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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Ranil’s election as President by Parliament is worrying – Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar

  • RW had no credibility or mandate to come into Parliament
  • Appointment seen as a deal between Rajapaksas and RW
  • Friday a dark day for democracy in Sri Lanka
  • SL needs credible leadership to emerge from current crisis
  • Executive Presidency must be abolished and elections held 
  • Northern people are in solidarity with people’s protests
  • Most important and urgent issue is relief for the people
  • No point talking about economy when people are starving
  • IMF agreement with austerity measures will be devastating
  • Trust deficit with current Parliament unbridgeable

The recent developments and election of President Ranil Wickremesinghe by Parliament are worrying for two reasons, says Political Economist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Jaffna Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar.

“One, Ranil Wickremesinghe had no credibility and no mandate to come into Parliament; he was appointed in what was widely seen as a deal between the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe. This problematic process and the lack of legitimacy that led to the election of Wickremesinghe reflect how corrupt and illegitimate the Parliament has also become. Secondly, given Ranil Wickremesinghe’s lack of legitimacy, he won’t be able to lead the country out of this crisis,” he asserted, in an interview with The Sunday Morning.

Dr. Kadirgamar noted that a strategic flaw on the part of those calling for further democratisation was that they had not struggled hard enough for the abolishment of the Executive Presidency. “While the movement was successful in chasing away an authoritarian President, the problem also lies in the office of the Executive Presidency, that it can allow for such centralisation of power in one individual and provide them unfettered powers to be able to carry out policies that are disastrous to the country,” he explained.

Commenting on the stance of the north in terms of the people’s protests, he said they were slowly showing more interest in the protests happening in the rest of the country. He noted that another reason for the muted protests was that the Tamil political leadership had discouraged people from protesting.

As for an IMF agreement, Dr. Kadirgamar stated that if an IMF agreement meant austerity for the people who were already suffering, it would be devastating. He also stressed on the need for elections, especially since the trust deficit between the people and the current Parliament was now “unbridgeable”.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

What are your thoughts on the latest political developments? Do you feel that the new President will be able to steer the country towards some form of stability?

I think the recent developments and election of President Ranil Wickremesinghe by Parliament are really worrying, for two reasons.

One, Ranil Wickremesinghe had no credibility and no mandate to come into Parliament; he lost his seat in the last General Election and he was appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in what was widely seen as a deal between the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe. In that context, after two months of his stint as Prime Minister, with mounting problems, there were massive protests which called for the resignation of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The President, having run away, appointed him as Acting President and then the President’s party, with its overwhelming majority in Parliament, has elected Wickremesinghe as President. This problematic process and the lack of legitimacy that led to Wickremesinghe’s election reflect how corrupt and illegitimate the Parliament has also become. Horse-trading of appointments is carried out without considering the future of the country.

Secondly, given Wickremesinghe’s lack of legitimacy, he won’t be able to lead the country out of this crisis. What we need is a credible leadership, because, ultimately, the people are suffocating under a tremendous crisis and what they need is a leadership that can lead them out of this crisis. This is not a crisis that can be solved by international actors or even the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The most important thing is to be able to mobilise and lead the people out of this crisis. With this lack of credible leadership and the likelihood of continuing political instability, unfortunately what we’re going to see is continued economic instability and a collapse of the economy.

Violence was unleashed by the State on peaceful protesters at Galle Face in the early hours of Friday (22). How do you view this brutal attack?

This is really a dark day for democracy in Sri Lanka. It is ominous how President Wickremesinghe plans to rule this country. I think it’s important that the people of this country and all democratic-minded institutions such as trade unions condemn this very strongly and find ways of keeping the doors of democracy open, including through further protest.

The people have been calling for the resignation of Ranil Wickremesinghe ever since he was appointed as PM by ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The calls have not stopped with Wickremesinghe’s appointment as President. Where does Sri Lanka go from here?

I think a strategic flaw on the part of those who are for further democratisation of the country – I am also saying this in a self-critical way – is that we did not struggle hard enough for the abolishment of the Executive Presidency.

While the movement was successful in chasing away an authoritarian President, the problem also lies in the office of the Executive Presidency, that it can allow for such centralisation of power in one individual and provide them unfettered powers to be able to carry out policies that are disastrous to the country.

Along with the demand for the resignation of President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, there was of course the call for abolishing the Executive Presidency, but that was not pushed hard enough to ensure it takes place.

I think the urgent need continues to be abolishing the Executive Presidency, because that is the prerequisite for our long-term political stability and democratisation of the country, and two, given what we have seen of the shenanigans in Parliament, we need an election as soon as possible.

While recognising that the country is in a dire situation and conditions are difficult to hold elections, we have to hold elections at the earliest opportunity and send credible new representatives to Parliament, along with the abolishment of the Executive Presidency.

Do you believe that the powers of the Executive Presidency will be curtailed anytime soon or that it will actually be abolished?

It will be a difficult challenge, because of what we have seen in Parliament over the last six months, despite the enormous crisis and the mounting protests of the people.

As we saw a few months ago, in relation to the vote to elect the deputy speaker and the 21st and 22nd Amendments to the Constitution, there is very little confidence about what the Parliament will do in terms of curtailing the powers of the Executive Presidency and if it will be done in good faith.

Unless the abolishing of the Executive Presidency is pushed hard by the movement and the people, it’s unlikely to happen.

What is the situation in the north? How do the people view the ongoing political developments and do you see them showing increased interest in the people’s protests?

People are slowly showing more and more interest in the protests that are happening in the rest of the country. They are suffering just as much from the crisis as anybody in the other parts of the country.

Due to the continued militarisation of the north for the last 14 years, continuous protests like we see in the south don’t happen in the north, because there is a climate of fear that has been instilled in the north. That fear is slowly abating now and people are in solidarity with the protests.

There was also another reason for the muted protests over the past many months. The Tamil political leadership – whether it is the Tamil National Alliance, the Tamil National People’s Front, or for that matter even former Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran who is in Parliament now – discouraged people from protesting.

For them, this exclusionary approach to Tamil politics – in other words, people not joining with the south in joint demands – is necessary to take forward the Tamil nationalist project as an exclusive project, so they actively discouraged people.

At the same time, the people in the north are slowly recognising that their political leadership really does not care about their economic suffering, which is as severe as it is in the south. So I think that in the next election, in the north also we will see many changes that we are likely to see in the southern electorate.

How will the current political and economic crises affect the social fabric of the country?

This is by far the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, when Sri Lanka, with the rest of the world, went through a depression, a famine, and a malaria epidemic. When we have a crisis of such proportions – and I’m comparing the current crisis to the 1930s – you’re going to take a very long period before recovering. It might be five to 10 years before we come out of this crisis.

However, such crises also lead to drastic social changes. In other words, we can’t just go back to where we were a few years ago and continue on that path. Sri Lanka is at a crossroads, like in the 1930s. Then we pushed for free education, free healthcare, and even the food subsidy, which led to the whole social development of our people.

Those changes, which were brought about in the aftermath of the crisis in the 1930s, are what led to Sri Lanka being seen as a model developed country in the 1970s. Even though we had very low per capita income, we had very high human development. Sri Lanka, the Indian state of Kerala, and Cuba were considered such models in the 1970s. That was a very progressive change that happened in the 1930s.

There was also a global downturn in the 1970s; again, similar to what we have now – our parents talk about the queues that were there and the rationing. There was the OPEC oil shock, which led to a quadrupling of global oil prices, similar to what we’re seeing now with the Ukraine war and the doubling of global fuel prices.

But the crisis of the 1970s pushed us in a very different direction. It led to a culture of food subsidies, the emergence of the Executive Presidency, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the crushing of organised labourers in July 1980 by the J.R. Jayewardene regime, and eventually the Civil War.

So when I say Sri Lanka is at a crossroads, it’s not going to be business as usual. On the one hand, it could take a progressive turn for the better, rebuilding our society on more equal terms. Over the last four decades of open economy policies, inequality has greatly increased in our country, so we might address such inequality in social welfare and we might finally realise the importance of a plural democracy in terms of recognising the rights of the minority. It can move in the direction of freedom and equality.

On the other hand, if you don’t handle this crisis economically, socially, and politically, we can also end up with a highly-polarised society, and not just an authoritarian, populist government like we have seen with the Rajapaksas, but even a fascist regime that takes advantage of this crisis.

This kind of great crisis can lead to great social, economic, and political changes and that is why I think it’s so important that this protest movement and the people are trying to decide the future of this country. Left to our discredited political class, we would end up in that disastrous scenario and my hope is that the perseverance of our people and the activism of our youth will direct this country in a progressive direction.

How do you view the current economic situation in the country and what would you list as the immediate issues that need addressing to offer some form of relief to the people?

The most important and urgent issue to be addressed is relief for the people. The people have been really suffering in the last six months. The price of bread has tripled, the price of rice has tripled, and fuel prices have tripled.

While people are desperate because of the shortages, in a couple of months they will have no money left and no avenues to borrow from to be able to feed themselves. We’re looking at the possibility of even a famine, so economic relief to the people is the most urgent need and that has to be linked to rebuilding our food supplies because the food crisis is what’s most worrying.

There is no point talking about the economy when people are starving. Therefore, economically assist the people, provide the stimulus to rebuild our agricultural system, and increase agricultural production, because that’s how we’re going to feed our people.

The market has failed and the Government has to take responsibility to ensure the food system is maintained, which would mean as we try to go forward with such economic relief and stimulus from the agriculture sector, the State must take responsibility for the distribution of essential goods.

We need to rebuild our public distribution system, encourage production, and give more resources to the Paddy Marketing Board – those are all elements of a public distribution system which many other countries have, which we abandoned with the open economy in the late 1970s.

The State also has to address our external sector. Our biggest problem is the dollar crisis. Every month there is about $ 1.3 billion in foreign earnings – $ 1 billion in export earnings and $ 300 million in remittances by our people who work abroad, which can be increased by another $ 200-300 million if we incentivise them to remit through the formal channels as opposed to informal channels.

The foreign earnings should come under the control of the State and they should prioritise importing essential goods – that is fuel, medicines, food, and whatever inputs that are necessary to continue with production, particularly exports. The State has a huge role to play in the immediate term; economic relief and stimulus have to be the priority.

In the backdrop of the ongoing negotiations with the IMF, do you think the people can tighten their belts any further in line with the austerity measures that are usually required?

At some point we may have to go for an IMF agreement, but if an IMF agreement means austerity for the people, who are already suffering, given the measures taken in terms of the economy – particularly so in the last four months, including the last two months during the tenure of Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister – it will be devastating for the people.

The measures that have been implemented are actually following the recommendations of the IMF as made public in its staff report of March this year. This included floating the rupee, so the rupee went from 200 to 350 and all that has been passed on to the consumer, which is why we’re seeing a huge rise in prices, from bread to petrol.

They recommended increasing interest rates, which were raised from 6% to 15.5% – that’s the Central Bank policy rate. This means the rate that small businesses borrow at has gone up from 20% to 30%, so we will see a lot of businesses going bankrupt.

Pawning gold jewellery is the emergency asset of poor people and pawning rates have gone from 9% to 25%. We’re going to see a lot of their assets being repossessed. We are also seeing austerity in terms of freezing Government expenditure. All of this has been devastating for the people.

When we are in what I call an economic depression, when the economy is collapsing, if we decide to perform more austerity measures because those are the conditions of the IMF, it will lead to the complete collapse of our economy.

We have seen these kinds of recommendations of the IMF in other countries – the crisis in Greece lasted for 10 years. We should go for elections and get a fresh mandate from the people before we go for any kind of agreement with the IMF that could put further devastating pressure on the people.

Given what has already been done in terms of these austerity measures, based on IMF recommendations – even though we haven’t yet reached an agreement – these measures have to be reversed now through economic relief and stimulus to the agriculture sector.

There is a massive trust deficit between the people and the politicians. How can this be addressed?

I think the manoeuvrings in Parliament over the last six months have made this trust deficit unbridgeable with the current Parliament. That trust can only be addressed after another General Election.

By Marianne David /The Morning 

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