By Jehan Perera –
The multiplicity of problems facing the government and the country and to which solutions are nowhere in sight, is undermining the government’s credibility. Renewing its electoral mandate seems to be a strategy that the government is contemplating. The mandate obtained by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election was seen as paving the way for a new era in disciplined and development-oriented governance. There were high expectations from him. The massive election victory that the government obtained, both at the presidential and general elections appeared to clear the decks for sweeping change. The president’s military background and successful track record as Defense Secretary, gave people the confidence in change that would benefit the country. But today it is seen that hardly anything has changed. Corruption is rife and, worse still, the government is not in a problem solving mode.
Corruption becomes an especial source of resentment when it is extracted from a shrinking pie. Most of the population is feeling the consequences of the economic crisis which the government has been unable, or unwilling, to mitigate. The burden has fallen disproportionately on the poorer sections of the population. This is giving rise to an upsurge in trade union sentiment in favor of strike action. It is natural that the trade unions would wish to obtain pay hikes for their members to restore their lost purchasing power. There is soaring inflation caused by the government’s policy of printing money to pay its local commitments. At the same time, the government’s bid to control the price of dollars and to repay sovereign debt has led to an acute shortage of dollars which makes imports more expensive and difficult to obtain. Dr Nishan de Mel of Verite Research has proposed a five point plan for saving Sri Lanka from its debt trap that the government needs to consider.
Compounding the economic problem is the international pressure that has been brought to bear on the government, which can also have major economic consequences that add to the country’s foreign exchange difficulties and to the people’s impoverishment. The most significant of these is the EU’s threat to discontinue its GSP Plus tariff privilege which enables exports from Sri Lanka to gain tax-free access to European markets. The forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva needs to be taken seriously by the government and people on this account. The report to be submitted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights detailing Sri Lanka’s human rights performance over the past year and the observations of member states is likely to have an impact on the EU decision with regard to the continuation of the tariff privilege.
With both international economic and political debts to repay, and with domestic dissatisfaction on the rise, the government’s strategy appears to be to go for elections to regain its eroding political mandate. A similar strategy was followed in the period 2010-15 when the government in its previous incarnation held elections regularly and almost on a yearly basis which demonstrated its popularity and demoralized its political opponents. The government’s public rally that took place in Anuradhapura last week was conducted in a manner that indicates a possible snap election. The rally was attended by the president, prime minister and finance minister who constitute the triumvirate of the ruling family. Their speeches were made in campaign style. The President claimed that local and foreign forces were working together to prevent the journey of the government as they had done to topple the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government when the latter was president.
The media reported that this was the first in a series of campaign rallies organised by the ruling SLPP aimed at future elections. The state media predicted that the most likely was the local government elections whereas private media aligned to the government speculated that it would be a general election. According to the 20th Amendment the president can dissolve parliament after two and a half years of parliament’s term. However, the dissolution of parliament so soon is unlikely as the ruling party has a near 2/3 majority by itself and two and a half years remaining of their term of office. Although its alliance partners are in frequent disagreement with it on some matters, they invariably vote alongside the ruling party on all matters and show no real desire to quit the government and lose their ministerial portfolios.
There is pressure on the government to conduct provincial council elections from both the Tamil parties and India which appears to have taken on the role of lender of last resort. This is a role more usually played by the IMF to which the government has a strong aversion to, at this time at least. India has taken on the role of taking care of the country’s short term fuel and food deficits in addition to providing large loan facilities to enable the government to tide over its foreign exchange crisis. However, this can only be a short term solution as no country can go on depending on another’s largesse to provide for its consumption as a long term proposition. India itself has a lot of poor people to look after. India’s longer term support would also be contingent on Sri Lanka’s willingness to resolve the problem with the Tamil people within the country. That would be helpful to the Indian government in its own bid to win over Tamil Nadu state in the interests of India’s own larger unity.
Provincial elections are overdue by over three to four years depending on the province. There is a need to first amend the election law which was the reason given by the previous government for not holding the provincial council elections. However, it was widely believed that the previous government did not wish to subject itself to the test of provincial elections when they fell due. The present government too has a problem in going for provincial elections. There is a strong sentiment among the Sinhala nationalist sections who support the government that the provincial council system should be abolished. They see the new constitution being drafted by an expert committee as providing the opportunity for this. An announcement of provincial elections at this time would be seen as undermining this prospect of getting rid of the provincial councils through the constitutional reform process and erode the government’s support base.
In these circumstances, the most likely target for elections would be the local government elections. The terms of the local governments was extended last year till March this year. The government’s presence at the local level will be much stronger than that of the opposition due to its ability to channel state resources to the people. The government recently announced a 40-billion-rupee compensation scheme for farmers hit by fertilizer ban. It also announced a 229 billion rupee relief package targeting government servants and pensioners. When this money flows into the local communities, the electorate may be willing to give the government its support in the anticipation that the country will soon be taking the turn to sustainable growth.
Even though provincial elections may not take place at the current juncture the government needs to consider them for the next phase. Elections to these bodies are necessary as the provincial council system is the best way to bring the ethnic and religious minorities into the mainstream of governance through established state mechanisms. Not just India, but other international actors have endorsed provincial council elections. The resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March last year and which will be taken up later this month was backed by 22 member countries. It called upon Sri Lanka to “fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population, and encouraging the Government to respect local governance, including through the holding of elections for provincial councils, and to ensure that all provincial councils, including the northern and eastern provincial councils, are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.” Reconciliation in the longer term both within the country and with the international community will depend on a fair and meaningful power sharing solution.