President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s meeting with top staff of the Central Bank has had a mixed reception. The president admonished the Central Bank for not being adequately supportive of government policy with regard to reviving the economy. In a strongly worded speech the president demonstrated knowledge of the economic performance of other countries. He compared the assistance given by governments such as in the United States and Europe to businesses to revive the economy with facts and figures and said that the Central Bank should act accordingly. There is a need for a policy planning group drawn from the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance, private sector and civil society to sit together with the president to map out the future direction of the country. In doing so there is also a need to be mindful that all elements of the economy are interconnected with one another, and the larger society also.
The signs of elections and the short term changes that they bring are upon us today. Posters of candidates are coming up with their party symbols, preference numbers and their vote-catching mottos. Despite the difficulties that people are undergoing at the individual level due to economic hardships that personally affect them, the reality of politics today is that the electorate does not have a viable alternative to the government. The opposition has still to recover from its weak performance during the last year of its governance in 2019 when it was internally divided between former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. By way of contrast the present government gives an image of strength and competence that is reassuring to the general population.
The Supreme Court’s decision to deny leave to proceed in the eight cases filed before it regarding the dissolution of parliament and the date of the general election places a great responsibility in the hands of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Supreme Court’s decision means that he remains the sole national repository of the people’s mandate until such time as the general elections are held and a new parliament is elected. Although speculation centres around a date in August for those elections, the vicissitudes of the coronavirus, and the possibility of a second wave of infections even as the country opens up, make it possible that dates decided at this time may have to be disposed of at a later time. In the meantime, Sri Lanka would remain in a limbo without a functioning parliament with the present order continuing indefinitely. One of the important functions of parliament, to act as an oversight body and be a check and balance on the executive, will be in abeyance. The responsibility for governance is on the executive at present.
Unrest and rioting in cities in throughout the United States, the world’s largest economy and one of its richest, have been going on now for a week. Protests have taken place in at least 75 cities and have reached the gates of the White House. The immediate cause for these riots was the killing of an African American man by a white police officer in an especially brutal way by keeping a knee on his neck. This killing was filmed as it was happening in public on the roadside and showed other police officers looking on while people passing by plead with the police to get off the dying man.
A study by the Economist magazine has shown that Sri Lanka is one of the countries least able to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus induced world economic crisis. Out of 66 countries assessed, Sri Lanka came 61st in terms of its ability to handle the crisis without being economically debilitated and fared much worse than its South Asian neighbours. Bangladesh at 9th place, India at 18th and Pakistan at 43rd place all fared better than Sri Lanka. The human cost of the crisis is visible in media images of thousands of angry young workers from around the country stranded in the vicinity of the Katunayake free trade zone, many of them abandoned by their factory employers, unable to get back to their home villages due to the coronavirus travel restrictions.
The direction of Sri Lanka’s democratic process hangs in the balance. As many as seven cases with regard to the general elections and the presidential decree dissolving parliament are pending before the Supreme Court. The outcome of the judicial decision may decide whether Sri Lanka will continue to be governed by the president and caretaker cabinet until the general elections actually take place to bring in a new parliament. The constitution has set a three month limit on such an arrangement sans a parliament.
With general elections anticipated to be held soon, political propaganda is once again being generated by those who hope to attain their goals by it. The elections may be held as soon as June 20 which is the date presently set by the Election Commission. However, the continuing increase in the number of Covid infections is a deterrent to a decision to go ahead with the elections. The fact that the numbers are increasing, albeit relatively slowly in comparison to other countries and inspite of the lockdowns and curfews gives an indicator of a possible spike in the numbers in the event of a no-holds barred general election. The Election Commission shows no enthusiasm to take on the responsibility and blame for being responsible for contributing to a catastrophe in the health situation.
Sri Lanka will be open for business from Monday onwards. It will not be business as usual as the government has laid several conditions on those who will be permitted to leave their homes in the two most populous districts of Gampaha and Colombo. If the experience of the earlier opening that have taken place in the rest of the country is to be a guide, the general population will be cautious in making their entrance onto the roads and shops. In the case of Colombo in particular there is still some confusion about who is permitted to come out. The government would like to see the wheels of the economy begin to turn with a minimum of people-to-people that could spark off the possible second wave of infections. Making the danger of a spike even higher is the prevalence of asymptomatic Covid infected persons who do not show visible symptoms of illness.
The government’s plans to have early general elections have suffered a setback with the decision of the Election Commission to have them on June 20 and not on May 28 as the government had hoped for. The pressure on the Election Commission to give an early date even led to fissures within it that have become a matter of public knowledge. The keenness of the government was such that the Health Minister even predicted that by April 19, the crisis would be under control with the inference that an election campaigning would not be a problem. The example was given of South Korea which held its general election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. This may not have been a fair comparison as the combination of early voting and electronic voting in South Korea will not be possible in Sri Lanka at its present stage of economic development.
A year ago on April 21 on Easter Sunday the country’s peaceful life for ten years since the war’s end, free from large scale terror attacks, came to an abrupt end. The people who went to the three churches and three hotels that Easter morning were subjected to simultaneous suicide bomb attacks would not have had the slightest inkling of the terrible fate that was going to befall them. At 9 am the six synchronized attacks took place and took the lives of over 250 hapless men, women and children and injured more than 500. The puzzle then, and which remains to this day, was the motivation for the attacks and who was behind them. Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, whose diocese suffered the heaviest casualties, has been the most dogged of the country’s leadership in pursuing this line of inquiry.