In a black hole between stability and legitimacy

Monday, 2 May 2022 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

WE WON’T GO HOME TILL THE DAWN BREAKS – No talks... until/unless there’s no (more) corruption, cronyism, chauvinism, charlatanry, etc. Yet, the politicos still parley – and more’s the pity... 


The ‘Struggle’ of the few on behalf of the many is in its umpteenth day/week/month today. Its exact duration to date depends on when you start counting the ‘People’s Quiet Revolution’ as having begun. 

And the wave upon wave of the ‘Occupy Galle Face’ movement is but its latest organic avatar. An incarnation with no soul ties to political parties or personages despite the dismissive allegations of diasporic funding, hidden hands stoking the fire of popular passion or vested interests driving an agenda. Shame be on them who think evil of this awakening to citizenship from the customary slumber of occasional voterhood!

That ship – tarring protestors as traitors – has sailed for good, though. No more can cynically exploitative politicos expect to manipulate people in general or their populist movements in particular – though they may try to prevent a leaderless crew from uniting under a new helm.  

If you’re truly apolitical – and tend to dismiss the country-backbone farmers’ long-standing protests as being ‘merely’ the political opposition weaponising agri-agitation, and the erstwhile education sector demos as ‘nothing but’ trade union rallies – it is a shorter time than it seems that the people have been at the barricades. Dissent has been around for yonks.

That the motley crowd of people have been taking a more united, concerted and concentrated stand on the streets, asking their elected representatives to call it a day for long enough to convince the sane or the conscientious, has escaped the notice of those enshrined in their castles and caskets. Fear of civic reprisals, as well as the prospect of possible criminal prosecution for a raft of abuses of power, keeps the hare – once the hound – at bay.  

But what the struggle lacks in terms of results of late (no one’s going home, no), relatively speaking (time will tell), it is gaining in terms of legitimacy, strength and stridency. The clarion has gone from a call for the ‘One’ to go home to ‘All 225’ must do so too including my brother and his keeper: one-time ‘war heroes’ and ‘national saviours’. Some claims – for instance, the spec of ‘4/21’ being the handiwork of a ‘grand political conspiracy’; and that justice must be done, finally – have eroded whatever legitimacy the security-conscious government may have once had. 

And at angry citizen locales ranging from the state’s well-chosen – as it turned out – ‘agitation site’ to sundry ‘Gotagamas’ (#donotmesswithtechsavvygenZ) and Mynahgogoma, on top of sundry writing on social media walls, the campaign has gone from annoyed to outraged to implacable. There is a tide indeed, which, taken at the flood, sweeps all in its path.

Not only upset by corruption, the movement has come to include railing against ethno-nationalistic chauvinism, incompetence and unaccountability as well. 

But once having turned a blind eye to worse sins of commission and omission – from cruelty to minorities (COVID burial protocols) to callousness by the dissident majority (remember Rathupaswela?) – the worm has now turned. 

And about time... but let’s not carp and cavil too long about it being ‘nothing but’ what bodily hunger does for one’s sense of civic duty and national pride – which is wonders! 

We’re on the cusp of something. Whether it’s a storm in a teacup will depend on the morality of many MPs sitting on the fence of a no-confidence motion in the House. If it is to be about systemic change, however, the long route through horse-trading for a convincing majority and a referendum will test the mettle of both parliamentarians and the people.        

How will it all end, though? Given that the ‘mynahs’ and ‘kaputas’ are showing no signs of being gone or planning an avian hegira to their own safety and security anytime soon! Instead, while one ‘kaputa’ has flown over the cuckoo’s nest to safety in oblivion after his disingenuous sacking, the others are laying fresh eggs for future hatching...

Here are a few possible scenarios. Below that are a brief but perhaps inadequate ideas about the insidious nexus between politics and economics (accurate enough but incomplete for want of space). And there are also some estimates of the dichotomy between stability and legitimacy, which drives the shelf-life of any administration. As well as the roles played by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and our creditors in international financial markets (IFMs). 

Four ‘Horsemen of the Apocalypse’

SCENARIO #1: The executive digs in. As it is doing through sullen silence from one head in hiding, hat in hand now over admission of mistakes made; and fuzzily veiled threats from another in plain sight on TV, agnostic to his dethroning from deity-hood. A tone-deaf president continues to stubbornly hold on to the reins of power and serves his term out despite growing/dwindling protests, as well as machinations within to evict him. The political stability of the government in power is counterpointed by its lack of a moral majority.

Stability: High – no regime change means structural integrity as far as the IMF and our IFMs go.

Legitimacy: Low – a moral mandate has been lost along the way, especially as regards competency in administration. Where is that much vaunted ‘technocracy’ now, eh? Much less adroit fiscal/monetary and other policy management!  

SCENARIO #2: The executive caves in and partners with parliament, or has its head caved in by a palace coup led by his prime minister. Under constitutional provisions, parliament partners in forming an interim administration. Despite a semblance of political stability, social justice à la the demands of the multitude on the street appear not to have been done... plus, it’s realpolitik at its best or worst at work – ostensibly in the national interest.

Stability: Low – Caretaker governments are not the ideal vehicles for laying the foundations of sound structural stability. In fact, they may open the polity to constitutionally exploratory structural changes that could reshape the form of society. Good (if it leads to reforms). Bad (if it entrenches the corrupt political culture). Ugly (if it does the latter at the cost of sovereignty – to say nothing of food and other securities).

Legitimacy: Low – In the light of the people’s protests, coupled with the demand that ‘All 225’ go home and/or be audited, as well the revelation that only 10 of this parliament’s sitting MPs have done so, there is a sense that the old political culture has found a legal enough but ethically tenuous way to survive the people’s displeasure and the executive’s displeasure.

SCENARIO #3: The legislature votes to dissolve itself in the face of Rajapaksa intransigency and calls for parliamentary elections per embedded clauses in the constitution. On the plus side, this would flush out the 225 MPs that people want to see at home. On the minus side, this means at least three elections in the space of six years (2019, 2022, 2025) at an inordinate cost to state coffers. With that said: the cost of an election – estimated at between Rs. 7.5-10 billion – should not deter the polity from an immediate pain in the chest. Especially compared to the long-drawn-out aches of prolonged power cuts stretching far into the unbearable future? Consider also that 3.5 hours of power cuts costs the country an estimated billion rupees anyway! So an election now may pre-empt 3 full days of power cuts and deliver a tenable solution to the impasse in the short term... 

Stability: Low – Coalitions, as would be necessitated given the current party-political alignment, are notoriously susceptible to realpolitik rather than principled policy-making. 

Legitimacy: High – It would give the protestors in particular and a long-suffering polity in general the opportunity (ideally/idealistically) to vote in new – hopefully, cleaner – MPs.

SCENARIO #4: The unthinkable happens. This could take one of several forms – a reactive executive imposes martial law and/or a state of anarchy descends on a beleaguered nation state. If so, in the short run we are all dead...

Stability: Very high but extremely undesirable unless you favour a securocracy à la Myanmar.

Legitimacy: Very low and extremely unpopular with all but the colonels and generals and their bureaucratic boot-lickers.

Avoid an ‘Economic Armageddon’

All of these political scenarios are closely – even inextricably – tied with economic realities. 

First and foremost among these is that Sri Lanka’s fate and future – and the flavour of our life (or half-life or deathly survival) – lie with two key sets of players: the IMF and our IFMs. 

We need to realise that the fat is well and truly in the fire no matter what happens at Galle Face or ‘Everyonegohome Gamas’. The time to start negotiating with our creditors and UN agencies to stave off disaster was one year ago. What could have been negotiated in 6-8 months if we had mutually agreed on in terms of default is now going to take up to 24 months or more... even if won’t experience the heartbreak of ‘disorderly defaults’ (i.e. sans negotiation). 

If one thinks this is Sri Lanka’s darkest hour, the worst is yet to come. And it’ll get bad soon before it gets better later, despite the recently declared policy decision to suspend debt servicing in favour of negotiated or ‘soft defaulting’.

Then again, we’d do better to understand well the nexus between the IMF and our IFMs. If we’d gone to our IFMs earlier and negotiated delayed repayment of debts and/or interest on borrowings, we’d have been better positioned to get a more favourable package from the IMF now. 

And reciprocally, if we’d been in IMF talks already, since say a year ago, asking our creditors to take a haircut would seem not only practical for a win-win outcome but also just and fair. 

Given that Sri Lanka’s credit ratings were slashed precisely because of our insistence on repayment of international sovereign bonds et al. (at the cost of being able to afford essentials such as fuel and pharmaceuticals), this seems eminently reasonable for investors who took the plunge despite/because of our precarious positioning. It stands to reason that the risk must cut both ways...

And, last not least, any symbiotic deals we strike with IMF and IFMs today are likely to be better – even at the eleventh hour and fifty ninth minute with seconds to go to midnight (some say it was already past the hour) – than any we may strike tomorrow. In fact, we may not be able to get even the last-ditch deals if we are past the dreaded hour... and our debt is deemed unsustainable.

So Sri Lanka’s announcement a fortnight ago that it would suspend debt servicing and start talks with creditors with a view to restructuring its debt comes perhaps as ‘too little too late’? (But of course, better late than never.) 

Stability v. legitimacy 

Part of the problem is that those who comprise the political stakeholders in any possible resolution – no matter how painful to the people – are still part of the problem as regards any possible solution. The politico-economic nexus in the scenarios spelt out above is painfully evident as is seen below:

SCENARIO #1: The executive digs in...

Pros: National outlook remains stable.

Cons: Socio-political justice is undone. 

SCENARIO #2: The executive caves in...

Pros: Country situation loses current tension.

Cons: Politicking takes priority over people pleasing.

SCENARIO #3: The legislature votes to dissolve itself...

Pros: Opportunity for reforms, clean sweep of political culture.

Cons: Threat of weaknesses in present system being entrenched.

SCENARIO #4: The unthinkable happens...

Pros: Well, at least “we won the war”. Quick, “don’t mention the war” – he did, not once or twice, but many times between brother and self, and he thinks they got away with it although definitely not?

Cons: Bless Sri Lanka!

Waiting for Godot!

A parliament once on an Avurudu break despite the severity of the national crisis is now in Mayday mode, struggling in its own right on behalf of its own survival. An executive skulking around in sullen silence, once even mulling over talks with youthful protestors (fat hope), while their more disreputable cohorts suborn racial insurrection among the much malleable demographics yet again, now looks ready to jettison the senior hand that fed it power – and vice versa. 

With the ‘Galle Face One’ brigade and ‘Gotagogama’ and ‘Mynahgogama’ battalions camping out until the cows come – or bulls go – home...

As long as those deemed responsible for the truly parlous state of the nation remain in situ, there will be no peace in the republic.

And it is up to politicians with half a mind as well as an intact backbone to drive the movement started by the people – in their lieu too – through. 

A major opposition political rally reached the commercial capital yesterday. It is hoped, peacefully. And that the political pressure brought to bear on the horses and horse traders would go the distance in empowering legitimate parliamentary motions – impeachment, no-confidence – in a stable future that will have to take Sri Lanka forward a step, a sacking, a sustainable bailout, at a time... 

As for the cloud of that hartal on the horizon, it’s legitimacy that trumps/stumps/slumps stability...     

| Editor-at-large of LMD | 

Recent columns