Colombo, April 8 (Counterpoint): Sri Lanka and Pakistan are currently undergoing a rather unusual economic-cum-political crisis. In both, the population is facing economic distress and a foreign exchange shortage. And in both, there is a movement to oust the top leader, namely, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Imran Khan in Pakistan.
But there is a critical difference between the cases. While in Sri Lanka, the anti-government movement is entirely homegrown, in Pakistan, according to Imran Khan, it is foreign-inspired.
Imran has alleged that the US had funded and facilitated the opposition’s bid to move a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against him in the National Assembly to install a puppet regime that will do the bidding of the US. He alleged that a US State Department official Donald Lu had warned Pakistan that if the NCM did not go through, the country would suffer. Imran alleged in an interview to ARY TV that the US and the opposition had been plotting a regime change since August 2021 because of his bid to give Pakistan an independent foreign policy to serve its national interest like India’s policy serves its national interest.
Imran got the NCM rejected by the Speaker of the National Assembly on the ground that it was a foreign-inspired conspiracy. He also got the National Assembly dissolved on the grounds that it had become a nest of saboteurs manipulated by external forces inimical to Pakistan.
Imran had got President Alvi to order fresh elections to the National Assembly. But in Sri Lanka, parliament is intact, with no talk of fresh elections from any quarter. In Sri Lanka, a settlement to the political issue involving the President is being sought within the existing parliament, as no one wants fresh elections in the midst of an economic crisis marked by a shortage of essentials.
In Sri Lanka, the Opposition and the ruling party rebels want President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down and facilitate the election of a new President by the existing parliament itself. The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) wants the abolition of the Executive Presidency to curb arbitrary rule. The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) wants the repeal of the 20 th.Amendment and the re-enactment of the repealed 19 th.Amendment to clip the wings of the all-powerful Executive President, who is held responsible for the present plight of the country because the buck stop with him.
Issues in Sri Lanka and Pakistan are different. In Sri Lanka, the questions are: (1) Should power continue to rest with Executive President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or it should be held by an interim President elected by parliament to serve the remaining period of Gotabaya Rajaaksa’s five-year tenue? (2) Should a multi-party cabinet be formed with majority support in parliament to advice President Rajapaksa?
Sri Lanka’s coffers are virtually empty and it is going around the world with a begging bowl. The country cannot afford elections now. In contrast, in Pakistan, the economic situation is not so grave and elections can be held. Pakistan’s problems are more political (with an added foreign element in it) than economic.
In Sri Lanka, the politicization of the economic problem is causing concern in some circles because it delays a solution to the economic problem affecting all citizens. The Sri Lankan parliament Speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, on Wednesday made a fervent appeal to MPs to stop giving priority to political demands (chiefly the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa) and put their heads together to find a way to end the severe economic crisis.
“Economists have warned that there may be a severe food shortage apart from fuel, gas and electricity shortages.” He appealed to all MPs to make good use of the opportunity to debate the current crisis and jointly find solutions for issues rather than find fault or blame each other.
“If we fail at that task, it is parliamentary democracy which fails. The result could eventually cost the lives of thousands of innocent people including all of us. I have experienced two such dark ages during my life. Hence, we must take every effort in order to avert such a situation and find solutions in order to make this country a better place for all of us and our children,” the Speaker said in an emotional speech.
Indeed, as the Speaker was making his statement, doctors of government hospitals were demonstrating in Colombo demanding essential medicines.
But the Speaker’s appeal fell on deaf ears on the politicos. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa conveyed to parliament that he will not quit, the opposition began demonstrating within parliament demanding that he quit forthwith.
Throwing the political ball into the court of the opposition, the President said that he would appoint anyone as Prime Minister if he or she could prove the backing of 113 MPs (in a House of 225 including the Speaker) to form a government. He was aware that behind the opposition’s bluster it was badly divided and would find it hard to unite to form a stable government.
One of the factors favoring President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the growing concern about the use of violence by the some protestors in parts of the island. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), while defending the right of those protesting peacefully, has called upon authorities to take necessary action against any protesters inciting violence.
Chastened by the agitation, the Lankan government has shed its reserve about going to the IMF for a rescue package. The IMF had said that “foreign debt service needs of US$ 7 billion each year will require access to very large amounts of external financing at concessional rates and long maturities.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a team of eminent economic and fiscal experts as Members of the “Presidential Advisory Group on Multilateral Engagement and Debt Sustainability.” The group will help conduct negotiations with the IMF and other international funding institutions. The members of this elite group are: Dr Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Prof. Shanta Devarajan, and Dr Sharmini Coorey.
In Pakistan, the trigger for the current crisis has been Imran’s arrogant style of functioning, his intolerance, the demonization of the opposition and his antagonism to the US, a long-time benefactor of Pakistan. Imran has also been none-too-friendly with the army, the national political watchdog in Pakistan since the 1950s.
However, though the state of the economy is a secondary factor, Imran’s performance in this sphere has left much to be desired. According to a December 2021 poll, 55% of Pakistanis had declared the performance of Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government as being below par. In 2019–20, Pakistan’s growth rate had dropped to minus 0.4%. It is now rising at 2 to 4%, but this is still well below the 7% or more needed to stay ahead of its population growth.
Pakistan’s continuing poor fiscal situation is due to its inability to increase revenues. High inflation is a major worry. From January 2020 to March 2022, India’s food inflation had been about 7% whereas Pakistan’s was around 23%, pointed out Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Writing in Wall Street Journal, Saeed Shah says: “Pakistan’s economy has for decades limped from one crisis to another, unable to sustain the growth needed for its young and fast-expanding population. Gross domestic product per capita of less than US$ 1,200 a year is more than a third lower than India’s, making Pakistan the 183 rd. poorest country globally, World Bank data show.”
Foreign direct investment has dropped. Pakistan is on its 22nd bailout under IMF supervision since first turning to the lender in 1958, Saeed Shah says. Pakistan also remains on the “Grey List” of the Financial Action Task Force that monitors illegal money movements and terrorist financing.