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Testing the people’s patience

When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour – Elon Musk 

Here’s a poser. In a hypothetical situation, if the SJB/UNP was in power and the SLPP was the Opposition with the same seat numbers in Parliament and facing the same critical issues the nation is facing today, what would be the status quo? Would the SLPP behave in the same timid manner as the present Opposition? One would recall Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa riding a bicycle to Parliament five years ago when petrol was in short supply for a few days and subsequently inquiring from political platforms, ‘Dan sepada?’ when prices of some commodities had seen a relatively marginal increase.

For a party that wept from political platforms over miniscule price hikes compared to today, its silence is deafening in the face of the cost of living tsunami engulfing the nation. While the present Opposition should be complimented for refraining from fishing in troubled waters unlike its predecessor, the more pertinent question at the moment is, for how long more are the people to endure these unbearable prices with the Government and its new Cabinet clearly at sea on how to tame the monster?

There is also the question of who exactly is in charge, with decisions being reversed even before they could be announced as in the case of the gas price hike and mask mandate. There are also questions on the legality of the recent fuel price hike with Parliament yet to be provided a copy of the Finance Minister’s mandatory written approval for same. The Rambukkana incident, where video footage has emerged showing the Police engaging in incitant conduct that included the fatal shooting of a youth in the back and willful destruction of private property, further call into question as to who exactly is in control.

Given this worrying scenario, what will it take for the administration to realise that the problem is very much itself and that for any solution to be found, it must first remove itself from the picture? The multilateral lenders of last resort have been blunt enough to directly convey to the Finance Minister now in Washington with the begging bowl, that no relief facility can be considered unless and until the administration comes up with a sustainable debt repayment plan. Having gone to Washington ‘atha wana wana’ (empty-handed) without any such plan or even a viable fiscal plan for that matter, it appears the Minister who is getting a crash course in finance will also have to return ‘atha wana wana’ without the anticipated assurance of an assistance package including the sought-after Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) bridging facility. Sensing an opportunity, both India and China have offered further assistance, but having been there and done that, at what cost such assistance will materialise this time around will be the billion dollar question. Besides, for a country that is in this mess because it cannot pay back its debt, how can more debt help the cause other than perpetuate the problem?

The administration has not been helping itself either with its convoluted actions in response to the increasing island-wide mass protests over the course of the week. These actions have called into question its bona fides and whether our own modern-day Nero is fiddling while the country is most certainly burning from north to south and east to west. The one and possibly the only thing that last week’s events point to – from the appointment of a new Cabinet after nearly three weeks of not having one, to the newly-appointed ministers flailing in the dark yet unaware of their duties in the absence of a gazette listing their subjects, to a group of ruling party MPs pledging allegiance to the Prime Minister while some others called on him to step down and pave way for an interim administration, while some others resigned within hours of being appointed – is that no one seems to be knowing whether they are coming or going. Even the blindest loyalist of the regime will have to admit that this is not what the multilateral or bilateral lenders would expect by way of stability.

While this circus goes on, the country seems to be sinking further into the abyss, pushing the people in general and the youth in particular into a very difficult corner. For a country that has already seen two youth uprisings in ’71, ’88-’89 and a full-blown war in just the past 50 years, the importance of paying heed to their democratic demands cannot be overemphasised. While the older generation who have been to hell and back during this period may be less inclined to take on the administration head on, the rulers are playing with fire if they assume the youth have the same tolerance levels for ineffective, indifferent, and destructive leadership. The youth that are on the streets in all corners including at Galle Face are already on record reminding their elected representatives that they are running out of patience and it goes without saying that if the administration continues to be deaf to their pleas, there is every likelihood of the ongoing protests turning in to something far more potent, paving the way for greater uncertainty and chaos.

That being the case, the situation is hopeless to the extent that we are now a nation that is completely living on loans and uncertainty and chaos could quickly close that door as well. The administration and the rest of the country might as well brace for the worst to come in May when the last of the remaining reserves are expected to be exhausted along with the Indian credit line that kept the country afloat this month. Even though another $ 500 million credit line has been requested on top of the previous one, India has remained noncommittal so far. Meanwhile there are new, more pressing problems to deal with. The present economic downturn has pushed millions of middle class folk back in to poverty and the attendant socioeconomic upheaval is a ticking time bomb.

Given this ground reality, it is unfathomable that the ruling alliance seems to be only interested in self-preservation while the Opposition too continues to fail the people by not offering a viable alternative through a broad alliance of parties represented in Parliament. It is due to this profound failure on the part of the 225 Members of Parliament that the people have begun to question its usefulness. However having said that, the 21st Amendment presented to the Speaker by the SJB last week offers a ray of hope and a way out of the impasse as it primarily seeks to divest executive power back to Parliament, thereby offering greater stability and strengthening of the democratic framework.

Widely acclaimed as a progressive piece of legislation, it negates the controversial 20th Amendment which concentrated power in the Executive and restores the 19th Amendment while including some new provisions in keeping with current requirements vis-à-vis the voice of the people. These include Parliament electing a nominal president, provision to remove a cabinet minister with a no confidence motion, provisions to prevent crossovers, limitation on number of Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers, offering greater importance to the National Security Council, setting up a State Council consisting of experts and professionals, and re-establishing Independent Commissions. There has also been another proposed 21st Amendment by way of a Private Member’s Bill from the group of 40 Independent MPs with similar proposals, which too is now sitting on the Speaker’s table.

Given the furious and not-so-secret horse trading going on behind the screen in Parliament in order for the ruling party to at least put together a working majority, and Opposition parties acting on the premise of each one unto themselves, a parliamentary deadlock with the administration unable to move legislation appears to be a distinct possibility. It is in this milieu that it becomes incumbent upon the Speaker to play the role of statesman and stay aloof from party loyalties. He must keep in mind that the fate of the nation may well rest on his hands and it is up to him to ensure parliamentary democracy in full measure. So far he has fallen short on this score of his more illustrious predecessors in the ilk of Stanley Tillekeratne, Anandatisaa De Alwis, Anura Bandaranaike, and even the last one, Karu Jayasuriya, who during the testing period of the illegal 52-day Sirisena-appointed Government in 2018 held his nerve and helped restore faith in the Legislature.

At the end of the day, the people’s voice must resonate within the four walls of Parliament. It is the 225 members who must give effect to the call of the people. The people have done their part and aired their grievances across the length and breadth of the country. It is now up to the House to play its part. Failure to do so will also mean the end of many a political career as those who choose to ignore the people’s voice will never be able to visit their constituencies. It is a defining moment and one which the nation has never experienced before. However the fact that Parliament will only meet next month despite the simmering issues shows its disconnect with ground reality and one can only hope that the mood of the people will not shift from expectation to anger.