Speaking at the Indian Economic Summit early October in New Delhi, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the following:
“We are planning to negotiate with the USA after the presidential election. In preparation for this, we have set aside about 500 acres for a golf course and a Trump building.”
He was joking, of course, but his quip captured the essence of what many were feeling about the candidacy of Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump: it was nothing more than a meme ‒ nothing worthy of serious consideration. There was no way in hell he was actually going to win.
Just one month later, Trump took everyone by surprise in a historic victory that left the world stunned. A crass, inexperienced, loose cannon of a man who outgoing US President Barack Obama publicly said was “uniquely unqualified” to be President was going to be the most powerful man on the planet for at least four years, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him. (Nothing legal, anyway).
Political analysts to the left of the spectrum have since performed all sorts of mental gymnastics to make sense of Trump’s upset, with some pundits ‒ perhaps rightly ‒ attributing it to a growing sense of neglect and disenfranchisement felt by working class white voters. The mainstream, mostly liberal Western media’s “a backward demagogue like Trump couldn’t possibly win in these socially progressive times” narrative was dead, and the postmortem required a nuanced approach. Blanket statements like “most Trump voters are racists/misogynists/Klan members” were unhelpful at best and at worst presented a dangerously wrong reading of the outcome of arguably the most important US election in recent history.
Others have suggested that Trump’s victory, like #Brexit before that, was indicative of a larger, more global rise in xenophobia, widely seen as a response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Nationalist sentiment was at an all-time high in many parts of the West since the end of the second World War, with far-right movements in Europe and elsewhere scurrying to exploit the economic and social insecurities of majority communities in their respective constituencies.
The real reasons for Trump’s victory probably lie somewhere in the in the middle of these two possibilities, as further dissection of the election results will no doubt reveal in the weeks ahead. But suffice to say this was an election that has left America deeply fractured politically, with analysts hard-pressed to find a more divided time in the country’s recent electoral past. In a global perspective, Trump’s confusing foreign policy is not helping matters, leaving governments everywhere scratching their heads wondering what to do. Being the world’s sole superpower, as the pithy saying goes, අැමරිකාවට හෙම්බිරිස්සාවක් හැදුනහම ලෝකෙට උණ ගන්නවා or when America gets a cold, the rest of the world gets a fever (although, an argument can be made that its once strong geopolitical relevence is gradually waning), and Sri Lanka, it seems, is already showing some symptoms.
Sri Lanka Reacts
Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, who has long been an advocate of protectionist economic policies, has gone on record attributing Trump’s victory to a global trend in protectionist trends.
“When we look at the US presidential election and Brexit, what is clear is the global trend towards protectionism and nationalisation. Globalisation and free trade are no longer valid,” he was quoted as saying. A bold statement, given his present influential position in the trade liberalisation-friendly UNP Government.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa published a note on his official Facebook page congratulating President-elect Donald Trump:
“Your presidential election campaign was followed closely throughout the world because the issues you fought the election on resonated far beyond the borders of the USA. With your election as President of the United States, we look forward to a new world order based on the principles of the sovereign equality of all nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of nation states,” he said.
In his note addressed directly to Trump, Rajapaksa recalled with gratitude the cooperation extended to his government by the Bush administration in combating terrorism. Though not a controversial statement in itself, the patriotic undertones in the letter and the nationalist interpretation of Trump’s victory should be obvious. A little less obvious is the possible expectation that a future Trump administration will not support any UNHRC investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.
Trump will be the first president in US history with zero political experience. Being a businessman who has never held any kind of political office, the Donald has been described as an anti-establishment outsider that offered an alternative to corrupt career politicians who have done little to fight for the rights of the average (read white) Joe. Words like “Trump cannot be bought; lobbyists have no sway over him; #draintheswamp” could be heard throughout on the campaign trail.
In this backdrop, the following tweet is of considerable interest, to say the least.
— Gotabaya Rajapaksa (@GotabayaR) November 12, 2016
Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s presidential ambitions ‒ if he, indeed, harbours any ‒ have been the subject of wild speculation for some time now. Though he has yet to explicitly express an interest in getting into active politics, Rajapaksa has hinted at the possibility of running for president in 2020. A new, unofficial Twitter account titled ‘Sri Lankans for Trump’ has a bio that reads “Job done in the US…next is Sri Lanka..true Sinhalese Buddhist patriot Gotabaya Rajapaksa is our Trump.” Not unlike Donald Trump, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is widely regarded ‒ at least among the majority Sinhalese community ‒ as a pragmatic non-politician with a no-nonsense approach to problem-solving. If the increasingly unpopular Yahapalana Government fails to deliver, and the current reemergence in ultra-nationalist sentiment in the country continues to grow, #Gota2020 may well end up being a reality.
The Government, meanwhile, appears to have adopted a cautiously optimistic outlook on the Trump presidency. President Maithripala Sirisena, under whose leadership strained relations between the US and Sri Lanka have improved significantly over the past two years, congratulated Trump, calling on the latter to help “elevate the relationship between the two countries to even further heights.” Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, too, has expressed similar sentiments. “Your path to the White House has indeed been truly remarkable. We look forward to working with you and your team,” he said in his congratulatory message to the US President-elect.
Reconciliation Under Trump
It is no secret that many Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka were hopeful of a Hillary Clinton victory at the November 8 polls. With the general election just days away, a group of Sri Lankan Tamils in Jaffna, led by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member of the Northern Provincial Council, M. K. Shivajilingam, broke 1,008 coconuts invoking blessings on the Democratic presidential nominee. A Clinton victory, according to TNA and other Tamil leaders, would’ve seen to a smooth transition of the Obama administration’s efforts to bring about reconciliation in the battle-scarred island nation by way of a successful devolution of power, among other things. Now that Trump has won, however, the Tamil leadership will need to consider a new approach. While Democrats have historically been somewhat sympathetic to the Tamil cause, the Republican party has been demonstrably supportive of Sri Lanka’s efforts to curb terrorism in the past. At present, it is unclear what position an “outsider” like Trump will hold on the Sri Lankan national question once he assumes power, and what course of action the White House will i̶m̶p̶o̶s̶e̶ recommend going forward remains to be seen.
Putting The Pro In Protectionism
In terms of economic consequences, it’s still early days. However, analysts have warned that Trump’s protectionist agenda, as well as his opposition to free trade, could set the stage for an international trade war followed by a global recession, which, needless to say, Sri Lanka would be less than ill-equipped to face, considering it’s still grappling with an impending debt trap that could cost the country dearly. One of the key promises made by the Trump campaign was to impose high tariffs on exports from smaller economies in an attempt to protect its own industries. The US remains Sri Lanka’s biggest export partner, with over 26% of the county’s exports being sent to the States every year. Higher tariffs could, therefore, spell disaster for Sri Lankan traders. Meanwhile, Reuters reported on Friday that the Sri Lankan rupee ended weaker that day on persistent worries of capital outflows as Trump’s policies are seen as aiding higher U.S. interest rates and a strong dollar.
Trump’s position on China, whose economic assistance Sri Lanka heavily depends on, is also worrying ‒ although, he now appears to have backtracked on some of his anti-China pronouncements on the campaign trail (he’s backtracked on quite a few of his campaign promises since winning the election). Even so, the Chinese central bank decided last week to fix the Chinese yuan at its lowest level in six years concerned that Trump will make good on his threat to name China a currency manipulator (which it actually is ‒ in a way). With a 13.8% global market share, China is the world’s largest exporter, and if Trump really does follow through on his threat, Chinese exports to the US could see a tariff increase of up to 45% (18% of all Chinese exports go to the US), the consequences of which could have an indirect impact on all of China’s trading partners, including Sri Lanka.
Then there is the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement. Both Trump and Clinton were opposed to the deal (though Clinton admittedly less so), and it’s looking increasingly likely that the TPP will be stillborn, which is good news for Sri Lanka. (Interestingly, Republicans have been largely supportive of the TPP, while Democrats have expressed opposition to the agreement). Though the actual impact of a ratified TPP would’ve been mostly negligible (about USD 40 million, according to a feasibility study carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)), Sri Lankan exporters ‒ particularly those in the apparel sector, a majority of whose exports make their way to the US market ‒ would have had to compete with Vietnam, a signatory to the agreement. According to the IPS, about one-fourth of Sri Lanka’s exports are similar to Vietnam’s exports to the USA, and in these products Vietnam is almost twice as competitive to that of Sri Lanka. “This is not surprising, as Vietnam has been touted as the biggest winner of the TPP, and it is expected to boost exports to the U.S—already Vietnam’s largest export market,” the IPS states in its report. However, it’s more or less set in stone now that the TPP will not ratified, so Sri Lankan exporters can rest easy.
Like it or not, Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the United States of America, the so-called leader of the free world. Whatever factors that led to his surprising victory, it seems, are not unique to the US. Legitimate economic grievances, coupled with increased xenophobia and racism are giving rise to a global ascension of power to right-wing political parties and ideologues, and Sri Lanka is no exception, if the re-emergence of fascist, chauvinistic forces such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) is any indication. However, liberals and self-styled progressives need to take into account that not everything is black and white. The left’s frustratingly self-righteous rhetoric has at long last been proven more or less ineffective. In the aftermath, saying Trump won because “America is racist” is about as accurate as saying Mahinda Rajapaksa lost because Sri Lankans are peace loving pluralists. Context matters. In the US, liberals failed to take into account the very valid concerns of working class white voters. In Sri Lanka, our own bleeding heart liberals led by the UNP and those of its ilk continue to be blind to the troubles of the masses. If Sri Lanka doesn’t want its own Trump, it’s time the supposed progressives took stock of this reality.