By Sugeeswara Senadhira
Colombo, January 2 (Ceylon Today): After losing office within months of winning the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” His cynicism was perhaps justified.
The people of Sri Lanka have been enjoying universal franchise for more than 90 years. Their faith in democracy is quite evident with near 85% voting in the last few national elections. Although some analysts are of the opinion that faith in democracy has declined in the hearts of a section of the people, the way the Aragalaya (movement of protest) lost its momentum after a few days of anarchy proved beyond doubt that Sri Lankans will not condone acts of violence to change the government.
The failure of attempts to overthrow the government through violence, by rebel movements in the South and the separatist armed terrorism in the North and East, also proved the people’s faith in democracy.
Elections play a crucial role in democracy. A country cannot be truly democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free and fair. Critical development efforts cannot succeed without a legitimate and democratically elected government that is responsive and accountable to its citizens.
When questioned about holding of local government elections, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena assured Parliament that as Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, he will take all necessary steps to conduct the upcoming local government elections in accordance with the law. “I will not take actions that are illegal,” he said. The terms of the local government bodies will expire on 20 March 2023, and that he will take appropriate steps to hold the elections prior to that date.
Accordingly, the Election Commission announced that the notification for calling of nominations will be announced in the first week of January. The Election Commission held a discussion with District Secretaries of all 25 District Returning Officers (DROs) for the upcoming polls. About 16 million voters will elect councilors to 8,327 seats across 340 bodies comprising Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban Councils, and Municipal Councils.
It is hoped that the people will strengthen political stability in the country, enabling the diversion of total energies towards economic recovery and development.
There are arguments and counter-arguments about whether the situation in the country is conducive for holding local government elections at a cost of 10 billion rupees, at a time when the Treasury has to scrape the bottom week after week to fund the import of essential goods, food and fuel as well as social welfare measures.
During the third quarter of 2022, there was political instability in the country with lawless protesters of the Aragalaya blocking the Presidential Secretariat for a few months and finally storming the President’s House forcing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to exit from the backdoor.
Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dinesh Gunawardena immediately took office as President and Prime Minister respectively and worked relentlessly to ensure the continuity of the elected government. They managed the crisis remarkably well to make an early economic recovery.
Although the year 2022 ended on a positive note, the country continues to face a multidimensional crisis. Foreign exchange remittances dropped sharply due to the drop in tourist arrivals and a decline in remittances by expatriate Sri Lankans. Many expatriate workers lost their jobs abroad and they became an added burden on the local economy. Furthermore, the decrease in tourist arrivals also affected foreign exchange earnings. The problems were made worse by the war in Ukraine and its impact on the global economy.
However, in the last quarter, there was a favorable turn both in expatriate remittances and tourist arrivals. After a lean year, tourist arrivals have rebounded, pushing arrivals to over 700,000 in the year.
In the last four months, foreign job markets were reopened to Sri Lankans and as many as 300,000 persons left the country for foreign employment. In the coming months too, this trend will continue. Brain-drain has a harmful impact on the economy. With an increasing number of skilled workers leaving the country, there could be a shortage of experienced manpower essential for development activities.
But on the positive side, the increase in expatriate employment would help Sri Lanka to get over the foreign exchange crisis as they would remit a substantial portion of their earnings to dependent families in Sri Lanka.
Realizing the problem of manpower shortage, technical training institutes have been instructed to increase the intake of students for vocational training.
With the new tax proposals in the budget that will come into effect this month, revenue is expected to increase.
The ban on chemical fertilizers in 2021 and its impact on crop yields have affected domestic food supplies and agriculture earnings. With action taken to distribute fertilizers to the farmers, the Maha Season is expected to yield a good harvest in the first quarter of 2023.
Although the economy is not out of woods yet, 2023 begins with hope for an early recovery and then for a leap forward to make up for the lost ground.