Burying the hatchet | Daily News

Burying the hatchet

Encouraging signs emerged on Tuesday of a reunion between the estranged Unity Government partners, the UNP and the SLFP. Two high powered delegations from both parties were seen on television in convivial mood at the National Economic Council meeting presided over by President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo. The UNP was led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe while the four member SLFP delegation, led by Dr. Sarath Amunugama, also included Minister John Seneviratne, one of the vocal advocates for the SLFP forming its own government.

The NEC was set up by the President in August last year with the aim of strengthening the national economy. Yesterday's meeting focused on the need to introduce an accelerated programme to rejuvenate the national economy by introducing the necessary reforms in economic management for the country, starting next week. NEC members spoke of the immediate need for economic management and steps that should be taken on a short, medium and long term basis. The main responsibility of the NEC is to take decisions on the national economy with emphasis laid on local agriculture and industries.

Of course, it is in these two areas that the government had been found wanting, if the results of the local government elections, in the rural hinterland, is any indication. The backlash of the farmers, as a whole, was unmistakable. It was only the other day that MP Ranjith Aluvihare owned up to the failure by the government in addressing the farmers’ woes in his area. He said the fertilizer subsidy did not go into their accounts properly and that there was inordinate delay in the issue of seeds to the farmers. They (farmers) also had difficulty in disposing of their harvests, resulting in large scale destruction of their crop. Farmers, interviewed on TV, also lamented the scarcity of water for their paddy fields and the damage to crops by wild elephants and other beasts.

Of course the prevailing drought contributed in no small measure to the hardships of the farmers, who were forced to forego their seasonal cultivation and in turn were unable to pay back their agriculture loans.

Had the government paid more attention to at least some of these problems of the farmers its showing would not have been all that bad in the agricultural areas. As it were, the collective wrath of farmers descended on the government in all its might, when considering the huge majorities by which the government lost in areas such as Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Moneragala etc.

Local industrialists too had to bear heavy burdens due to the high cost of imported raw material and the fierce competition with foreign products, forcing some of these industries to put up shutters.

The government, if it is keen to see a turnaround in its electoral fortunes, should certainly get its act together and fast. Provincial Elections are slated for September, according to Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya and it has little time to deliver. But deliver, it must, if it is not to suffer another electoral reversal. Hardships faced by the middle class and upper middle class voters which form the UNPs support base, should also be looked into, in all earnest. The cost of living, like the Prime Minister admitted, played a pivotal role in alienating the vast bulk of the UNPs traditional voters. Whatever happened to the Cost of Living Committee chaired by Minister Malik Samarawickrema. It should have acted when JO MPs were bringing coconuts, rice and other consumer items to their press conferences to drive home the point to the public.

It is well known that the slapping of VAT on many consumer goods was the chief cause for the soaring prices. True, the country is saddled with an astronomical debt burden, and, like the PM explained, this was a necessary measure to rid the country from the debt trap so that the next generation will be free from this millstone round their collective necks. It was also explained that the hardship will be only for a brief period until the country is rid of its foreign debt.

But the voters are an impatient lot and are not willing to wait for two years until our debt is repaid, to ease their burdens, as demonstrated by the LG election results. The government should have learned from past elections how the cost of living impacted the result. Mrs. Bandaranaike, who won a landslide in 1970, lost humiliatingly in 1977 primarily due to the "kitchen" vote though the scarcity of essential goods too played its part.

Be that as it may, the rapprochement of the UNP and the SLFP is bound to stabilize things and allow the Unity Government to take a fresh look at the whole picture in order to ascertain where it went wrong. The electoral backlash should now make the government shake itself off its indifference, plus, state of inaction, that is ingrained in the public perception and resolve to act with determination. Above all, a combined front should be presented to the public, lest the idea of instability once again creeps into the public consciousness regarding the government.


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