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Rocking the Cradle while Pinching the Baby

17 Feb 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

The President, in his policy statement said “However, contentment with this progress alone is not sufficient… By September 2023 our total debt burden was US $ 91 billion

One of the main points that were highlighted by the media from the policy statement presented by President Ranil Wickremesinghe on February 7 after opening of the new session of the Parliament was the need for unity among major political parties in Parliament. 
He questioned as to why the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) cannot join the government if the Sri Lanka Podujana Permuna (SLPP) can do so in the interest of the country. He also questioned as to why the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) could not join hands with his government if they could work with his party in 2015 with a view to eradicate corruption. 
Again, at a function to mark the inauguration of the Anuradhapura North Water Supply Project on Thursday, the President reiterated his call for unity among political parties.
“United we stand, divided we fall” is a widely used motto. “Unity is strength” is another quote that has been used from time immemorial. We are taught the value of unity at schools and by our religious leaders. Hence, it is a nice idea, no doubt. 
What the President means by his call to the political parties is not clear. Does he mean that the political parties should come forward to share and carry out responsibilities that are needed to develop the economy? Are he and the ruling parties prepared to do so? Or does he mean to appoint the members of the Opposition parties as Ministers? Or what he wants the Opposition parties to do is nothing but just to refrain from criticizing 
the government. 

The President during his policy statement painted a rosy picture of the current situation of the country by comparing the situation in 2022 and now. He said that the government was able to ease the economic hardships faced by the people. However, except for the absence of queues for fuel and cooking gas, the struggle faced by the majority of the people in the country to make ends meet has not changed. 
The government was able to end frustration over weeks long and miles long queues by obtaining further loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international lenders, imposing taxes on various sections of the masses and increasing electricity tariffs to incredible heights. The government does not seem to have any other plan or strategy to repay the loans and develop the economy. Hence, sharing responsibilities sounds amusing. 
On the other hand, he could not have meant to share cabinet portfolios since he has been refusing to give in to the pressure exerted by the SLPP for the past one and a half years to expand the Cabinet by including some of its leading members in it. Then, does unity means nothing but toeing the line of the government in its every move? If so, this is the mildest way to silence the Opposition. 
Although he is calling for unity, citing the SLPP’s joining hands with his party two years ago as an example, the ‘marriage’ then did not happen on any policy basis. It was merely an arrangement by circumstances for the survival of both parties in the face of the Aragalaya, the unprecedented public uprising against the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government. It was not an arrangement for salvaging the economy or developing the country. 
In fact, Wickremesinghe accepted the responsibility of Prime Minister, as the other Opposition parties did not respond positively when Gotabaya Rajapaksa who had been beleaguered by the economic factors first called for unity among 
political parties. 

Rajapaksa had sacked two of his Ministers, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila on March 3, 2022, but accepted a request by them for a discussion. They, during the discussion, suggested to form an interim all-party government, the motive of which was clear, and Rajapaksa agreed to it. Accordingly, the President, on April 1, 2022, instructed his Cabinet to resign and called the Opposition parties to join the Cabinet. But there were no takers, not even those who suggested the move due to public upheaval. Wickremesinghe, instead supported the “GotaGoHome” protest. 
Yet another irony was that Wickremesinghe – even after he assumed office as Prime Minister on May 14, 2022 amidst the turmoil that followed the attack on the protesters by the supporters of the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – expressed solidarity with the Aragalaya. It was an interesting decision; he on the one hand accepted Gotabaya’s unity call and the Premiership, yet on the other, instructed Colombo Mayor, Rosy Senanayake to provide facilities to the protesters who were hell bent on ousting President Rajapaksa. He said he would appoint a committee headed by the Deputy Leader of his party, Ruwan Wijewardene for the same purpose. It was a well-known fact that if the President stepped down willingly or was compelled to by the circumstances, the Prime Minister would take over. 
It really happened on July 9, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country. Wickremesinghe took oaths as the President on July 20 and ordered a crackdown on the protesters which in turn cemented the possibility of his election as the President by Parliament for the rest of Gotabaya’s term. These were the circumstances that united the UNP and the SLPP. It was merely a tryst of the struggles of the two parties for survival. There was no agreement or at least a discussion on the recovery of the economy.

And interestingly, both parties were keen to show that they did not have such agreements between them even after that. On the day the Parliament elected Wickremesinghe as President, he, in response to a question by a foreign journalist stated that he was not a friend of the Rajapaksas while the SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa told the media that he voted for Dalles Alahapperuma at the Parliamentary vote for the election of the President. Nobody believed either of the remarks.
They continued to show the ironic combination of the absence of policy basis for their relationship and the circumstantial compulsion for it. For instance, Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a statement criticizing President Wickremesinghe’s tax policy on December 20, after his party having played the main role in passing the highly controversial Value Added Tax (Amendment) Bill, nine days before. 
The government should have respected the democratic rights of the Opposition before inviting it for unity. The way how it scuttled the conducting of local government elections despite a Supreme Court ruling not to withhold funds allocated for the purpose, and moves to bring in repressive laws such as the controversial Online Safety Act and the Anti-Terrorism Bill have widened the already vast gulf between the ruling parties and the Opposition parties. 
Unity is suggested primarily for the recovery of the economy for which the government has only the programme involving the IMF with it. However, it is a temporary programme to address the immediate issues, and not a long-term development process. The President also, in his very policy statement said “However, contentment with this progress alone is not sufficient… By September 2023 our total debt burden was US $ 91 billion. It will take a considerable period of time to settle this debt. In order to meet our debt, we need to source the funds locally. It is imperative that we generate this income; otherwise, we risk falling into the debt trap once again.”  

Hence, unity should not be a move for the survival of political parties and politicians or an effort to weaken the Opposition which is against democracy. The need of the hour is for the experts in all parties to formulate an economic plan to address the short-term and long-term issues which the country is faced with.