ECONOMYNEXT – On November 18, Mahinda Rajapaksa celebrated his 75th birthday. The most recognizable and probably best-known person in Sri Lanka, also completed more than a half-century as a Member of Parliament, this year.
As the world and Sri Lanka head into 2021 where the Covid pandemic and our economic troubles will converge to create a major crisis, the enduring popularity of the Prime Minister will be important for the governing coalition.
At present Rajapaksa is the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, a ministry he held even during his two-term presidency.
So he is used to gruelling Budget debates, but in mid-November, there was a moment when, while delivering the second budget speech in a week, midway into his three-hour speech, he sat down.
He was clearly tired and unable to stand for much longer. He had already performed a feat that would have sorely taxed a man or a woman much younger than him.
No-one from the Opposition objected as he delivered the rest of the speech while seated.
In fact, it was a voice from the Opposition benches that called out to say “it’s ok Hon PM please speak while seated.”
It was a reflection of the high regard Sri Lankans, friend and foe alike, have for the man who has anchored the most formidable political alliance built in the last 20 years.
The remarkable Mahinda alliance
Many former United National Party (UNP) Ministers are in his Cabinet, Johnston Fernando, Bandula Gunawardena, Prof G L Peiris to name a few.
(The good Professor has been flitting hither and thither but seems to have found a safe haven with MR)
Rajapaksa’s ability to bring politically diametrical opposites into one alliance is a sight to behold.
Fernando, an ultra-capitalist liquor merchant and radical leftist former Trade Unionist Vasudeva Nanayakkara are gathered under the Mahinda banner.
Nanayakkara, who took many a beating from UNP goons in the old days for standing up to former President J R Jayewardene, when he was amongst those who were vehemently against the introduction of the Executive Presidency, meekly voted recently, in favour of the 20th Amendment to give President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sweeping powers similar to what JR took for himself.
He is among many who are seduced by the charm of Mahinda and apparently unable to comprehend the weight and import of the 20th Amendment which they voted for.
In the last Parliamentary General Elections, the Prime Minister asserted his power over the electorate to consolidate the Rajapaksa family’s hold over the party and therefore government.
In many electoral districts, Mahinda asked the party faithful to cast their preferential vote for his chosen candidates. In every district where there was a family member contesting, that person emerged with the highest number of preferences.
In Hambantota, it was Namal Rajapaksa, the son, in Matara the neophyte Nipuna Ranawaka a nephew and another nephew Shasheendra Rajapaksa in Moneragala although the last-named, a former Chief Minister is an established figure in the district.
This column is in no way a paean of praise for Mahinda Rajapaksa. He, like most of Sri Lanka’s political leaders, is guilty of absolute chicanery, repeatedly letting down his supporters with false promises and of course cynical violence.
Mahinda, because he has presided over a significant part of our recent history will remain a political colossus in the years to come.
The worst may be yet to come
He will be badly needed by the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as the country heads into the next three to five years when the Covid 19 pandemic will begin to bite in earnest.
Signs of the worst to come are already visible. In the locked down inner-city areas of Colombo, there have already been protests by residents complaining that the government’s LKR5,000 handouts are not enough to feed their families for more than a week.
At the forefront of trying to appease the angry residents have been local police officers, while the Governing Party politicians are markedly absent.
In Parliament, Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansha clashed with Opposition MPs from Colombo who raised the issue of the restive inner-city residents. He yelled at the Opposition demanding they shut up.
One of the Opposition Colombo MPs, Mano Ganesan warned that the government must heed the cries of the people because they are now hungry.
These areas in Colombo also have seen a higher number of deaths from Covid-related health issues; many have died at home.
Governments around the world grappling with the pandemic are struggling to maintain the delicate balance between continuing economic activity and containing the spread of the virus.
Other countries, with greater economic resources than ours, are fighting to contain the virus and in some cases veering from one set of policies to another.
Sri Lanka, in many ways, has been unique because we appeared to start off well and that may well have been our undoing.
The declaration by the government, in the run-up to the Parliamentary election, that it had beaten Covid, the casual way our leaders treated the health guidelines that must be observed to contain the spread, and an apparent lack of preparation for the second wave has left the country today in a near-crisis situation.
While the government took all the credit for apparently ‘eradicating’ Covid from the country earlier in the year, it now faults the public for the second outbreak!
Many claim that it appears that the government has run out of ideas.
The New Year will also bring with it a rise in debt repayments and with government revenue seeing a big reduction due to the closure of the Tourism industry, drop in export and remittance earnings and import restrictions it will be hard put to fund more handouts and subsidies.
There is the danger of rampant unemployment and runaway inflation, a deadly combination if the casualty rate from the pandemic continues to increase.
It could increase dissatisfaction already being expressed by the public, which will further complicate matters.
Such a crisis will require a more cohesive and strong plan from the government, some creative thinking and the actively seeking support from the political opposition to manage the crisis.
The kind of confrontational politics that Weerawansha showed in Parliament on November 21 will not help the government.
This is where the charisma of Mahinda Rajapaksa will be needed. This is where the relationships he has maintained with his opponents can be useful as it is important the government listen to the people.
More than ever, the governing party needs to stick together and that is why for the SLPP government Mahinda’s active presence is vital.
The government erred when it took a hard-headed decision after Parliament was dissolved not to reconvene the House and put together a multi-party Task Force to deal with the pandemic.
It is still not too late to do so as the looming crisis threatens to be bigger than what we are dealing with now.
It will have to ensure that the political capital that Mahinda has stored is spent wisely to win over the Opposition as well as give confidence to a frightened and hungry people that better times will come.
(Colombo, November 24, 2020)