Lanka. This was followed by a virtual roundtable meeting with trade union representatives in Colombo, in which the IMF officials indicated that the government might be able to revise the current tax proposals to address some of the union concerns.
The onus is on the government to finally set about revamping the economy. For the opposition, there are parts of the IMF agreement that can and should be used to hold the government accountable and answerable in a very political way. These include eradicating corruption, going beyond the IMF’s goal of “reducing corruption vulnerabilities; strengthening social safety nets; and revisiting the tax concessions currently offered to potential Port City investors. The IMF Staff Report includes a number of Annexes, one of which, Annex VII. The Social Safety Net: Recent Developments and Reform Priorities, could be a technical blueprint for a political manifesto. Annex VII. Colombo Port City Project, provides a sobering account of what the Galle Face venture may or may not bring to Sri Lanka after all the shouting. There is a lot to chew here besides the shouting.