After me, no deluge! President sitting pretty after passing budget
by Rajan Philips
Ranil Wickremesinghe is the third President to sequester the finance portfolio instead of assigning it as an exclusive portfolio to a cabinet minister, but he is the first, perhaps after Ronnie de Mel, to prepare and author most or the entirety of the budget speech. He is also the first leader of a political party with only a single listed MP in parliament, to not only present a budget in parliament but also have it passed quite comfortably. In passing the Second Reading of the Budget with 121 MPs voting for and 37 against, parliament reverted to nearly the same division (134-82) it showed when it elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as President on July 20. The President now seems to be well positioned to assemble different majorities in parliament for different purposes.
The majorities for his election and now his budget are based mainly on the support of SLPP MPs acting in solidarity with the Rajapaksa family. The same pattern was seen for the vote on the Emergency Resolution (120-63) and the passage of the Petroleum Products Amendment Bill (77-17), two votes which were marked by disappointingly large absentees (41 and 134) – mostly from the Opposition.
On the other hand, there was rousing support for the passage of the 21st Amendment – 179 for, only one against, and the rest being overseas or no shows. The division on 21A involved the punishing isolation of the Rajapaksas, especially Basil Rajapaksa whose apparent efforts to call the shots from the US were spurned by his own MPs including some family members. Basil returned on Sunday (Nov. 20th) and may have had a hand in securing the majority on Monday.
So, the President with only one MP belonging to his Party (UNP) in parliament, would appear to have gotten into a groove in creating different majority vote blocks for different legislative initiatives. That is the way a legislature is supposed to work in a presidential system – through principled compromises, as well as trading in favours, between legislators. It has taken 45 years for this to come to pass, but more by circumstances and opportunism than by conviction or persuasion. How long can the President keep this going?
After me, no deluge
Put another way, the President would seem to have been able to stabilize himself politically far more than he and his government have been able to stabilize the country’s economy. He is keeping his detractors guessing on the timing of the local government elections, and more so about dissolving parliament and calling for a general election soon after March next year (2023). He also seems to be testing the waters through inspired rumours that a presidential election (which could not be before November 16, 2023) might be held before the next parliamentary election (which could be as early as April 2023, or as late as August or September 2025). He could even call for the two elections to be held concurrently any time after November 16, 2023.
That would throw the cat among the opposition pigeons, and Mr. Wickremesinghe will have more than a fair chance of becoming an elected President, finally fulfilling his 45 year old ambition. There will be the small rub about abolishing the presidency, but Mr. Wickremesinghe can stand tall and handsomely promise that as elected President he would preside over the amendment to the constitution to end the system of having an elected President. “After me, no deluge,” he could deadpan. The matter itself could be put to the people as a referendum question as they go to vote to elect simultaneously a new President and a new Parliament.
All of this seems too fanciful to be likely, but not at all impossible. As well, November 2023 is an eternity in politics and anything can happen between now and then. For now, the President seems to be sitting on a deck of opportunities, holding all the cards he needs to finesse MPs into voting in ways he wants them to vote. There is one political caveat to all this, and that is the President would be well advised not to use the goodwill circumstances he is enjoying now to try to resurrect the UNP as an electoral force. And worse would be to strike an electoral alliance with the Rajapaksas in a local government or parliamentary elections. A presidential election would be a different battlefield where all manner of alliances has become common.
The President’s ambidexterity is on full display. He is coming on both sides of the law and order fence and can have enough MPs to support any of his opposing positions. He has declared in parliament during the current Committee stage debate on the budget, that “he would not allow another Aragalaya and that he would use security forces to prevent such a move.” He has been quoted as saying – “I will declare even emergency and call in security forces to thwart any such move.” He seems to be confident that he can rely on Basil Rajapaksa to get a majority in parliament for cracking down on protesters.
At the same time, he is executively dissociating himself from the actions of the Defence Ministry officials under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The President is reported to have refused to sign on new Detention Orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), even though he did not stop previous orders being signed by the Defence Secretary, a retired Army Major General. The PTA was adopted in 1979 as a “temporary” measure has survived through many government changes and promises to repeal it. As Prime Minister in 2015, now President Wickremesinghe was committed to repealing it but nothing happened.
The official position now is that the government has placed a “de facto moratorium on arrests being made under the PTA.” With convenient exceptions for deeming protesters terrorists and arresting them under PTA. Aragalaya protesters have been so arrested and the President seems to be on both sides of the fence. He is running with the Human Rights hare and hunting with the National security hound. Under pressure from both local rights groups and international agencies, the government is reportedly drafting a new counter-terrorism law to replace the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). And the President might be able to assemble a different majority in parliament, similar to the one that passed the 21st Amendment. He could also get the Foreign Minister to drop the IMF scare in parliament as he did for 21A – that there would be no IMF help if PTA is either not repealed or drastically defanged.
More than dealing with PTA, the President is looking for a bigger fish to fry, one that was also left unaccomplished during the yahapalana government. That is the ever elusive project of national reconciliation. He seems to have all the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties on board for this initiative, of course with varying shades of interest, commitment and engagement. The President has proposed yet another All Party Conference and managed to prise out a public affirmation from Sajith Premadasa that he and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) will not only participate in the All Party Conference (APC), but “will (also) lead from the front and finalise a solution to the ethnic problem by the time Sri Lanka celebrates its 75th Independence Day” through a system of power devolution based on the 13th Amendment.
If the President is able to maintain the current trend of voting permutations in parliament, he should have no difficulty in getting a parliamentary majority for a legislative approval if one is required for whatever reconciliation package that the President might be having in mind. It is too early to anticipate how the new reconciliation initiative will unfold, except to say that the dubious devise of an All Party Conference is always fraught with uncertainties, if not unwelcome developments. The first of them after July 1983 was convened in January 1984, but as it turned out it was not for the purpose of finding a solution but for avoiding one. Hopefully, the intentions behind the newest initiative now are not devious as they were then.
It’s the Economy
Any or all of the above political possibilities happening or not happening will of course depend on how the country’s economy turns and, along with it, how people’s economic circumstances change. The fundamentals of the economy are not going to improve any time soon. The government’s, really the President’s, challenge is to keep them from worsening and to keep the people’s living conditions from further deteriorating. All bets are off if essential supplies are not maintained, prices are not contained or subsidized, and scarcities and lineups return. Such deterioration will take away the President’s options and flexibility that I am speculating here.
Far from having the luxury of not holding parliamentary elections before November 2023, he could be forced to hold them as soon as possible after March 2023. If frustrated and angered, the people will find ways of forcing his hand to dissolve parliament without giving him the excuse to draw out the army or declare emergency. On the other hand, if the economy starts ticking as he seems convinced it would as a result of his new budget, he will have the luxury of playing his cards the way he wants. But it will likely succeed only if he aligns his game with advancing the public good and not for restoring the electoral fortunes of the UNP.
As a ‘crisis’ President, as he has been calling himself, the President could have taken a different route and facilitated a ‘consociational budget’ by nominating/appointing an outside technical expert as Finance Minister to build parliamentary consensus on details while providing overarching leadership as President. Such an exercise would have won broad political support at home and significant credibility abroad. But that has never been his wont. So, the President made his own budget and now has got his own majority in parliament.
That said, the President’s budget is a politically clever piece of work in the most trying circumstances. It straddles, rather than balance, the restructuring demands of the IMF and the livelihood requisites of Sri Lanka’s growing poor. It even placates the army by downsizing through retirement. The budget is also clever in totally avoiding any mention of the Rajapaksas and their contributions to Sri Lanka’s debt and economic distress. He could not have blamed them in the budget and expected them to vote for it at the same time.
Instead, the President picked on SWRD Bandaranaike using a quote from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew that has been a longstanding table talk topic among Colombo middle classes. He even adds a measure of self-deprecation by alluding to the shortcomings, if not failures, of the 1977 economic changes under JR Jayewardene and calling for a new direction defined by the so called Social Market Economy. The President made a point in repeatedly emphasizing that it was time for governments in Sri Lanka to move away from making ‘popular’ decisions to making ‘right’ decisions. To make a different point, it is time political leaders moved away from blaming the people for their so called popular decisions.
The President deftly sidestepped the issue to say whether the decision of the Gota-regime to do away with taxes was meant to be popular among the people who are now being called upon to pay the price for it with interest. Or was the decision on organic fertilizer meant to be politically unpopular and economically right? Welfare economists are familiar with the false dichotomy between equity and efficiency in economics. Equity with efficiency is amply possible, and efficiency without equity is socially unsustainable. Ranilonomics appears to be expressing the same falsehood using common vocabulary.
The budget is also strikingly optimistic both in regard to economic expectations and in its assumptions about Sri Lanka’s factor endowments – of land, labour and capital. And there are significant omissions of details on the pressing issues of the day: timelines for, and even the likelihood of, securing IMF assistance and debt restructuring; stock and price status of food supplies and backup plans to deal with current and future scarcities; the state of affairs in the petroleum sector which is becoming a costly circus under a runaway cabinet minister; and lastly, no mention of what he plans to do deal with corruption, let alone eliminate it.
A not so curious omission is the deafening silence on the utilization of Port City in the new economic order that the President is assiduously promoting. It is no longer curious because after nearly two decades of political gestation, environmental fudging and oceanic landfilling, the vaunted Port City is virtually dead on arrival. Then there is this singular gem in the budget to feed one’s curiosity – the President’s proposal “to establish an Institution to undertake and facilitate research on the history of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, I propose to allocate Rs. 50 million for this purpose.” Go, figure.