President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘State of the Union’ address at the ceremonial opening of Parliament on Friday was the way he wants the country run; business-like.
He came in suit lest someone objected that there was a ‘Stranger in the House’ given the strict dress code within the Chamber — the sanctum sanctorum of the National Legislature. There was no pomp and pageantry of military honour guard and mounted police, only the homage to the Triple Gem sung by a bevy of girls who welcomed him.
Having outlined the common need for MPs of both sides of the House to serve the people (and not themselves), he said he knew what public service meant.
He had a veiled dig at the lawmakers recalling a time when he accompanied his father to Parliament and watched proceedings from the public gallery. Parliaments then were held in high esteem, he said quite rightly, and asked that the dignity of the institution be restored. Not surprisingly, MPs even of his own side remained stoically silent though they thumped the woodwork for the rest of the presidential remarks.
The President spoke of national reconciliation and echoed his New Year message which called for economic development based on ‘nationalistic importance’.
The reference to professionals heading state institutions and Sri Lanka being a trading spot between East and West since ancient times underpinned his address. Futuristic plans to modernise the State’s economy are always good to hear, difficult to implement. Hopes of more than doubling earnings from the tourist industry from US$ 4.4 billion to US$ 10 billion sound ambitious, but could be targets.
National security was given topmost priority but constitutional and electoral reforms seem the immediate priority with a Parliamentary election due in a few months.
Whatever the new President’s vision and mission may be, it will be the state of the economy that the new Government will have to give its highest consideration to. Each new Government blames its predecessor for leaving an empty Treasury. One Finance Minister of yesteryear on taking over the job famously said that there were only cockroaches in the empty Treasury.
Domestically, bad weather and man-made manipulations of rice and vegetable markets have seen the Cost of Living index rise steeply. Prices have shot to such heights that things are sold in 250 gram units. At the mega level, accumulated foreign debts will see this Government having to fork out US$ 4.5 billion in 2020. From where it is going to find that money is anybody’s guess.
The outstanding public debt which includes Central Government debt; Treasury Bonds for restructuring SOEs (State-Owned Enterprises); foreign project loans; public guaranteed debt and international bonds, has increased. The outstanding public debt is Rs. 13,182 billion at the end of 2018, according to the Finance Ministry.
Without a substantial infusion of FDIs (Foreign Direct Investments), and increased export earnings, the national economy is sunk. All the hot air generated over the US grant called the MCC has to be dispassionately reasoned out. It is not that the approach need be one where ‘beggars can’t be choosers’, but one does not look a gift horse in the mouth based on uninformed and clapped out ideological grounds.
We have said that foreign agreements must be negotiated with skill and finesse in the national interest. The ACSA was not done that way, and we had a narrow shave with SOFA — both US military agreements. The MCC was first proposed back in 2004 when the US Congress mooted the idea with not-so altruistic motives of helping poorer countries. Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar was Foreign Minister at the time and he was in the loop to get Sri Lanka some aid. It was to the tune of nearly a billion US Dollars, the focus being rural development including improving irrigation systems. The JVP put a spoke in the wheel and Mr. Kadirgamar wanted to renegotiate the offer. After Mr. Kadirgamar’s demise, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was bullish about it at the time, but the US offer went off the table during the military offensive against the LTTE around 2009, only to come back to the table under the Yahapalana Government. Nepal has, in the meantime, been a beneficiary of an MCC while Sri Lanka dilly-dallies, but even there, the Communist Party clearly instigated by China is blocking aid for a massive electrification project.
It is good that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is ignoring the election platform rhetoric and going into the merits of the MCC. He would know, however, that it is easier said than done. The US is not going to bow down so easily if it feels it gets nothing out of it. He learnt an early lesson in statecraft when he spoke before the election of renegotiating the Hambantota harbour deal, having to go back on his promise once ensconced in high office saying it’s an international agreement after all and it is the security aspect that is crucial.
It is not only the security aspect that is crucial. The Hambantota port project is a commercial loan that was turned into a debt-to-equity exercise which impacts on the country’s sovereignty. Brokers benefitted from the repayment scheme and Sri Lankan politicians on both sides of the political divide were putty in the hands of the Chinese negotiators.
Politically, the forthcoming General (Parliamentary) Election, in all likelihood during the first half of the new year, will preoccupy politicians. Finding a two-thirds majority to jettison the 19th Amendment seems to be the priority of the new President who finds himself in a straitjacket unable to even hold a ministerial portfolio. A Private Members Bill however, to change 19 A seems a desperate, almost futile bid in the making.