By Jehan Perera.
The unravelling of the economy at the beginning of 2022 had its immediate impact on the political sphere. Large numbers of people mobilised in protest until it became an ocean that swept through the capital city and entered the seats of power. A year later the economic crisis gives indications of being under control. A bailout agreement with the IMF appears to be only days away and the weak rupee has strengthened against the dollar. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe has shown itself to be tenacious. But there are three areas in which it needs to rethink its approach if its success is to be sustainable.
There are three problem areas where the government needs to recalibrate its approach.
The first is to give notice that it will hold the local government elections soon and not in the indeterminate future. Elections are not contingent on people or their rulers wanting them, which is one of the spurious arguments being put forward. They are part and parcel of democracy. Ideally, those elections need to be held on April 25, the date set by the Elections Commission. However, there is continuing doubt whether this will be feasible as the government needs to allocate the necessary financial resources for this. The government’s claim that it has no money to hold the elections is not convincing given that it is less than a single day’s government expenditure.
The second problem area is the challenge that the government is posing to the judiciary. The democratic system is based on the system of checks and balances. The judiciary is one of the three main organs of the state. Its apex body, the Supreme Court, has declared that the government cannot make the excuse of not having money to delay the elections. This judgement of the court needs to be respected. Disregarding it will create a crisis of governance to add to the economic one that the country has had to cope with. It can also send a negative message to potential investors regarding the security of their investments in an environment in which the rule of law is not respected. Unfortunately, the government members of parliament are challenging the authority of the supreme court to give a direction to the government treasury.
The third problem area is with regard to government attempts to stop the ongoing street protests by using the security forces. The government has denied those who protest the right to protest freely on the streets on the grounds that it will disrupt the regular economic life of people as well as be an obstacle to investor confidence. Virtually every day there is news footage of those who protest, mostly from trade unions and state universities, being water cannoned, tear-gassed, baton-charged and arrested. Recent footage has shown those in military uniforms using sticks on the protestors. The use of the military to quell civil disturbances is a violation of the law, especially as those in military uniform have no identification badges which gives them more impunity to be brutal.
The government’s attempts to suppress the public protests by using its armed power is not going to solve the problem. Those who are engaged in public protests are unlikely to give up. They belong to the bottom 80 percent (or more) of the population who are being called upon to pay the bulk of the price for the economic recovery of the country. The government’s present efforts to restructure the economy are falling disproportionately on the poorer sections of the population. This was seen in the recent electricity hike which, in proportionate terms, affected those at the bottom of the economic tiers much more than those at the top.
Instead of trying to overcome the protests by repressive means, the government needs to go to first principles in finding the way out of the multiple crises in the country. First, it needs to take into account that the basis of governance in the country is democracy. Conducting free and fair elections according to the law gives life to democracy. Disregarding the law on elections erodes the legitimacy of the government both in the country and internationally. The US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, made this clear in her recent address to the National Law Conference organized by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.
Ambassador Chung emphasised the importance of the local government elections, explaining that it “gave citizens the ability to advocate directly to the government in partnership with civil society organisations and through qualified legal representation in an independent judiciary.” She also spoke of the importance of the judiciary and the right to protest. “Democracies are under strain across the globe and no democracy stands without the rule of law…The United States support for the rights of everyday Sri Lankans to voice their concerns peacefully and participate in their government is unwavering.” She also noted that Sri Lanka’s “proud history of free elections underpins those rights.”
The need to consider the views of the US ambassador with special interest is that the US is well known to be the power behind the IMF on which Sri Lanka is banking so much hope to get its economy growing again. Indeed, there is a need for the government to rethink its economic restructuring policy and IMF conditions, for which US goodwill can help. The main burden of economic restructuring cannot be put on the poorer sections of the population. The current tax structure, for instance, is taxing the middle classes twice, by means of enhanced direct and indirect taxes. They also are hovering at the margins of economic sustainability as individuals and families. Unless the economic restructuring programme is reconsidered it can bring the country back on the streets in a second Aragalaya.
At the beginning of last year, it was initially the farmers in the rural hinterlands who started protesting in small groups. They were followed by fishermen in the coastal areas, carpenters and finally the middle classes in the urban centres. A similar phenomenon can be seen today. More and more groups are joining the protests, including trade unions and even the professional classes. An initiative of civil society organisations recently brought together the opposition political parties to one forum to uphold the principle of timely and free and fair elections and to convince the government of the need for elections. Leading representatives of all the main opposition political parties came together to sign a “Public representatives pledge to protect the right to vote” at a meeting convened by the Civil Society Collective for Protecting the Franchise. The political parties represented widely different ideologies and ethnic affiliations. But they stood without any division on the issue of upholding the democratic franchise.
The government also needs to show respect to judicial decisions and to constitutional provisions related to the rule of law that are essential for investor confidence, both national and international, without which the prospects for economic recovery will be a chimera. Investors need to know that the government policies are clear and that the rule of law will prevail. It is even more necessary that the government should heed the voice of its people, the opposition parties and civil society on the key issues of the economic restructuring programme, elections and the freedom of protest, and not be isolated as that would not be conducive to the political stability and economic recovery it seeks. The government’s development strategies require the willing cooperation of the rest of society. If not, it will be an uneasy peace, which will not bring in the foreign investments that the country needs to take off into rapid economic growth.