March 2023

Violating the vote

Neville de Silva looks at how Sri Lanka’s floundering government is deepening the country’s economic crisis and has undermined its historic system of universal franchise

Apocryphal or not, the phrase ‘L’état, c’est moi’ (I am the State) has been attributed to France’s Bourbon king Louis XIV. These words reflect the era of France’s pre-revolution tyranny.

Thankfully, Sri Lanka has not descended into such state tyranny – not yet, some might say – though signs of repression that clamp down on liberty, equality and fraternity (as the French revolutionaries would have said) are not hard to discern, even as the economic strangle hold on a struggling people continues to tighten and the country’s professionals leave our shores in droves in search of a better tomorrow.

Right now, Louis XIV’s words resonate not from the mouths of Sri Lankan rulers, though some may wish they could. Many critics of Sri Lanka’s continuing politico-economic instability argue that the real source of power is external – one of the Washington twins called the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – to which Sri Lanka’s new mandarins turned for help, handing over the role of squeezing out the last ounce of people’s self-respect and sovereign and independent decision-making.

That began from the time our caretaker rulers grabbed the citadel of power in mid- 2022, assuming they were there to stay for years, come what may.

This cry for help is the 17th time Ceylon/Sri Lanka has sought IMF aid since 1965, knowing only too well the harsh conditionalities the institution imposes before providing financial help, and the tragic history some countries across the globe, who relied on an IMF mantra to resurrect their economies, have experienced.

What has angered the public most is that negotiations with the IMF and bilateral negotiations with other nations and organisations, leading to the sale or leasing of state assets and other stringent commitments, are being conducted by a temporary president who, they argue, has no public mandate and works in collusion with a governing party that has lost its mandate.

The public cry is that, lacking a mandate, those wielding power today must win public approval, as well as political and moral legitimacy, through democratic means such as national elections, before committing the country to policies and courses of action dictated by external sources such as the IMF.

Though no parliamentary or presidential election is due soon, local council elections (already delayed by over one year) to elect some 8,700 or so representatives to 340 local bodies, were scheduled for March 9 by the independent Election Commission as empowered by the constitution.

student studying by candlelight in Sri Lanka
IN THE DARK: Students in Sri Lanka were driven to study by candlelight or kerosene-oil lamp due to power cuts

While that election will have no effect on those in power now, it will surely reflect today’s public thinking and the rising anti-government sentiments that saw, for the first time, a popularly-elected president flee the country in the face of mass protests calling for his ouster and that of the rest of the Rajapaksa family from the cabinet.

It is the fear of facing public wrath in a democratic vote and the political ramifications it would have on the national consciousness that has driven this economically and politically brittle government to undermine the country’s historic system of universal franchise that dates back to 1931 –  before independence in 1948.

Already the IMF prescription is beginning to eat into Sri Lanka’s body politic. In mid-February the government raised electricity rates by 66%, having already raised them by 75% six months earlier.

Already the IMF prescription is beginning to eat into Sri Lanka’s body politic

Almost daily power cuts affected several hundred thousand students sitting the GCE ‘A’ Level examinations in January-February, with some driven to study by candlelight or kerosene-oil lamp.

These power cuts affecting homes and businesses came on top of other shortages, including vital medicines, and increased prices of food and cooking gas, causing rising restlessness among an already exhausted population. Their attempts at public protests against unbearable living costs have been silenced by police water cannons, tear gas and pro-government goons attacking peaceful demonstrators.

As if such brutal action was not enough, the government has resorted to abusing obnoxious laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, whose abolition the UN Human Rights Council, the European Union and other western nations have long been urging.

Now the IMF recipe for economic recovery, on which President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his tight circle of advisers have placed their faith, is beginning to bite. The twice-increased electricity rates have begun to dig deep into domestic incomes, affecting the middle class and even higher income-earning groups, as protests have indicated.

Economist Joseph Stiglitzonce remarked that the IMF was ‘reflecting the interests and ideology of the western financial community’

The new electricity rates will have an inevitable ripple effect on manufacture, the food industry, hotels and restaurants and elsewhere. Even domestic water rates are due to be hiked.

President Wickremesinghe, who is also finance minister, has instituted a major personal income tax and other tax increases, doubtless at the IMF’s behest.

This raised howls of protests, especially among those in the private sector, and hastened the exit of a wide range of professionals from the country. The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) announced recently that around 6,000 doctors left Sri Lanka in 2022 for employment abroad, denuding further a much-valued free health service.

But there are even more troubles ahead when other IMF conditionalities – 15 in all, including privatisation of some state assets, slicing of state expenditure, pruning of state employment and fiscal cuts, more demanding than the pound of flesh Shylock sought from Antonio – begin to fester.

President Wickremesinghe (l) is trying to outdo his uncle, President JR Jayewardene

Economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, criticising the IMF for failing to adopt the best policies for improving the welfare of developing countries, once remarked that the IMF was ‘not participating in a conspiracy’ but was ‘reflecting the interests and ideology of the western financial community’.

While questions are being raised on whether IMF lending is more likely to create long-term dependency than to act as short-term assistance, President Wickremesinghe’s government is now embroiled in a political issue that has not only divided the nation but even posed problems for the Supreme Court.

Whether the local council elections, which the independent Election Commission had scheduled for March 9, will go ahead or not, with the government using every trick in the book and unsavoury means outside it, to sabotage them, claiming spuriously it has no money for elections, has turned into the most contentious issue today. It has overshadowed for the moment Wickremesinghe’s determination to implement fully the constitution’s 13th amendment, which would devolve more powers to the Tamil minority, raising the ire of some Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists.

‘Veering off and away from the democratic path is now the third crisis that’s emerging in Sri Lanka. So we have a governance crisis that has led to an economic crisis and in trying to solve the economic crisis without solving the governance crisis, we are creating a crisis for our democracy as well,’ said Dr Nishan de Mel, Executive Director of respected Veritḗ Research, in a recent interview.

At the time of writing, the government and its institutions appear to have blocked a democratic election, denying the Sri Lankan people their constitutionally guaranteed franchise. The leading opposition party, SJB, has just filed a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court against the Treasury Secretary and the Government Printer for refusing to print ballot papers without full payment, and against other state institutions for not supporting the Election Commission to hold the planned polls.

This is the first time since Sri Lanka was granted universal franchise that an election has been put off for the flimsy excuse of having no money. Even during the near 30-year war against the Tamil separatists and a short insurgency by the Sinhala south in 1987-89, elections went ahead.

President Wickremesinghe is trying to outdo his uncle, President JR Jayewardene, the country’s first executive president who called a referendum instead of an election to extend the lifetime of parliament in 1982.

If the Rajapaksa clan has set many ‘records’ during its years of rule, perhaps Wickremesinghe is hoping to outdo them and ‘grab’ the presidency when it is due next year.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankans curse and wait for the time they can vote in the next year or two.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London