By Yuri Prasad
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Sri Lankan cabinet resigns amid protests and turmoil

Political turmoil has engulfed three nations—Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Tunisia
Issue 2799
Sri Lankan protester holds placard

Sri Lankan protester opposes Rajapaksa’s rule in Colombo, 2014. (Vikalpa/Groundviews)

Sri Lanka is in the grip of an economic and political crisis so deep that one former prime minister has described it as an “Arab Spring”.

The spiralling price of food, fuel and electricity last week brought huge crowds swarming onto the streets of the capital Colombo and the central city of Kandy. Then, on Sunday, the whole of the cabinet resigned—except for the hated Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya and Mahinda, president and prime minister, respectively.

For years the family name Rajapaksa has inspired fear, based largely on the brutal atrocities committed in the final stages of the war on Tamil separatists during the country’s civil war. Now people are openly defying their near-dynastic rule and demanding they be driven from office. A protest outside president Rajapaksa’s Colombo house last week saw police fire tear gas and water cannons.

But demonstrators tore through barricades to set police buses on fire and put them under a hail of rocks, stones and rubble. “The fear factor is definitely not working the way it used to,” said Alan Keenan, from the International Crisis Group, “though repression remains an option. Sri Lanka is not out of the woods.”

The economic collapse driving the protests has spread incredibly quickly. The value of the Sri Lankan rupee has collapsed, inflation has soared to an unofficial rate of 55 percent, and the country is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The country’s two biggest trading partners, China and India, are considering a bailout, but the price they will extract will be high. 

Already China effectively owns much of Sri Lanka’s strategic assets. Yet only a few years ago the country was a model for capitalist economic development. Heavy borrowing in 2006 allowed the government to kick start the economy. The resulting boom saw output, measured by GDP, more than double by 2014, and helped create an apparently buoyant middle class. Then came the pandemic.

Tourists, who had spent nearly £4 billion in 2018, suddenly vanished. And now the government is spending 72 percent of its revenue servicing its debts. At least it could rely on the billions of pounds that Sri Lanka workers abroad sent back to their families as a source of revenue.

 

But as inflation soared, people avoided converting money from dollars to rupees and tried to bypass official currency exchanges. That put further pressure on the currency and saw prices rise further. Then came the war in Ukraine which drove up international prices of oil, wheat and other vital commodities. That final straw has driven the government into the hands of the notorious International Monetary Fund, the world’s most hated debt shark.

With no let-up for ordinary people in sight, the crisis in Sri Lanka has a long way to run. Its next victims ought to be the remaining Rajapaksas—but there are many more corrupt and self-serving rich that should also face that wrath of the poor.


Pakistan parliament dissolves to dodge vote of no-confidence

Political crisis gripped Pakistan this week as prime minister Imran Khan dissolved parliament and called for new elections. It was a move designed to thwart a no-confidence vote that was widely expected to remove him from office.

Khan’s desperate shot came as it became clear that he has lost the backing of the country’s powerful military, and the coalition of opposition parties that brought him to power in 2018. The former cricketer headed to office with pledges to stamp out corruption and redistribute Pakistan’s wealth to the poor. But few believe he has done anything of the kind.

The prices of essential goods are rising fast, and two thirds of Pakistanis claim that it is the biggest problem facing the country. “I voted for Imran Khan in 2018 but that was the biggest mistake of my life,” says Hidayat Khan, a taxi driver in the capital, Islamabad who migrated to the capital from Pakistan’s rural north west.

“In the last three years, everything has become more expensive. The worst part is that the government refuses to believe that they are at fault.”

With inflation on the rise, a recent stand-off with the military over the appointment of a new intelligence head was the cue for opposition parties to seize their moment. For all his promises, Khan has proven himself to be little better than the corrupt elite he came to power criticising. Workers and the poor would do well to trust none of the politicians that are now vying to take his place.


Major crisis hits Tunisia  

Tunisian president Kais Saied dissolved the country’s parliament last week after it voted to reject his power grab. Saied launched a coup in August last year, freezing parliament, sacking the prime minister and handing himself more powers. 

The power grab marked an assault on the last democratic gains of the Arab revolutions of 2010-2011. Tunisian MPs voted in an online meeting to repeal the decrees he used to grant himself near total power. 

Saied announced he would dissolve the parliament in response, and said he could have MPs arrested. Saied was elected president in 2019 and won support from many ordinary people who are fed up with poverty and corruption.  Many people became disillusioned with the revolution, which began in 2010, as the process stalled.

Yet Saied has no alternative to the free market policies behind people’s misery. People are suffering severe food shortages. And several thousand people protested in the capital city Tunis last month against Saied’s takeover.

Nick Clark

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