Sri Lanka: Beginning of the end, and end of the beginning
By N. Sathiya Moorthy
With a comfortable 119-68 vote in the government’s favour (38 absentees), the unlikely ruling Gotabaya-Ranil team has weathered the brewing political storm, at least for the present. Now, the government can focus – and has no excuse, either – on economic administration, which was at the bottom of the political crisis, and has to begin showing results that the common people can touch and feel, in the next few weeks, if the honeymoon with Parliament does not crash in between.
Barring the over-excited global media, fed by partisan groups within the country, no one, including the political opposition, had any doubt that the government had the majority in Parliament. The nationwide arson targeting a very high number of 78 ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leaders’ homes and properties made the MPs stand with the government, rather than persuading them to move away.
Further, global media mistook a procedural resolution to fast-track the ‘censure motion’ against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a ‘no-confidence motion’ (NCM). The opposition lost the resolution, and the ‘censure motion’, which is not an NCM, would come up for debate and vote in due course. Even if the censure motion cleared the half-way, 113-mark in the 225-member House, forcing a Gotabaya’s exit would require a formal ‘impeachment motion’, which requires a two-thirds majority that is impossible at the moment.
Many among the absentee MPs, including former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his son Namal, are expected to go with the government in future headcounts. This has boosted the ruling party’s morale inside Parliament, and challenges those who question its legitimacy from the streets. Now that the legislature has retaken the initiative and has demonstrated political stability, civil society may have lost an opportunity to move the judiciary, which would be wary to step in.
A proven majority for the leadership has now reportedly forced erstwhile allies with 40 more MPs to reconsider their decision to support Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, especially on economic issues, without accepting cabinet positions. Likewise, within the main Samgi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) opposition, opinion is divided on joining a ‘national government’ as proposed by President Gotabaya earlier – and also pressure the rulers from within.
What shape all these would take in the coming days and weeks remains to be seen but there is a general air of disquiet more in the opposition than in the ruling party. Some SJB leaders are upset with Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa’s poor strategy through the past weeks and months that they say has landed the party in an embarrassing situation. No one should be surprised if voices of dissent are aired sooner than later, and it may include a re-merger with the United National Party (UNP) parent under Prime Minister Ranil.
The SJB’s indecision on joining the government seemed to have left Prime Minister Wickremesinghe with little option but to become his own finance minister. In the SJB rebels’ reckoning, any non-SLPP finance minister would have received as much international support as expected for PM Ranil. By leading the nation’s economic recovery, the SJB, according to them, could have stolen the thunder.
On the political side, Gotabaya stole the thunder by forcing brother Mahinda Rajapaksa to carry the cross, which was his, and also quit office. He won’t let Ranil steal his political thunder, and give him a defined role to lead the nation’s economic recovery. Mahinda’s unfought fight is still with his brother Gotabaya and not Ranil, with whom he has had a good working relationship.
Between Gotabaya and Ranil, the two leaders also have to pilot constitutional amendments to abolish the Executive Presidency and shift the power centre to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, like in many other democracies, including India. Whether or not they would agree on many things or anything remains to be seen.
So would be their collective or separate approaches to an ‘ethnic package’ for the Tamil minorities, which is a problem area for the nation’s Western allies, who are eager to help but without seen as sacrificing their traditional Tamil interests at the altar of geostrategic expediency. Their first test, if the government survives, will come up at the September session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.
Yet, it is the economy that the nation and its population are concerned about even more, and naturally so. As prime minister, Ranil has made a good beginning by meeting up with envoys of many Western countries and also China, apart from India, which alone has chipped in big-time thus far. While pursuing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) route, where India has already taken the initiative and China too has promised help, Ranil, with his 20th century exposure, alone has mentioned the possibility of a ‘consortium’ that would help spread the burden on aid-givers.
Once his government has sorted out the forex inflow problem through medium and long-term credits, including those from IMF and World Bank, Ranil has to prioritize areas where substantial forex-spending could be allowed in the short and medium terms. Value-added textiles is a key export-earner. The raw material is imported from Southeast Asia but there is trust deficit on payments.
The government has to find ways to boost the morale of the tourism industry, another big-time forex earner, and restore the confidence of foreign markets in Sri Lanka’s currency and dollar availability. From his past experience, Ranil can be expected to seek recruitment of more Sri Lankan labour, including house maids, in overseas markets, as inward remittance is another source of dollar-receipts.
The tea market too is expected to improve in the coming months, with the arrival of adequate quantities of chemical fertilizer, in the place of disastrous organic fertilizer from China, another of Gotabaya’s brainwave. Like his predecessor Finance Minister Ali Sabry, Ranil has already promised a new budget by restoring original tax-slabs and tax nets, all of which Gotabaya had scrapped in 2019-20.
Yet, in the short-term, the government has to first negotiate the rescheduling of $ 51-billion in default payment. It has to ensure that supplies and prices remained stable – even after the 50-60% increase in dollar-price over the past months, now hovering around LKR 360-mark. His traditional urban backers grudgingly accept Ranil’s confession that they had to bear more for a few weeks more before pressing the recovery button. The same cannot be said of the rural poor, who had lost jobs also to big-ticket Chinese projects, which came with money, material and also men – the last one denying local jobs and family incomes through the past decade and more.
It all depends on who is ready to invest, on what and how many jobs it can create for the locals, through the short, medium and long terms, if the nation has to recover first and also retain its consumerist mindset and yet go forward.
-N. Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator and can be contacted on email@example.com. This article was originally featured on southasiamonitor.org