Destructive distractions

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s insistence on sticking with the gazetted version of the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution has opened up an array of interesting possibilities across the political divide.
The President’s hardline stance, despite the growing divergent views emanating from within his own camp, has led to a sense of déjà vu.
It is a scenario all too familiar for this country, which for all intents and purposes, has been there and done that, many times before.
Bitter political bickering after all is nothing new to this or any other country for that matter and is very much part and parcel of the democratic system, but when that begins to affect the governance process itself, it becomes a matter of concern.

What Sri Lanka can ill afford at this critical juncture is a cold war within the Government itself which could potentially distract focus from the most important issue on the table right now, which is providing life support for the economy.

Contradictory views emanating from influential personalities from within the Government on the proposed 20th Amendment has fuelled the rumour mill and led to speculation on the fate of the proposed piece of legislation which is due to be presented in Parliament next week.

Given recent history where governments past have scored own goals sealing their own fate, it is prudent that this new Government, which is still finding its feet, does not go down that same street, for the ultimate loser will be the country in terms of opportunities lost, yet again.

The root of the economic worries facing the country today began with the own goal scored by former President Maithripala Sirisena back in October 2018 when he arbitrarily dismissed the sitting Government, precipitating an economic crisis of sorts, as the executive action put paid to investor confidence and the peak winter tourism season, resulting in a formidable loss of precious foreign exchange earnings.

Six months down the line came the Easter Sunday terror attacks which dealt a bigger body blow to the economy. The combined impact of these two events formed the basis for the pre-Covid economic crisis which resulted in negative growth and implementation of import controls for the first time since the ‘70s.

For all intents and purposes, both these calamities could easily have been avoided if attention was paid to where it was due. Former President Sirisena, who presided over both, must be held accountable for his action with regard to the first and inaction with regard to the latter.

And then came Covid. The full impact of it was felt in the second quarter and thereafter, where conservative projections have forecasted negative growth of 5.6% for the rest of the year.

Given this scenario, it will be prudent for the President and the Government, all of whom are from the same party, to avoid any sort of unwarranted constitutional issue which at this critical time will not help the country in any manner.

Therefore, it is noteworthy that the President is on record having stated that if the proposed 20th Amendment cannot be adopted in the gazetted form, he is prepared to shelve it.

He has gone one step further by stating that if the 20th is not adopted in its present form, restoring the sweeping powers appropriated to the executive president by its creator, J.R. Jayewardene, all government MPs should fall in line with the status quo and live with the 19th Amendment. With the President placing his cards on the table, one would find it hard not to agree with his contention.

Meanwhile, after months, if not years of infighting and disarray, the Opposition finally seems to be getting a grip of things and firing some heavy artillery targeted at the 20th Amendment. The United National Party (UNP), which has created the dubious record of being the only party in the world to move from being in government to a one-seat Opposition, that seat too remaining vacant a month and a half after the general election, laboured profusely last week to bring forth a mouse, by filling just one vacancy while other key posts including that of the party leader continue to remain vacant.

According to party sources, the newly appointed Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene is now the prince in waiting and will take over the party mantle in three months’ time. The proof of the pudding however will be in the eating in this instance, given the fact that the incumbent Leader has held on to the post for dear life since 1994, come hell or high water.

Meanwhile, the grapevine is abuzz about overtures being made by both the breakaway Samagi Jana Balawegaya and emerging leadership of the UNP to patch things up and put up a unified front against the Government.

For the beleaguered UNP, it is now left with Hobson’s choice to either unite or disappear into oblivion, as it has lost its share of voice on matters of national importance due to its absence in Parliament as well as the public domain. If the new leadership is not sensitive to the issues of the day, it runs the risk of losing its relevance in the local political ecosystem.

Therefore, it is imperative that they mobilise whatever resources still at their disposal and assert its voice on behalf of the remaining 250,000 supporters.

While Wijewardene’s inevitable ascension to the party’s throne will no doubt usher in a new youthful era for the party, it will also, on the other hand, ensure perpetuation of the family dynasty in tandem with the other main political entity which is grooming its own prince.

Therefore, whichever of the two main parties comes into power in the future, their leaders will be progeny of the same families that have ruled the country for the last so many decades.

Be that as it may, the economic outlook for the rest of the year could not be more foreboding with a hefty $ 1 billion payout for maturing bonds due as early as next month. That will be followed up quickly enough with a Rs. 3 trillion payout next year. With a second wave of Covid sweeping the world, an early restart of export activity seems unlikely. Besides, for the first time in the country’s history, the debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to cross the 100% mark next year, meaning we’d have to pay more than we produce just to settle debt payments.

Given the challenges ahead, the guiding principle these days should be, all hands on deck. This is not the time to be creating political divisions, both in and out, based on strengthening executive power, when all the required power is already vested with one and the same government. Therefore, the need of the hour is that the powers that be focus on the big picture and not be distracted by a constitutional amendment that could potentially cause more problems than solutions. Distractions can be destructive.