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Uphill tasks for Sri Lanka’s two new leaders: Political and economic reforms an imperative

The people have determined that a new political order is required because of the negative experiences from the past, where the legislative and executive powers opposed each other, resulting in instability, writes Sugeeswara Senadhira for South Asia Monitor

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Dinesh Gunawardena is sworn in as the new Prime Minister before President Ranil Wickremesinghe, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Photo: Youtube)

Two leaders of two minor political parties but with vast experience in politics – Ranil Wickremesinghe, who entered Parliament as a 28-year-old youth in 1977, and Dinesh Gunawardena, who joined the legislature six years later in 1983 - took the top positions in the new Sri Lankan government last week. 

Now President Wickremesinhe, the lone parliamentarian of his United National Party (UNP), and Prime Minister Gunawardena, leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), a minor party in the alliance of Rajapaksa-stronghold Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), are faced with an enormous task of solving the economic issues that include shortages of fuel, gas and other essential items, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and debt restructuring.  

As they stressed after taking office, there is an imperative need for restoring normalcy in the country. A three-month-old protest movement had brought the country to a standstill, leading to a halt in economic activities and day-to-day life, leading to exacerbation of sufferings of the people. 

Time running out

Top economists are of the view that time is running out for the administration and a new economic and fiscal control programme needs to be introduced forthwith. Former Deputy Governor of Central bank Dr W.A. Wijewardena said the economic crisis which the new administration faced is so acute and grave that it is necessary for the administration to identify the priorities correctly and implement an appropriate programme of action.  

“Any misstep or a delayed correct step will be fatal to both the country and its people. It is also necessary to diagnose the crisis and treat it with the correct medication. An economy made up of millions of sub-parts is like a human body made up of billions of individual cells joined together to serve a general purpose. Hence, it is essential that correct medication is selected and administered at the correct time,” he warned. 

He added that there are immediate, short-term, medium-term and long-term measures to be taken. The immediate will be the addressing of the acute foreign exchange shortage. Short to long-term will involve the implementation of a credible economic policy programme that will push the country back to its normal growth path and then to a high growth trajectory so that Sri Lanka could elevate itself to a rich country within the next 25 to 30 years. 

The new leaders are also faced with a major protest movement launched by youths, professionals, trade unions and farmers. 

Crackdown on protestors

Within hours of the appointment of President Wickremesinghe, the police and armed forces launched a midnight raid to evict protestors who occupied the Presidential Secretariat. The government justified the move as there was an imperative need to evict illegal occupants from the Presidential Secretariat, the highest office of public administration, as it was necessary for the President and the officials to function from their offices. As the protestors blocked the entrance to the Secretariat, the President and his staff had to function from makeshift offices in other government buildings. 

As the Minister in-charge of Public Security, Tiran Alles, clarified, the police and armed forces used only limited force to disperse the protestors. However, a few persons who attempted to resist were forcefully evicted. 

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka posted on Twitter that she had expressed grave concern about the disruption to the protests at the meeting. “Just met with President Ranil WIckremesinghe to express my grave concern over the unnecessary and deeply troubling escalation of violence against protestors overnight. The President and Cabinet have an opportunity and an obligation to respond to the calls of Sri Lankans for a better future. This is not the time to crack down on citizens, but instead to look ahead at the immediate and tangible steps the government can take to regain the trust of the people, restore stability, and rebuild the economy,” she said. 

Parliamentary backing 

However, President Wickremesinghe assured the foreign envoys that both Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 14 (1) (b) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, which governs the rights of peaceful assembly, would be upheld by the government. 

However, the President had stated that the instructions given by the American Civil Liberties Union, a non-profit organization founded in 1920 “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the US”, stated that protestors were not permitted to block government buildings and interfere with other purposes the property was designed for. Wickremesinghe also referred to the incident of evicting American protestors who entered the Capital Hill and administrative offices in Washington. 

At the same time, the President said he was willing to discuss with the opposition as well as the representatives of the Aragalaya protest movement regarding the reforms they sought. Hence, early steps could be expected to have a broad dialogue on political reforms. One of the major issues highlighted by the leaders of the country-wide protest movement and various professional bodies was the need for constitutional reforms and a new political order. 

The people have determined that a new political order is required because of the negative experiences from the past, where the legislative and executive powers opposed each other, resulting in instability. 

Hence, the solid backing received by President Wickremesinghe from Parliament, where 134 MPs voted for him, is of extreme significance, as the acceptance within Parliament is crucial for implementation of major decisions, especially the unpopular and painful economic reforms that are urgently needed will need bipartisan support in the House. 

(The author is former Director, International Media, Colombo. Views are personal)

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