Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • November 2020
    M T W T F S S

Ruwan Wijewardena UNP Leader – in – waiting

Posted by harimpeiris on September 17, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 17th September 2020)

Former MP and State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardena, was recently elected UNP Deputy Leader and consequently the leader-in-waiting, by that besieged party’s working committee. For a party, which has only a single National List seat in parliament, on which it cannot agree who should be nominated and which received less than half the votes, the fourth placed JVP did, the rather long drawn out process of finally replacing its leader, has begun. That this leadership transition only formally began once the party had been all but wiped off the electoral map, is a testament to the anachronistic nature of the UNP’s internal decision-making processes. The UNP’s only contribution to current politics was to weaken the opposition and enable the SLPP to secure a two-third majority in parliament.

Wijewardenas Replace Senanayakes as UNP’s First Family

The electoral defeat of the UNP, in the 1970 general election, witnessed the end of the domination of that party’s leadership by the Senanayake family and saw a transition to the Wijewardena family, the maternal wing of both JR Jayawardena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, with a brief interlude for the leaderships of Ranasinghe Premadasa and DB Wijetunga.

A similar situation was also witnessed in the UNP’s arch rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was dominated, since inception, by that party’s founding family, the Bandaranaikes’, which domination ran its natural course for over half a century, since 1951, and witnessed a more natural and dignified transition to a fellow founding member’s clan, the Rajapakse family, in 2005.

The Wijewardena clan can also celebrate a half century, since 1970, of dominating the United National Party (UNP) leadership, even at the expense of finally running the party to the ground. The clan’s control and near dominance of the party leadership has certainly not run its course. Accordingly, it was no surprise, at least to this analyst, that from a crowded field of pretenders to the UNP throne, ranging from Karu Jayasuriya to Naveen Dissanayake and including such colourful figures as Ravi Karunanayake and Arjuna Ranatunga, that the soft spoken and relative new comer to politics, Ruwan Wijewardena, would receive the nod from his near kinsman and by extension the rest of the handpicked working committee, to take over the now nearly defunct party.

The SJB Option or Perish

Ruwan Wijewardena, the UNP leader-in-waiting, whom media reports state has to wait, yet still more, till next year, to take over the party, has only one realistic course of action open to him. It is the only viable option for a party with a grand history but no future. That option is for the UNP to become a constituent party of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), rather like the JHU and the other regional parties. However, for this option to take place, Mr. Wijewardena must be prepared to accept, or enforce, the easing upstairs or retirement from politics of some of those, whom the SJB correctly believes to be liabilities rather than assets in its attempts to be a credible check and balance and eventually a viable alternative to the Rajapaksa led SLPP government. The UNP’s only hope for survival, even as a shadow of its former self, is in the shade and as a part of the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). This option is similar from the other side of the aisle, most obviously to the course taken by the SLFP under former President Maithripala Sirisena or even the Dinesh Gunawardena-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) – both parties with proud histories, but with no future on its own.

However, the odd thing with the UNP leadership contest is that despite having no real option than join the SJB, the UNP leader-in-waiting has to parrot the mantra, that he will be rebuilding the party to its grand old days. There were breakaway parties that believed that having the party nameboard, the head office premises, and the symbol, was what popular or public support was all about and were rudely surprised to realize that this is in fact not so. In the Tamil polity, the best example would be the TULF, still around under veteran leader V. Anandasangari, but despite fielding candidates, under its well-known rising sun symbol, which was in 1977, the second largest party in parliament, is now existent, only in name.

A Second Decimation in the PC Polls

There is a significant preference, within the SLPP, to have the provincial council polls. This preference comes mainly from the compelling internal need to provide secondary positions to party loyalists and activists who were unable to enter parliament. Doing so sooner rather than later, will help keep the opposition off balance. Having the PC polls, will also remove a potential irritant in the relationship with India. However, for the UNP, a pending PC polls, sans a tie up with the SJB, spells near doom. Superficial analysis which assumes that the UNP will retain the 2% of the national vote, or 250,000 votes country wide, which it garnered in the August parliamentary elections, is naïve. The UNP, if it contests alone, will be again wiped out, but worse. At the general election, there was some doubt, however small, about whether it would be the SJB or the UNP which would emerge on top, in the battle to be number two. Now that doubt not only no longer exists, but the UNP has such weak public appeal, that it polled less than half the JVP vote and failed to secure a single district seat in parliament. UNP support or the famed party machinery, has conclusively and permanently moved lock, stock and barrel to the SJB. Should young Mr. Ruwan Wijewardena seek to roll back the clock and have a rematch on the fight with the SJB, he would fare far worse than his cousin Ranil Wickremesinghe did. If on the contrary he accepts the political leadership of Sajith Premadasa and crafts a course for the UNP, which challenges the SLPP Government and is steadfastly a part of the opposition, he will generate for the UNP, a new lease of life and a new path, not as a leading party, whose heyday is over, but as an appendage to the SJB, in much the same way as the SLFP and the MEP are within the SLPP.

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The Challenges facing Sambanthan and the TNA

Posted by harimpeiris on August 27, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 26th August 2020)

The recent election results reveal interesting changes in Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. The predominant representative of the Tamil people, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which contest elections under its largest constituent party, the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), saw its share of the national vote decline, from 4.6%, in 2015 to 2.8% in 2020. Its parliamentary representation correspondingly declined from 16 MPs in 2015 to 10 MPs in the 9th Parliament of Sri Lanka. The good news for the TNA is that its popular support has roughly held steady from since the 2018 local government elections, where it secured 3% of the popular vote. So, those who voted for TNA, in 2018, supported them again in 2020. Whatever support it lost, it lost between 2015 and 2018, as the Sirisena/Wickemesinghe administration opened up democratic space and hence diversity in Tamil politics, but grossly underperformed on delivery amidst high expectations.

Rajavarothian Sampanthan, the TNA’s veteran leader and sole Tamil MP, from his native Trincomalee, is a former Leader of the Opposition and one of the senior-most MPs in the legislature, having first entered Parliament, in 1977. The TNA, will face major challenges to safeguard the interests of the Tamil community, during the ensuing term of the now super majority mandated Rajapakse SLPP Administration, intent on constitutional reforms. There are at least three major political challenges, that Rajavarothian Sambanthan needs to deal with.

1st challenge is Tamil tactical voting in 2019 and 2020

An interesting feature of the Tamil vote is that it votes en-bloc at presidential elections but subsequently diversifies in the ensuing general election. In the November 2019 presidential elections, the Tamil majority Jaffna District voted 84% in favour of Sajith Premadasa, with Gotabaya Rajapakse garnering only 6% of the vote and similarly in the Batticaloa District, Sajith Premadasa received 78% of the vote, while President Gotabaya Rajapakse secured just 12%. This was similar to prior presidential elections as well, where the Tamil votes go en bloc. What was different this time around is that in the ensuing parliamentary elections, the Tamil voters, diversified their electoral support. So, the TNA, needs to understand why and then deal with the reality that regional Tamil political parties, such as Karuna’s AITM, or Pilliyan’ s TMVP, who cannot influence the Tamil voter for a “national presidential candidate”, can still at the parliamentary elections, ally and align themselves with a president and a party, the Tamil voters have repudiated at presidential polls and use that alliance to defeat the TNA. A variant of that also holds true in Jaffna. Gajen Ponnambalam and CV Wigneswaren, did not expressly call for a presidential election boycott but scorned both presidential candidates and did not seek to turn out the Tamil vote in the presidential elections. The TNA did and delivered hugely for Sajith Premadasa. But the same voters, then deserted the TNA in the parliamentary polls.

The first challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to understand, why Tamil voters trust the TNA during presidential politics at the centre, but not regarding constituency politics.

2nd challenge; hold the moderate centre from further assault

The TNA is facing both a pragmatic and a hardline assault. It is being successfully attacked from both the left and the right wings and succumbing to pressure on both fronts. Using the pragmatic argument for collaborating with the government at the Centre, political parties such as the TMVP in Batticaloa and the AITM in Digamadulla (Ampara), interestingly, led by those with a history deeply embedded in the LTTE, have made serious inroads into the TNA’s support base, with just 11,700 votes separating the TNA from the TMVP in Batticalo. In Ampara the TNA actually lost to the AITM, 6.5% to 7.5%. Consequently, neither party elected a member from the Ampara District. The first time since State Council days, when no Tamil member would have represented Ampara until the TNA decided that its sole National List seat should go to one of its unsuccessful candidates in Ampara to ensure some Tamil representation in that district. In the Eastern province, the competition for resources have resulted in Tamil areas being vastly underdeveloped, as ministers from the Muslim parties have developed their constituencies and Sinhala villages have also expanded. The never-hold-government-office creed of Tamil nationalism is losing the argument in the Eastern Province.

In the Jaffna district, the collaborate-with-the centre argument has also had significant success, not only with the increase of the EPDP’s vote share from 10% to 12% from 2015 to 2020, (actually 16.5% if the EPDP breakaway Chandra Kumar’s Jaffna Independent Group 5 district vote of 4.5% is counted as well). Most spectacular with the reemergence of the SLFP in Jaffna with a lavishly spending Angajan Ramanathan, garnering 13.75% of the popular vote, especially among the youth. So, a full 35% or more than one-third of the Jaffna electorate has supported strong collaboration with the government at the centre, as reflected by the votes of the EPDP, the SLFP, Independent Group 5 together with the SJB’s 4% and the UNP’s 1% of the Jaffna district vote.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum in Jaffna, lies a more hardline Tamil nationalism articulated by the Tamil Congress (AITC) of Gajen Ponnambalam and the TMTK, the newly minted political apparatus of TNA breakaway, CV Wigneswaren, which garnered 15% and 10% of the popular vote respectively. The hardliner Tamil nationalism attracts only about 25% of the Jaffna vote and does not have support outside the Jaffna peninsula, attracting just 4% each of the vote in the Vanni district of the North. It fares disastrously in the Eastern Province, the AITC and the TMTK receiving only 0.5% and 1.6% in the Tamil majority Batticalo District and 1% and 0.5% in Trincomalee and being nonexistent in Ampara. The Tamil nationalist creed of first a political solution and then economic development has no resonance in the East, in the Vanni or among Tamil youth.

The second challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to expand the TNA’s politics to include Tamil economic and developmental interests, together with the political, cultural and social rights it is more familiar with.

3rd Challenge; empowering younger leaders and internal cohesion

The failed political leadership transition on full national display with regards to the United National Party(UNP) and earlier with regard to the SLFP/UPFA should provide a salutary and sobering lesson to the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi and the TNA, on the need to empower their next generation of leaders and post-election, to stop the interparty and intraalliance bickering and political sniping that is regrettably a part of both our preferential voting system and the regular jockeying for political influence. There was a clear choice facing Jaffna District TNA voters in this election and they have made their choice, clearly and unambiguously, even against the thrust of Tamil media and other elites, who backed their favourites but lost the election. It is noteworthy that social media is losing the power of the poison pen. It is time for those who lost the election to make way for the younger and proven elected leadership.

The third challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to ensure that a future Tamil political leadership that can hear the Tamil voice locally, engage the government at the centre nationally and speak to the international community globally is clearly designated and empowered.

The Rajapaksas and the SLPP have done what everyone thought was politically impossible. They have unifed the majority Sinhala vote, consequently marginalised the Muslim vote and divided the minority Tamil vote. To deal with that reality and defend a more pluralistic vision of Sri Lanka and represent Tamil interests effectively over the medium to long term, Rajavarothian Sambanthan and the TNA have their work cut out for them.

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Election 2020 – An Analysis and Trends

Posted by harimpeiris on August 18, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 07th August 2020)

The general election to parliament is concluded and the official results are out. The anticipated landslide victory to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has materialised with the SLPP winning a grand total of 145 seats through garnering a total of approximately 6.8 million votes or 59% of the valid votes cast. Through its stated allies, the SLFP (1 seat), the EPDP (2 seats), the TMVP (1 seat) and others in the pro-government political space, it has effectively reached the two-thirds majority it craved, or 150 seats, in the 225-member legislature.

The winning SLPP

The SLPP retained the 6.9 million votes it secured in the November 2019 presidential election, with just about one hundred thousand votes less. This in a situation where voter turnout was very much lower. The SLPP’s performance in the 2020 election is very impressive in many ways and is comparable to the Rajapaksa’s finest political hour, their parliamentary election victory back in 2010, just after ending the war. There the SLPP’s predecessor, the UPFA, garnered 60% of the popular vote and 144 seats. That this target was matched, and in fact surpassed without the trump card of ending the war, shows the scale and extent of what the SLPP has achieved politically this time around. In reality, the SLPP has improved on its 2010 performance. Much more than in 2010, the political discourse and public debate is completely dominated by the Administration, its ideologues and political fellow travellers, aided in no small measure by a dominant section of the private electronic media. Now effectively armed with a two-thirds majority, the country can await the newly elected SLPP Government’s policy priorities, which we should all hope will be ensuring that the Covid-19 pandemic does not translate into a national economic disaster, as our tourism, foreign remittances and other exports take a beating.

The newly minted Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) opposition  

An equally important story of the 2020 general election has been the demise of the United National Party (UNP) and its replacement by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by the UNP’s former deputy leader and now Opposition Leader designate, former Cabinet Minister and November 2019’s runner up presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa. The SJB came in admittedly a distant second to the winners. But the SJB, in securing 24% of the popular vote and 54 parliamentary seats, is roughly comparable to the UNP’s 29% popular vote and 60 seats in the 2010 parliamentary election, which was a sufficient spring board for the opposition to make an electoral comeback victory in 2015. Two SJB partner parties, the SLMC and the ACMC, secured a seat each under their own colours, having an effective SJB parliamentary group of 56 members of parliament.

Sajith Premadasa and the SJB answered loud and clear as to who is leader of the non-Rajapaksa political space and who is, however small today, the “alternative government” as political oppositions are known in democratic practice. The UNP had an unheralded and unprecedented demise. Failing to win a single seat in any district, it secured a dismal 2% of the total vote, or approximately 250,000 votes country wide and only approximately 30,000 odd votes in Colombo District, signalling that the UNP is now a historical monument rather than an electorally viable political force. The refusal of the UNP to be a part of the SJB critically weakened the opposition and contributed to the scale of the SLPP victory. Even now the rump UNP, perhaps under Naveen Dissanayake or Ravi Karunanayake, should accept the verdict of the opposition voters and join the SJB as its junior-most partner.

The SJB has a monumental task ahead to stand up to the SLPP juggernaut but young Premadasa had been standing up to the Rajapaksas in their native Hambantota ever since he cut his teeth in politics down south, away from his late father’s real base, the city of Colombo, to which he has now returned. Colombo city’s cosmopolitan, pluralistic society switched its allegiance from its traditional UNP and was en mass true to Sajith Premadasa and SJB, which even in the landslide victories of 2020, 2010 or even back in 1956 has always eluded and rejected the harder ethnic nationalist appeal.

The third place TNA/ITAK

The third place in Parliament in 2020 was predictably, though with considerably reduced numbers, secured by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), contesting through its main constituent, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan from Trincomalee. His hometown comfortably returned him to the legislature for yet another term.

Tamil politics has changed since the end of the war in 2009 with the TNA coming into its own and, to some extent, filling the political space left by the demise of the LTTE, which insisted on claiming the mantle of “sole representative of the Tamil people”. The TNA in the 2010 parliamentary election secured 2.9% of the popular vote and 14 seats, its finest hour being the 2015 parliamentary election in which it secured 4.6% of the national vote and 16 seats. Now in 2020 it is back to where it started in 2010 with 2.8% of the popular vote and 10 seats in parliament. It secured approximately 233,000 votes in 2010, 515,000 votes in 2015 and 327,000 votes in 2020. However, it has been significantly challenged from both ends of the political spectrum, showing that the moderate centre Tamil politics, best showcased TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran, is under serious pressure and has to listen and learn from the message of the Tamil electorate and has hard work to do to retain its pre-eminent position as the “chief or main representative” of the Tamil people. Not only did their closest competitors the AITC and the EPDP come distant second and third place with 67,766 and 61,464 votes respectively but both parties made any impression only in the Northern Province. The TNA/ITAK is the only Tamil party with equal attraction and presence in both the North and the East and moves beyond particular regions and Tamil caste communities.

The leftwing JVP

Sri Lanka’s traditional left vote, once dominated by the LSSP and the Communist Party of yore, is now clearly in the hands of the JVP as its standard bearer. The JVP actually improved on its 2019 presidential election result, the only party to do so, moving up marginally from approximately 418,000 votes to 445,000 votes at the parliamentary election with 3.8% of the popular vote, up from 3.1% at the November election. However, its seat count declined from the 7 seats it secured in the 2015 parliamentary elections to 3 in 2020, its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayke, Vijitha Herath and a yet undecided national list seat making up the small parliamentary group. The JVP will be important allies for the SJB in creating a more cohesive political opposition to the SLPP and the SJB is well advised to be inclusive in parliamentary time and other facilities to the small ideological opposition political party.

The jury is back and the verdict is out. The Rajapakse Administration and its political vehicle, the SLPP, has a mandate to govern. The hope indeed should be that it would seek to move beyond the divisive rhetoric of the campaign trail, seek to be tolerant and inclusive in a pluralist society, respect democratic norms and freedoms, govern more through parliament and less through militarised task forces and settle down to the hard work of getting our nation and economy out of the Covid-19-induced slump we are in. All Sri Lankans should wish our newly elected government well for them to pursue our common good and shared destiny.

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An Agenda to Centralize Power

Posted by harimpeiris on July 16, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 15th July 2020)

The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) handsomely won November’s presidential election with 52% of the popular vote and is accordingly the clear favorite and front runner to secure victory at the forthcoming general elections to Parliament. Further politically consolidating its premier position has been the post-election development where the political opposition has badly fragmented. A United National Party (UNP) faction led by former PM Ranil Wickramasinghe grabbed the party name and symbol and decamped from the new opposition alliance, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and is contesting the elections independently, with political nonentities similar to the sorry plight of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) sans the Rajapakses . This development has seen the UNP more critical of the SJB, rather than of the Government and seemingly being more allied with the Rajapakse led SLPP. In a continuation of the disastrous politics of 2015-2019, where both Prime Minster Wickramasinghe and President Sirisena, competed to woo the Rajapakses as political allies, only to see the politically shrewd Rajapakses, besting them both and winning the presidential poll in 2019. Now former president Sirisena is merely a candidate, not even the district leader, from his native Polonnaruwa district on the SLPP ticket and Mr. Wickremasinghe’s UNP is running a campaign as an appendage of the SLPP. Consider for instance, in contrast, the strident independent critique of the SLPP government and governance, articulated by the JVP and the UNP’s own lackluster campaign is one of seeking to further undermine and divide the opposition vote from within. Consequently, the UNP is badly trailing the SJB in the polls and likely to end a distant fifth place finish in Parliament behind the SLPP, the SJB, the TNA and the JVP, with a few seats mainly from the Western Province and the national list.

A political not a constitutional problem

The governing SLPP has certainly not been shy about its intentions, post-election and has been busy trying to secure a two third majority in parliament to repeal the 19th amendment to our constitution. The democratic reforms enhancing, independent institution creating and checks and balances strengthening component of our constitution. Which was probably the signature achievement of the previous government. Enacted early in its term and actually while it was a minority in Parliament. The leading lights of the SLPP government were all in Parliament at that time and the amendment passed near unanimously. To justify their volte face and the sudden desire to repeal the amendment, the Government is making some simplistic arguments which nonetheless warrant serious attention, because it is the policy of a government in office, who are favorites to win the election.

The main argument used by the SLPP in favor of repealing the 19th amendment is that the said amendment was the cause of the disfunction within the previous government, which was a coalition. Further that it caused friction between the President and the Prime Minister. Firstly, and most importantly, the friction between former President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, was not a constitutional problem but a political one. They were political allies, whose natural political rivalry was mutually, so completely mismanaged that they became political opponents. The SLPP has argued that to prevent such a friction between the President and the Prime Minister, the first and second citizens of the State, must both be from the same party and ideally from the same family. Since the Rajapakse family is currently ruling, as president and prime minister and is indeed seeking a renewed mandate, this writer has no intention of publicly speculating about the political unity or otherwise of the current rulers.

Unifying through common values

We can examine this thesis, of party and family political unity, from recent Sri Lankan political history. Ranil Wickramasinghe and Sajith Premadasa were from the same political party, the UNP, and in fact generationally so but this did not prevent them, latterly in government and now in opposition, of going their separate political ways. Ranil loyalists did not support Sajith’s presidential candidacy or campaign and are now contesting elections separately. A bit further down memory lane, the most notable political siblings in the past were Chandrika and Anura Bandaranaike and their own political divergence, witnessed the two siblings on rival political platforms on many occasions. The Gandhi’s of India and the Bhutto’s in Pakistan, also demonstrate that having the same last (family) name and being part of the clan, does not necessarily lead to the absence of political rivalry. Sri Lanka’s ancient monarchial history also dictates that ruling families more often than not fought each other rather than stayed cohesively together.  Centralized power has been the solution proposed by the SLPP, because they define Sri Lanka’s problem as one of politically weak leadership and non-professional governance, which has not been able to implement a political program. A serious problem with the SLPP vision of course, is its desire to strengthen and solidify what LTTE suicide bomb victim, constitutional lawyer and former MP late Neelen Tiruchelvam described as the “anomaly of imposing a mono-ethnic state on a multi ethnic (religious) society’. The alternate definition of Sri Lanka’s problem and our lack of progress and indeed decline since our most promising economic situation at independence, was a mismanagement of ethnoreligious relations, together with shrinking the democratic space and freedoms along with the desire to internally divide and thereby rule, which witnessed armed rebellions against the state, in both the Sinhala South and the Tamil speaking North, the former with a leftist ideology and the latter with a separatist one. The post war return, from conflict and emergency rule, to a decency and common prosperity for all, lies much more in a moderate, democratic, pluralist and tolerant government and governance under the rule of law, rather than a jackboot, militaristic, authoritarian and majoritarian ethno-religious political program being proposed through centralization and concentration of power, with impunity. As the old African proverb says ‘if you want to go quickly go alone, if you want to go far, go together”.

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Did Expert Committee use similar standards evaluating MCC and Port City loans?

Posted by harimpeiris on July 8, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 08th July 2020)

Sri Lanka has at least US Dollars one and a half billion (USD $1.5B) debt repayment due later this year and both the status of the global economy in the Covid-19 environment and our own vulnerabilities caused through the pandemic, namely the total curtailment of foreign tourism, the drastic drop in expatriate worker earnings and reduced earnings from exports such as apparel, together with fiscal slippage, has downgraded our international credit ratings and made access to international financial markets prohibitively expensive.  Though our trade balance has been assisted in no small measure by the curtailment of vehicle imports and historically low global crude oil prices, (not passed on to the Sri Lankan public), we still have serious economic challenge ahead, especially with regards our foreign reserves, balance of payments and exchange rate. Pending subsequent confirmation through Central Bank numbers, in all probability, we are in a period of negative economic growth, increasing unemployment and rising inflation, or stagflation. Stagnant growth with inflation.  

It is in this context, that with much fanfare, an “Expert Committee”  was tasked by the SLPP Administration, to examine the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant compact, which had drawn heavy fire from the SLPP even while in Opposition and rather predictably, last week the  Expert Committee, gave in their report, which is to be first given to the Cabinet of Ministers and then made publicly available. Predictably the Government’s experts have determined that the MCC grant compact had clauses which were “detrimental to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka and in violation of her constitution” and on those grounds it is to be rejected. 

The issue that arises is whether the SLPP and the its experts use the same criteria and standards when evaluating the MCC grant with the Port City loans and project. The SLPP, or its predecessor the UPFA Administration of 2010-2014, never saw a Chinese project with high priced loans, during that era, which it did not like and as experience has shown continues to be of very limited public or economic value. From the Port City to the Hambanthota Harbor, including the Mattala Airport, these white elephants are costly and unused. 

Firstly, the Expert Committee seemed to have come to a conclusion on “sovereignty” and “constitutionality” of the MCC grant compact (agreement), though the expertise of the committee was more economics and specifically public transportation rather than law and especially constitutional law. Generally speaking, all international agreements are run through the Attorney General’s department, which is the appropriate place for examination of constitutionality. There were no AG Dept seniors or constitutional lawyers among the experts, so one wonders how they came to conclusions on matters of constitutional law and sovereignty, which rather like justice is a challenging concept to be dealing with at the best of times. Conversely the Experts seemed to have made not much comment on their field of expertise, which is public transportation, a prime focus of the MCC grant.

The MCC grant compact did try and cut through some bureaucratic red tape, as does any foreign investment, in a concept similar to a Free Trade Zone, or through the BOI for fast tracked approvals. Sri Lanka has not significantly reformed our colonial era, pre-computerization bureaucratic procedures despite all the nationalistic rhetoric from our political platforms. This red tape is a serious constraint for the local SME sector, foreign investment and overall economic growth. 

Evaluating between the Port City and all Chinese projects and the MCC grant, the biggest difference, in that the MCC is a grant, a gift if you like, that is non repayable. A half a billion, dollar grant is no joke. In contrast, all the Chinese projects have been loans, generally at interest rates of about six percent and or higher, at a considerable premium to the international benchmark of LIBOR for US dollars. So, the experts of the SLPP actually prefer in practice, high priced loans to free money.  

The Chinese projects of the previous Rajapakse Administration’s era, were also all infrastructure related, a port, an airport and in the Port City, high priced apartments, hotels and office space. Looking around Colombo, we certainly don’t seem short of either high priced apartments or office space, hardly the priority. In fact, we are dangerously close to an asset bubble and Colombo is full of empty apartments. What we are short of though and do have a serious problem with is, transportation and traffic management, with the estimates of GDP lost or foregone due to congestion caused productivity losses being as high as one and a half to two percent annually or about one and a half billion dollars a year. A significant part of the MCC grant or about USD $350 million out of the total of $500 million, was all about addressing this issue or improving inter-provincial roads, improving access to markets, reducing transportation related losses on agriculture and lowering transport time and hence costs for industry. 

Another developmental constraint for Sri Lanka is efficient land usage. The solution is not reclaiming a few hectares of land from the sea at billions of dollars, while causing serious environmental damage, down the coast. It is efficient use of the land we do have. The MCC grant was to enable the government to compile a complete inventory of all state lands and to improve the evaluation system of all lands. Also, to build on the Government’s e-Land Registry initiative and to improve the Deeds Registry by digitizing existing records. Additionally, to improve tenure security for all land holders by moving properties from the archaic deeds system to a title registration system and while funding research to improve land administration policies. These are all international best practice in public administration of land.  Of course, efficient use of land, has a lot of opponents, from politically connected land grabbers to the use of state land through patronage, to the lucrative but archaic legal practice of writing deeds, which is open to fraud, as we regularly see and is also costly.The reality is we have looked a gift horse in the mouth, in a highly visible demonstration of double standards and given up the opportunity to increase our GDP growth by perhaps 1.5% annually, through an investment, which is a gift rather than a loan. We should all hope, that post-election sanity will prevail. 

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