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Friday, April 19, 2024

Sri Lanka: Austerity without opposition

On the cusp of securing the long-delayed Extended Fund Facility agreement with the IMF, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government is imposing escalating austerity on Sri Lanka with undemocratic, violent force. While the deal spells further economic devastation for many Sri Lankans, they can find solace in neither the government, the country’s main opposition parties nor its commentariat, who all offer little resistance to austerity. This article is an interrogation of the three.

Austerity at all costs

The wealthy and upper middle classes are positively buzzing at the prospect of the IMF deal being secured. Their enthusiasm is parsed in the language of the deal being a unilateral good for the country and pivotal for its recovery. But ‘country’ and ‘recovery’ here are abstractions because the deal’s effects will not be felt equally by all Sri Lankans. It is the working class and the poor who will disproportionately bear the “bitter but necessary medicine” of austerity. Indeed, they have so far borne the brunt of the IMF deal’s preconditions that have compounded shock after shock, the latest being staggering raises in electricity tariffs. Following its finalisation, they will also have to endure the vast reductions in State employment and expenditure, the deal will likely mandate, meaning mass layoffs and further deteriorating public healthcare, education and welfare standards, amid a continual recession.

Where as the well-off are enthused by developments such as the strengthened rupee, others would only find misery in lesser abstractions such as spiralling malnutrition and starvation, chronic medicine shortages, children skipping school and increasing suicide, all of which are set to worsen. In response, the government has still not initiated any comprehensive programme for food security, welfare relief or food production. It has not even taken up the targeted social protections recommended by the IMF itself, once hailed by neoliberal economists as proof that the IMF was not set on completely immiserating the poor. It is difficult to observe all this and not conclude that Sri Lanka’s ‘recovery’ is simply a war against working and poor citizens.

The deep despair and anger this would create among those suffering economic devastation are lost on the government’s elite, stability-loving supporters, but the government itself knows this fully well. This is why it manoeuvred so underhandedly to suspend the local government elections. Politicising pivotal components of the electoral process and dragging Sri Lankan democracy to further depths is a small price for unilateral austerity. Wickremesinghe, of course, has never been a fan of elections, neither in winning them—losing eight out of ten national-level elections he has led his party in—nor holding them—delaying the (still overdue) Provincial Council elections into oblivion during the Yahapalanaya period. It does not seem to bother him that his government’s economic agenda is being implemented unilaterally with absolutely no mandate and public buy-in. Cordoned off from the electorate like so, the government Wickremesinghe leads is for the privileged alone.

A hopeless opposition

Yet even with the terms of economic policy and political debate set so starkly by the government, the country’s main opposition parties offer very little for stricken Sri Lankans. The SJB’s economic vision is almost identical to the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa one, which is to implement the IMF deal in full with minor adjustments. Indeed, key SJB economic policymakers such as Harsha De Silva and Eran Wickramaratne were chief architects of the Yahapalanaya government’s austerity policies, such as restrictions on fertiliser subsidies and the market pricing of fuel. Such policies were abhorred by large numbers of voters due to the deterioration in living standards they entailed. Contrary to revisionism following the disastrous Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, the adverse impact of such policies played a large role in the ouster of Yahapalanaya as did the Rajapaksas’ more extensively documented racist electoral appeals to Sinhala voters.

The SJB’s electoral proposition then appears to be austerity with a different, kinder face. The oxymoronic vacuity of this is further intensified by its inane political posturing, such as leader Sajith Premadasa expressing support for the death penalty. As has been the case in Sri Lanka for nearly three decades, when neoliberalism achieves a consensus across the political spectrum, politics becomes limited to what degrees of reactionary conservatism and Sinhala ethnonationalism are acceptable.

Silence of the NPP  

Challenging the SJB for plurality support is the NPP which also offers a similar cause for despondency. Wealthy and middle-class crowds, particularly English-speaking ones, have driven themselves into a state of hysteria over the NPP supposedly being a harbinger of socialism. Yet even a cursory glance at the NPP’s equivocal, ideologically confused policies and rhetoric shows how unwarranted this is. The party’s economic policy, for instance, advocates on one hand a limited government fully supportive of a financialised market economy, and on the other spells out vague commitments to welfare and income redistribution. These are the hallmarks not of some radical Marxist outfit in disguise but an uninspired social democratic party.

Most pressingly, the NPP remains deliberately evasive over how much of the IMF agenda it would adopt. This is lest it upsets its newfound business backers and middle-class supporters, to whom the party extols, in English, the market further encroaching into areas such as education. On the other breath, it promises, in Sinhala, more welfarist policies to suburban and rural audiences. The party is by now well practised in such duplicity, as evidenced by its deceitful rhetoric on ethnic relations, for example. In English, the NPP is a pluralistic vehicle for ethnic reconciliation and harmony whilst, in Sinhala, it claims, as during recent elections, full credit for ‘ending’ the war. These contradictory positions do not amount to any coherent ideology or governance plan. If the NPP has any consistency in the end, it is simply doing and saying whatever it takes to win elections. This may win the votes of a battered electorate looking to the party as the last untried option, but it signals little to upset the dynamics of austerity already in forceful motion.

A disingenuous commentariat

In another universe, the country’s commentariat—its intellectuals, professionals and media operatives—would at least be cognisant of this state of affairs and capable of illuminating it to the public. In this one, however, they are by and large engaged in fear-mongering about the NPP/JVP’s ‘Maoist’, private property destroying policies; performing elaborate mental gymnastics to excuse the government’s inhumane crackdowns on protestors; and even stooping to moralise about the clothing choices of NPP members.

This is not simply about their inability to grasp basic distinctions in political economy; account for the legal and moral limits of State violence, or display a modicum of empathy with the social lives of ordinary Sri Lankans. It is that these shortcomings are found in the very experts and intellectuals who inform policymaking affecting all citizens; represent the country internationally; and produce knowledge about it. These alternately ignorant, reactionary and vacuous impulses in the face of so much socioeconomic turmoil speak to the dire, frightening intellectual climate in the country.

Such a state of affairs is perhaps not especially unsurprising given that most intellectuals, professionals and media commentators are from middle to upper-class backgrounds and move in insular, elite-adjacent circles. Their views often directly mirror the simplistic, self-serving positions of the country’s economic establishment which is only yearning for more neoliberal reforms. In this way, the commentariat feeds into a wider economic discourse so deeply committed to the government’s construction of austerity that it rarely entertains any other policy possibilities, even within the IMF paradigm, let alone alternatives to it.

This does, however, illuminate the vast chasm that exists between these actors and ordinary Sri Lankans. Indeed, recent, limited polling indicates that most Sri Lankans have inverse opinions, being far more favourable about Aragalaya and disapproving of capitalism, for instance. This makes it even clearer how poorly Sri Lankans are served by the commentariat. They deserve more than an economic discourse mired in what relative degrees of austerity to implement, and a political one preoccupied with whether suspending elections and fatally assaulting protestors are actually bad things.

Ultimately, the path out of this crisis lies beyond a government violently and undemocratically hellbent on austerity, unresisted by hollow political parties and an obnoxious commentariat. Such possibilities of governance, politics and discourse require urgent imagination, solidarity and conversation with the Sri Lankans whose lives are under sustained assault. Just as what began to materialise, imperfectly yet meaningfully, exactly one year ago.

(The writer is a PhD candidate in Political Science at University College London)

By Pasan Jayasinghe /CT


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