Sri Lanka heading for troubled waters
The parliamentary election in Sri Lanka on Monday has lost much of its geopolitical import because it is no more the ‘Chinese election’ it was meant to be. Actually, Reuters estimates, with a good measure of accuracy, that no matter which of the two electoral fronts wins the election – led respectively by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – Sri Lanka will be “a non-aligned investment attraction”.
That is to say, even if Beijing’s preferred candidate, Rajapaksa, is defeated, the fact remains that Wickremesinghe, despite being pro-Western in outlook, “is not about to slam the door on China”.
Nonetheless, the outcome of Monday’s election still assumes importance. The heart of the matter is that unless there is a decisive victory by either side, which seems improbable, the country is heading for political instability and the gathering storms on the horizon portend a time of troubles.
First and foremost, whichever side wins the election, given the fractious nature of Sri Lankan politics – especially since the current president Maithripala Sirisena backstabbed Rajapaksa and went on to win the presidential poll in January with the backing of Wickremesinghe – a deepening of the factional fight within the ruling Sinhala elite is almost certain to ensue.
Sirisena has threatened to keep Rajapaksa out of power, no matter the result of Monday’s poll. On the other hand, a government led by Wickremesinghe would have to heavily depend on the support of the Tamil and Muslim minorities, which in turn would leave a big chunk of the Sinhala electorate (supporting Rajapaksa) feeling disenfranchised.
Second, the Sri Lankan economy faces an adverse external environment in conditions where the commodity prices are slumping. Tea and rubber exports are hit badly. The apparel exports to the US and Europe have fallen. Unemployment is running high among the youth.
The debt-servicing expenditure is extremely high, amounting to over 95 percent of the revenue. Saddled with the rupee debt at 8.8 trillion rupee, borrowing from the International Monetary Fund has become imperative, and, sure enough, IMF has demanded deep spending cuts as the precondition of any new loan.
The new government – be it under Rajapaksa or Wickremesinghe – can be expected to impose an austerity agenda with drastic inroads into wages, working conditions and budget spending. In sum, Sri Lanka is heading for social unrest and political agitations by various discontented, dispossessed, disadvantaged sections of the population.
A third vector concerns Sri Lankan Tamil politics. Under combined American and Indian prodding, the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been pursuing the politics of power-sharing with the Sinhala elites in Colombo led by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
But in the past six-month period, nothing substantial has changed in the lives of the Tamil people. There has been no real easing of the repression of Tamils by Colombo. However, for the leadership of the TNA, drawn from the Tamil elites, the priority has been – and still is – to strike power-sharing bargains with Sirisena.
The TNA leadership is pinning hopes on the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine running the next government and itself becoming a coalition partner in it. To be sure, the TNA leaders will ultimately bargain for the loaves of office for themselves as quid pro quo for their support to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
The TNA leaders count on the “international community” to intervene in Sri Lankan politics to help secure justice for the Tamil people. They seem to have forgotten the dubious role played by the “international community” all along in exploiting the Tamil problem in their self-interests.
Curiously, the TNA’s election manifesto says, “The TNA is firmly of the view that international auspices are necessary to achieve permanent peace through genuine reconciliation, thereby enabling all peoples living in Sri Lanka to live as equal citizens”. The tragedy (or bankruptcy) of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka seems to be repeating itself.