- The economy continues to be in trouble from sluggish economic growth to the external sector
- Economic problems inherited from Rajapaksa Govt. have hardly been addressed
- Sri Lanka’s economic woes continue and swell from one government to another
The Presidential Election later this year is going to bring out the worst of politics. The Easter Attacks and their fallout have set the stage for chauvinist and xenophobic politics. Anti-Muslim discourses long in the making are now being spread like wildfire. The simulated fears of the broader population and the construction of the Muslims as the “enemy within” have created an ideological terrain for a race to the bottom of nationalist politics.
While this ideological shift in recent months is shaping debates about the upcoming election, the economic record of the current Government will also come under scrutiny.
The economy continues to be in trouble from sluggish economic growth to the external sector moving on the knife-edge of a balance of payment of problems. More importantly, everyday economic issues including the rising cost of living, failing employment opportunities and hopelessness about their economic future have created considerable discontent.
The economic problems inherited by the current Government from the Rajapaksa Government have hardly been addressed.
"The simulated fears of the broader population and the construction of the Muslims as the “enemy within” have created an ideological terrain for a race to the bottom of nationalist politics"
Sri Lanka’s economic woes continue and swell from one government to another. Past elections and their aftermath have only focused on corruption, where policies to uplift the economic life of the people have been scant and unimplemented. With the economic frustrations of the population mounting, broader questions about the economy are going to be unavoidable during the upcoming elections.
What will be the ideological underpinnings of the election debates on the economy? As the politics of authoritarian populism gains hold around the world, where strongman leaders claim to solve the problems with populist measures, how would the candidates in Sri Lanka couch their economic programmes for the next five years? I will briefly unpack here one worrying economic programme that is gaining ground, namely economic nationalism.
Economic blame game
The global economy is again in a tailspin. The trade war, geopolitical instability and deflationary pressures are revising down global economic growth figures. Ruthless competition and tit-for-tat measures have created a blame game for the economic problems of countries, and global economic instability is on the rise with fewer avenues to address problems. The United States, which controls the international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and functioned as the global hegemon, is fast abdicating its role as the defender of global capitalist interests for the narrow concerns of Trump’s populist politics. In this, “each for its own game” within the global political economy, economic nationalism is on the rise.
It is such economic nationalism that is also starting to be peddled ahead of the elections in Sri Lanka. Which leader can outdo the other in protecting and projecting Sri Lanka’s economy? The argument is for a strong leader, a disciplinarian, perhaps even an authoritarian. The weakness of the co-habitation government over the last four years with the President and Prime Minister from different parties, and their inability to implement economic policies, whether they were flawed or not, has now created the climate for an authoritarian leader.
Next, the economic nationalist project in Sri Lanka is likely to build on the chauvinistic fears after the Easter attacks with xenophobic fears about the external sector. Safeguarding the national economy and developing it with a nationalist concentration of power, and that economic reforms and large national development projects should be pushed through at any cost in the national interest, has
In reality, other than some ideological masking and cosmetic changes to the external sector policies, any new regime that emerges on an economic nationalist platform is unlikely to shift from the neoliberal trajectory set by the Rajapaksa Government a decade ago after the war and continued by the current Government in recent years. The reason is that economic nationalism does not have a programme to address class inequalities within the country. And any economic programme with the concentration of state power will inevitably be coupled with the concentration of class power.
Furthermore, in the case of Sri Lanka in particular, class power whether it is linked to the UNP or the SLPP, is dependent on and subservient to global capital, with a comprador elite coloured by the same economic interests despite differing political rhetoric.
"With the economic frustrations of the population mounting, broader questions about the economy are going to be unavoidable during the upcoming elections"
In this context, the economic nationalist programmes gaining ground before the elections can be exposed by their inability to address inequalities and the lack of vision for the sustainable revival of working people’s economic lives. Indeed, economic nationalism with its call for the concentration of power, including authoritarian power is inimical to the idea of economic democracy with the participatory programme necessary for a people-oriented economy.
However, the traditional left and even trade union forces are now in danger of succumbing to the powerful ideological sway of economic nationalism. Therefore, unless progressive actors take forward the ideological debate on the terms of economic democracy and expose the farce of economic nationalism and its attendant social dangers of xenophobic rhetoric, the next five years if not the decade ahead is going to be a major setback for the country.
The challenge before any progressive intervention with respect to the upcoming Presidential Election is to ideologically challenge the onslaught of hyper-nationalism, both its political and economic assertions. The political scape-goating of the Muslims by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist forces and to an extent Tamil nationalists, as well as the economic call for disciplinary authoritarian power, have to be countered with a rejuvenated politics of democracy.
The concrete elements of such an economic programme will have to including strengthening free education and healthcare, social welfare including guaranteed basic incomes and pensions for the elderly to name a few. Furthermore, an economic democratic alternative cannot just be about economic justice alone but must work towards broadening the democratic freedoms of the working classes and the ethnic minorities. These are not times conducive for state power coming under a programme of economic democracy, but ideological struggle on the platform of economic democracy can at least check the serious dangers inherent in the nationalist project gaining ground with the upcoming Presidential Election.