The government appears to be bent on creating a mood swing in anticipation of elections in the belief that better off people are key opinion formers. The second round of reducing the prices of a variety of fuels (2 percent for ordinary petrol to 29 percent for super diesel used by luxury vehicles) is an indication that the government is seeking to improve its support base amongst the better off sections of the population. So far the government has resisted calls for local government elections, which are overdue, to be held. It would be aware that at the local level, people are suffering enormous price hikes, such as over 200 percent in the cost of their children’s school text books, let alone their electricity bills which have gone up by more than 300 percent. However, obtaining the people’s mandate through elections is a source of legitimacy. It enables a government to justify its existence and take decisions on behalf of the people.
Slowly but surely the ruling party is beginning to reassert itself. An indication is the removal of Prof GL Peiris from the chairmanship of the ruling party and replacing him with a Buddhist monk which gives a clear indication that the party intends to stay true to its nationalist roots. In the aftermath of the economic collapse last year Prof Peiris has been one of the few members from the SLPP to have adopted a reformist role. He was also one of the few members of the SLPP to vote for a reformist party member, Dullas Alahapperuma, to become the president of the country at the parliamentary election for the president. Unlike President Ranil Wickremesinghe who came in from the opposition, Dullas Alahapperuma would have had a bigger base of reformist support from within the ruling party which could have been used as leverage for a change in the system that had led to the collapse of the economy.
The government has decided to present its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to parliament for debate on April 25. The decision to delay calling for a vote on it, and using the government’s majority not to bulldoze its decision is to be welcomed. The government needs to reconsider its present formulation as it would impact on the democratic space and rights available to political parties, trade unions and civic activists. In any legal reform, the fundamental rights and protection of citizens need to be guaranteed. The power of the people is shared with the government for their benefit as per the constitution. The ATA fails to achieve both these objectives. The draft ATA presented by the government has several features that are worse than the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that it is intended to replace.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stock is rising high in the higher echelons of society where there is virtual unanimity that the president’s handling of the economic crisis has been masterful. The president’s achievement is seen in his restoration of order out of the chaos of the Aragalaya period and by getting the IMF to grant its biggest ever loan to the country. The message is going out that the president is the best man for the job and that there is no alternative to him. Shortly after the IMF loan came through the government reduced the price of petrol and diesel by a significant amount and also brought down the price of several other essential commodities.
A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.
The unraveling of the economy at the beginning of 2022 had its immediate impact on the political sphere. Large numbers of people mobilized 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 bail out 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.
The economy is beginning to give indications of macro stability which President Ranil Wickremesinghe has made his primary objective. The most visible of these is the appreciation of the rupee against the dollar and other international currencies which signals a shift from the previous trend of depreciation. Over the past year the cost of the dollar rose by as much as 80 percent in the official exchange rate and even more on the black market. The current appreciation of the rupee is attributed to the rise in foreign exchange earnings including the upswing in tourism. But it is still contingent upon import controls and also non-repayment of foreign debt due to the declaration of bankruptcy.
Government supporters appear to be satisfied at the masterful manner by which they believe they have had the local government elections postponed. They deny there was to be an election to be postponed at all. They find fault with the Election Commission for not having minutes of the meeting they had to decide on the date, and for not having a quorum among their five members for that meeting—although all five signed a letter declaring March 9 to be the date of the election. There is also the second argument that the country has no money to set aside for elections. The government has set aside other areas as essential services for which scarce government money is available but holding the local government elections is not one of those. The government has been arguing that the country simply cannot afford an election at this time as it is bankrupt.
The local government elections are unlikely to take place as scheduled on March 9. This is on account of the government printer declining to print ballot papers without prior payment by the Election Commission. The Election Commission is on record saying that due to this delay in the printing of ballot papers, and the difficulty of completing the postal voting on time, the elections may need to be postponed. This unexpected turn of events throws the country’s democratic process into jeopardy. It follows a government decision not to permit credit purchases by government departments. A long prevalent practice of the government printer undertaking the printing of ballot papers without payment in advance has been put into abeyance.
There was Solomon-like wisdom in the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the local government election cases that came before it. The first case it took up was brought before it by opposition parties who are concerned that the government is doing its utmost to prevent those elections. The Election Commission has been under severe pressure from the government to call off or postpone those elections. One of the key opposition leaders Prof G L Peiris has outlined the multiple ways in which the government has made its attempts, including the unacceptable one of claiming not to have enough money to hold elections. But the Election Commission has stood firm and declared March 9 to be the date of the elections and set the election process in motion. In its judgment the Supreme Court stated that the Election Commission had undertaken to conduct those elections, and as they were the proper authority, there was no need for the court to intervene further.