Colombo, April 12 (newsin.asia): The Sri Lankan political system’s inability to come to a consensus on what should be done to lift the country from the economic morass it is in now, appears to be at the root of the problem facing the island nation now.
An adamant President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a population fixated on forcing his immediate exit, and a confused parliament pulling in different directions, are preventing Sri Lankans from solving the economic problem.
However, the conciliatory approach of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the constructive ideas proffered by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, are silver linings in an otherwise dark cloud.
Those not swayed by one sentiment or the other, are hoping that the nation would ultimately come around to the view of the Prime Minister and the ex-Prime Minister, that to bring relief to the helpless and mute masses plagued by shortages of every kind, cooperation and not conflict is the need of the hour.
Meanwhile, the deepening economic crisis and the political confusion, have together severely damaged the image of Sri Lanka overseas. Though the world is yet to be describe it as a “basket case”, demonstrators outside the President’s Office in Colombo have already declared Sri Lanka a “failed state.”
To begin with, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa indicated to parliament that he will not step down because he still possessed the massive mandate given to him in the last election in 2019. He has also said that any solution suggested by the opposition will have to be within the constitution.
He is clearly reluctant to accept the breakaway government group’s demand that he set up a National Executive Council comprising all parties and place it above the cabinet. There is no place for such a council in the constitution, it was said on his behalf.
An insecure Gotabaya Rajapaksa clamped a State of Emergency, a nation-wide curfew and banned the social media, as protests spread across the country, and demonstrators and the police clashed in front of his private residence in which a bus was burnt. It was adverse publicity in the Western media which made him rescind his draconian orders quickly.
Above all, the President has not thought it fit to either address the people over TV or meet the demonstrators continuously demonstrating outside his office. It was left to the Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to address the nation on TV on Monday. As a good unifier, he did a good job, though the results are not clear yet.
For the most part, the opposition has been both adamant and confused with each party doggedly pursuing its own agenda and tactics. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-led National People’s Power (NPP) rejected the President’s call to all parties in parliament to accept cabinet portfolios in an interim government. The JVP and NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said President Rajapaksa cannot make such a suggestion when the people are demanding his exit with one voice. The public’s demand is not for an interim administration or for cabinet portfolios to be swapped between politicians from different sides but for the President’s exit.
Meanwhile, the NPP/JVP MP, Vijitha Herath, said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be “impeached” if he did not quit. But impeachment is a very lengthy and tough process in which the charges ought to be very specific and provable.
MPs belonging to the breakaway group of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLPP) and the 11-party alliance, jointly wrote to the President asking him to dismiss the present cabinet, form an all-party government, and appoint a “National Executive Council.”
The letter proposed an Advisory Council of Experts for each ministry and called for steps to curtail the privileges of ministers; rescind the 20 th.Amendment, which gives the President gargantuan powers; and re-enact the 19 th.Amendment which had given more powers to parliament vis-à-vis the President. But amendments need a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Simultaneously, the main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), started collecting signatures for a Motion of No Confidence against the government.
Parties are also divided on the question of seeking IMF help to resolve the economic crisis. The Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) and the JVP/NPP are against going to the IMF while the SJB and the United National Party (UNP) headed by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are for it. The JVP’s objection to the IMF stems from its total opposition to privatization and curbs on governmental spending.
Writing in The Island, former Minister and Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) leader Prof.Tissa Vitarana said that the IMF would want the door opened for indiscriminate imports. The country’s forex reserves would thus be drained, he warned. “Going to the IMF would mean that we have to get more loans and get further into debt,” he added.
But there are saner voices in the opposition, which the government could listen to. Former PM Wickremesinghe said that MPs should sink their differences and assist the government by giving realistic non-political and purely economic suggestions.
“An economic problem has become political and intractable,” he regretted. He suggested that government should tap a number of friendly countries and international financial institutions for emergency assistance. Merely changing persons in the government would not help, he argued. He also asked parliament to pay more attention to how public finance is handled by the government as the constitution has given parliament excusive power over public finance. Public finance had been going out of the hands of parliament and into those of the executive giving rise to arbitrary decisions. SJB MP Eran Wickramaratne pointed out that to get the international community on board, political stability is paramount.
PM’s Conciliatory Approach
It was in this distressing situation that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s address to the nation over TV on Monday came a breath of fresh air, opening the doors to an understanding with the opposition.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s non-combative style, empathy with the suffering masses and a solemn pledge to fulfil the peoples’ expectations, offered hope of bridge building.
Though he mentioned the opposition’s disdainful rejection of the President’s invitation to establish an all-party government, the PM refrained from indulging in confrontational rhetoric. But he emphatically said that the government will carry out its responsibilities as mandated by the people whether the opposition cooperates or not. “As the party in power, we will take all steps to resolve this crisis,” he said.
“I understand the exhaustion of the people who have had to spend days standing in fuel lines. I can understand the pain of the women who had to suffer in queues to buy gas,” Mahinda Rajapaksa said. The government could also sense the trouble faced by people owing to the skyrocketing prices of goods, he added. “At this moment it is the responsibility of all parties to strengthen the country’s economy instead of thinking about their political narrow political interests,” Rajapaksa said.
“But no matter who refuses to accept the responsibility, as the party in power, we accept that responsibility. We will provide solutions to issue,” he added.
In a major policy concession, the Prime Minister admitted that the switch over to organic fertilizer from chemical fertilizer suddenly had taken place at the wrong time. He added that the government has decided to re-introduce the fertilizer subsidy.
Appealing for the withdrawal of the agitations, he said that if these went out of control as they had gone in the past, the consequences could be grave. He also warned that “each moment spent on protests will only lessen the opportunities for dollars to flow into the country.”
The expectation is that some of those MPs who left the government to sit as Independents, will come back given the conciliatory stance of the government. Deputy Speaker Ranjth Siyambalapitiya of SLFP returned to the ruling side, as did his party colleague Shantha Bandara who returned to become State Minister of Organic Fertilizer.