By P.K. Balachandran
Colombo, February 19: Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe firmly believes that no elections should be held in the island nation before the Presidential election in 2024 on the grounds that the country cannot afford elections in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis,
Wickremesinghe has said in parliament and outside that the economic crisis, marked by shortages and sky-rocketing prices, calls for the maintenance of discipline and national unity without frittering away precious time and energy on politicking.
UNP insiders say that Wickremesinghe is likely to be the Presidential candidate of the UNP in 2024 in alliance with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the party headed by the Rajapaksas. Wickremesinghe believes that his chances will be bright in a Presidential election if he gets adequate time to set the economic house in order, untrammelled by elections to the local bodies and Provincial Councils. These polls could throw up unnecessary issues and controversies and derail the economic recovery.
Since Wickremesinghe is unable to admit this plan openly, he has chosen devious (though legal) ways to postpone the Local Bodies elections due on March 9.
Although it has been officially announced that the elections will be held on March 9, the prospect of their being held is getting dimmer by the day due to various factors. The latest is that the Elections Commission’s plans to file a special motion before the Supreme Court citing difficulties in getting adequate funds to hold the polls on March 9. A local daily quoted the Chairman of the Elections Commission (EC) as saying that the EC has no money to print ballot papers and make provisions for transport.
Earlier, in January, a retired army Colonel, W.M.R.Wijesundara, had filed a case in the Supreme Court against holding the local elections. The case is to be heard again on February 23. The petitioner questioned the benefit to the public and the country from holding an election at this juncture when Sri Lanka is in the midst of an economic crisis. He noted that the EC had informed him in writing that LKR 10 billion would be required to hold the polls. He cited the current income of the country, the onerous conditions imposed by the IMF, the ratings given to Sri Lanka by international credit rating agencies, and the Government’s income and expenditure over three years to argue his case for postponement.
The petitioner also pointed out that the government is engaged in electoral reform, formulating laws for controlling election expenditure, and for the representation of youth and women in elected bodies. It would be wasteful to hold the local elections before the completion of the work on hand, he argued. He also cited the struggle of the common man in making ends meet. Interestingly, the Treasury Secretary, Mahinda Siriwardena, told the court that funding for the election is a “challenge” given the financial situation of the government.
Meanwhile, the Opposition parties had sought a Supreme Court order to the EC to hold the polls as scheduled. The Court said in reply that the EC has already informed the court that it is prepared to hold the elections on March 9.
Sri Lankans are therefore waiting with bated breath for the Supreme Court’s hearing on the army colonel’s petition on February 23. Even if the court rules in favor of postponement, Wickremesinghe will be the butt of severe criticism from the opposition parties and civil society, which will expose the tactics used by him to create the conditions for postponement.
When the talk of holding Local Bodies elections was in the air, Wickremesinghe said that his government plans to reduce the total number of local body members from 8,000 to 4,000. And although a Parliamentary Select Committee had submitted a report on electoral reforms in June 2022, the government proposed to set up another committee in November. A Private Member’s bill was presented by SLPP member Premnath Dolawatte seeking 25% representation of youth in the Local Bodies. Though these measures have their merit, mooting them just before the Local Bodies elections smacked of an ulterior motive.
Meanwhile, it was reported that Elections Commissioners S.B.Diwaratne, K.P.P.Pathirana and M.M.Mohamed had received death threats demanding their resignation. Another EC member P.S.M.Charles had resigned and the President accepted her resignation. Both the death threats and the reasons for P.S.M.Charles’ resignation remain a mystery.
Good News On IMF Bailout
Even as the chances of the Local elections being postponed are high, Wickremesinghe is getting good news about the possibility of getting the US$ 2,9 billion IMF bailout. International media have reported that Sri Lanka could get the bailout without waiting for China to fall in line on the issue of giving the necessary “financial assurance”. It is reported that it will be enough if the Paris Club of lenders plus India give the necessary financial assurances. And these entities have expressed their readiness do so. China, on the other hand, has been dragging its feet although it is the single largest bilateral lender to Sri Lanka. China’s offer of a two-year moratorium on the payment of principal and interest on loans taken from its EXIM Bank is not considered enough.
But China does not want to be left out of the international effort to shore up Sri Lanka’s finances. It has geopolitical stakes in Sri Lanka. There are reports of China sending a large delegation to Colombo to discuss Sino-Lankan economic ties.
Wickremesinghe has said that the IMF will make its decision known in March and that the decision will be in Sri Lanka’s favor. However, the IMF has set certain stringent financial conditions or goals which Sri Lanka will have to reach within a given time frame. For Wickremesinghe the challenge will be to meet these requirements which call for grit and determination to face and overcome the opposition of politicians and trade unions and the apathy of the bureaucracy.
Then there are international pressures to comply with certain geopolitical demands from Lanka’s creditors. The Western nations and India have geopolitical expectations from the Wickremesinghe government. The US would like Sri Lanka to be a key partner in its anti-China Indo-Pacific Maritime Security system. India would like Sri Lanka to be part of its maritime security schemes and keep China at bay. Both the US and India would like Sri Lanka to marginalize China economically and strategically. Germany would like Sri Lanka to lift curbs on imports and Japan would like Sri Lanka to adhere to signed agreements and not renege. China would like Sri Lanka to accommodate its military vessels, give it infrastructure projects and sign a free trade agreement.
Therefore, for Wickremesinghe going is not going to be easy. But if he is able to meet some of the IMF’s conditions and deftly manage the diverse geopolitical pressures, he would be on a good wicket when he faces the Presidential election in 2024.