Mick Moore, 4 January 2015
I share with Razeen Sally the hope that Maithripala Sirisena will win the forthcoming presidential election. Like Sally – and a good chunk of the Lankan electorate – I have a strong distaste for corrupt, exclusionary, authoritarian rule. I also agree with Sally that a victory for Sirisena would be, at best, only the beginning of a long process of re-establishing stable, inclusive democratic rule. The obstacles to success are deep-rooted and formidable. But Sally’s advice – that a future non-Rajapakse government should put emphasis a combination of a pro-Western (and pro-Indian) foreign policy and a more market-oriented economic policy – is unlikely to be helpful. It is not that these things would be inherently wrong. Small doses of them might actually be useful. But they are either infeasible (foreign policy) or miss the point (economic policy). In broad terms, his is the same advice that ‘the West’ has been giving Sri Lankan governments since Independence over half a century ago. It remains largely unpalatable. In the current‘Asian century’, it is often impractical or irrelevant. And it also has a poor track record.
This was the strategy eagerly embraced by the UNP government led by J. R. Jayawardene after the 1977 general elections. This apparent hero of democratic renewal quickly established the Executive Presidency, and did more than any other single national leader to undermine democratic political institutions and provoke violent Tamil separatism.
Similarly – and despite good performance in some areas – the 2001-4 UNP government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe fell in large part because of its conspicuously pro-Western foreign and pro-market economic policies. Sri Lankan voters expect their political leaders to directly address their material needs, and to share their ways of understanding and representing the world. They have never had much faith in the benevolence of ‘markets’. Their distrust of ‘the West’ is greater now than at any point in recent history. Building on a rich repertoire of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist narratives and myths, the Rajapakse regime has convinced many Sinhalese that ‘the West’ supported Tamil separatism, with the objective of weakening the country to allow foreigners to exploit its resources; that ‘human rights’ issues are a cloak for Western interests; and that only continuing firm Rajapakse political leadership can guarantee national sovereignty. To the outsider, these beliefs sound paranoid and seem absurd. It is many years since the Western nations had significant political or economic interests in Sri Lanka. But suspicion or hostility toward markets, capitalism, the West (and still, to a lesser extent, India) provided the ideological fuel for armed JVP insurgencies in 1971 and 1987-89 and remain major features of the Lankan political and electoral landscape.
The primary motivation for many Lankans voters on 8 January will be a dislike of authoritarian rule. The people who will vote for a return to pluralist democracy and constitutionalism will not generally be voting for a pro-Western (and pro-Indian) foreign policy or a more market-oriented economic policy. If a non-Rajapakse government emerges, it will have to deal with the world as it is, not as it appears through the narrow lenses of a believer in the ‘Western ideology’ (i.e. in the tight interdependence of capitalism, competitive markets, prosperity, democracy, constitutionalism and the interests of the US and other Western powers).
It would be smart for any new government to find ways of diffusing tension with the West over human rights and the issue of alleged war crimes – without leaving itself vulnerable to the charge of having caved into Western pressure. It is also likely that the next government will not be quite so close to China as has the Rajapakse regime in recent years. But the dominant foreign policy relationships will be with the sources of most potential new investment and most geo-military-political pressures: especially China and India, but also Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the Asian Development Bank. It is likely to be a changing mixture, but dominantly Asian.
The West will not matter very much. In economic policy, it would be a great mistake for any future government to give priority to a policy of economic and market liberalism that Razeen Sally suggests. There is certainly a case in principle for some more pro-market policies. But they are clearly not urgent: as Sally mentions, the Lankan economy has been growing fast – around 7% annually – despite the anti-market policy biases that he deplores. The economy is likely to continue to grow, not least because of its prime location along key sea transport routes in a regional economy that, despite its problems, continues to do well. In the Asian context, Sri Lanka has become a piece of prime real estate. Investors want it as a place to locate a wide range of activities and to build. Many Lankans will do well materially. But many won’t. The biggest long run threats to political stability in Lanka – and to the shorter term electoral popularity of the next government – lie in a combination of (a) growing economic inequality and (b) the declining effectiveness of the Lankan state in remedying some of the economic inequalities generated by (capitalist) economic growth.
The Sri Lankan state used to be very good at this latter task. From the 1940s through to the late 1970s, it achieved this through three main channels. First, it taxed relatively heavily and spent much of the proceeds on public health and education systems that brought real benefits to most people most of the time. Second, it subsidised the price of basic staples – mainly a varying mix of rice and wheat flour – through a well-administered ration system that ensured that most of the benefits went to poor people. It was the Jayawardene government elected in 1977 that began seriously to deconstruct the food ration system, with the eager assistance of the World Bank and various aid donors, who saw this as a poor use of public money. The quality and coverage of the public health and education systems have deteriorated more slowly. Observe a few fiscal trends since the late 1970s:
* The tax system has been allowed to decay, such that the proportion of GDP raised from taxes, that exceeded 20% in the late 1970s, now stands at only 13%.
* Until recently, the number of people in civilian public service posts increased steadily, leaving less and less public money to equip each public servant to do any productive work.
*Military spending increased from an extremely low base, but stayed high when the war ended.
* The food ration system was replaced by a series of increasingly-politicised so-called anti-poverty programmes (Million Houses, Samurdhi etc.) that generated jobs for political appointees but did little for the poor. In that context, it is no surprise that public spending on health and education has declined. As a proportion of GDP, public education spending is probably lower now in Sri Lanka than in any other country of South Asia. If there is a surprise, it is that this sustained fiscal attack on poor people over more than three decades has generated so little political reaction. Some of the reasons for this quiescence are evident. The separatist war mobilised voters around other issues. The politicians who might have taken the lead in mobilising the poor have either been suppressed by force or penned up, toothless, as honourable ministers enjoying high pay but little power. However, things are unlikely to stay this way forever. The more remote the separatist war and the memory of violent repression of political dissent, the more likely it is that grassroots politicians will return to mobilising voters around demands that the government address the needs of the poor as well as those of the wealthy and well-connected.
Sri Lanka needs a return to ‘class politics’. It also needs a government willing to increase taxation so that it can again fund public programmes to effectively distribute real material resources to the poor. Sri Lankans – especially richer Sri Lankans – are now significantly under-taxed by comparative international standards. The easiest and most effective way to address the needs of the poor probably would be to introduce some variant of the conditional cash transfer programmes that have proven their worth in a number of other middle income countries. These kinds of messages are unlikely to be forthcoming from Washington, Wall Street, Beijing, or any of the many other overseas power centres that will be offering advice to the next government. They will dominantly be the voices of investors, lenders and players in Asian regional geo-strategic rivalries, whose understanding of Sri Lankan politics and governance is as frail as their opinions are confident. They are unlikely to appreciate the importance policies – and policy styles – that help re-establish a sustainable social contract between the Sri Lankan state and its poorer citizens.
**** Professor MICK MOORE is a political economist. He has done extensive field research in Asia and Africa, especially Sri Lanka, Taiwan and India. He has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His broad research interests are in the domestic and international dimensions of good and bad governance in poor countries. He focuses specifically on taxation and governance, and is the founding Chief Executive Officer of the International Centre for Tax and Development.