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SRI LANKA

Questions persist in Sri Lanka over abolishing executive presidency after election

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Questions persist in Sri Lanka over abolishing executive presidency after election

Ranil Wickremesinghe is sworn in as President in Colombo on July 21.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is sworn in as President in Colombo on July 21. | Photo Credit: ISHARA KODIKARA/AFP

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as President has not gone down well with most Sri Lankans.

Less than 24 hours after Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the eighth Executive President of Sri Lanka, security forces raided the site of the months-old people’s protest in Galle Face, Colombo. According to eyewitness accounts, around 2,000 officers stormed the site around 2 a.m. on July 22, removed protesters and cleared the tents adjacent to the presidential secretariat. Live videos on social media showed security forces attacking protesters, including lawyers and journalists. Nine protesters were arrested. A police statement said a “special operation was conducted jointly with the tri-forces and the Police Special Task Force (STF) early this morning to clear protesters who were illegally occupying the presidential secretariat, its main entrance, and the vicinity”.

The police raid came hours after the protesters announced that they would hand over the occupied presidential secretariat, Ground Zero (protest site at the gates of the secretariat) to the authorities at 2 p.m. on July 22. On July 14, they had handed over to the authorities the President’s House, the Prime Minister’s official residence (Temple Trees) and the Prime Minister’s office, all of which they had occupied as part of the protests.

Security forces carry out a raid on the protest site outside the Presidential Secretariat in the early hours of July 22.
Security forces carry out a raid on the protest site outside the Presidential Secretariat in the early hours of July 22. | Photo Credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Marisa de Silva, an activist who had been involved in the protests from the beginning, tweeted that some protesters were hospitalised following the raid. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) condemned the incident and cautioned that it would negatively impact Sri Lanka’s political, economic and social stability. It called for an inquiry and urged disciplinary action against those involved.

The Sri Lankan parliament elected Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six-time Prime Minister, as President on July 20, days after people’s protests forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down as from the post. He fled the country in the early hours of July 13, the day he was supposed to resign and sent in his resignation letter a day later from Singapore.

July 9 demonstrations

Sri Lanka has witnessed months of protests, including the July 9 demonstrations in which people from all over the island gathered in Colombo calling for Rajapaksa’s resignation. That day, in a symbolic taking over of power, protesters occupied the President’s House, the presidential secretariat and the Prime Minister’s official residence.

People throng ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo on July 11, two days after it was stormed by protesters.
People throng ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence in Colombo on July 11, two days after it was stormed by protesters. | Photo Credit: ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/AP

While Rajapaksa’s economic blunders aggravated the economic crisis that grips the island nation, the people are not really happy with Wickremesinghe’s election as President. He faced public outcry when Rajapaksa appointed him as Prime Minister in May mainly on account of the widely held view that he lacks the public mandate to hold office of either Prime Minister or President. Having lost the 2020 parliamentary election, Wickremesinghe entered parliament on the National List. In 2015, he won the highest number of preferential votes in Colombo district (over 5,00,000 votes), but in 2020 his United National Party (UNP) polled just 30,875 votes in the same district.

Many believe Wickremesinghe is a proxy of the Rajapaksas and are wary of him being in power, lest he allows the Rajapaksas to escape accountability. Opinions vary, however, and some people believe that Wickremesinghe will be able to steer the country into economic stability. No mean task, given that on July 5 Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister declared Sri Lanka “bankrupt”.

“Many believe the new President is a proxy of the Rajapaksas and are wary of him being in power lest he goes easy on them.”

The situation started going out of control in mid February. As the crisis deepened, protests that had started off as neighbourhood candlelight vigils became bigger and spread from the suburbs of Colombo across the island. Protest-villages — “Gota Go Gama” (Gota Go Village) — came up in major towns and cities such as Colombo (in the vicinity of the presidential secretariat), Kandy, Galle, Badulla, Kurunegala, Moneragala and Ratnapura. Daily life became increasingly difficult and the anger against the government mounted. People then took to the streets to express their grievances. “That was the only thing we could do,” Marisa de Silva said.

Daily life crumbles

Shortage of cooking gas and fuel, along with power outages, destroyed many livelihoods. Zahra, who made and sold short eats, was forced to discontinue her business because of the difficulty in sourcing ingredients and cooking gas. “I used to stand in gas queues for days and return empty-handed. I switched to using kerosene to cook, but now there is a kerosene shortage as well. It was not easy to carry on the business this way, so I stopped.” Her husband, a tuk-tuk driver, was unable to buy petrol despite queueing up for it for days. Now that both of them have lost their income, Zahra manages her family expenses by pawning her jewellery. 

Farmers’ plight

Yathursha Ulakentheran, a researcher based in the north of Sri Lanka, said small farmers in the region were reluctant to cultivate their fields because of the fertilizer ban and lack of kerosene. “Last year, cultivation dropped due to lack of fertilizer. This year, additionally, the farmers barely get sufficient kerosene for their water pumps, which they use to water the crops. Many farmers say that they require 15 litres of kerosene a month, but now they get five litres occasionally,” she said. The irregular supply of fuel affects livelihoods of not only farmers but also daily-wage farm labourers.

Demonstrators take part in a protest march against Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe towards the Presidential secretariat office in Colombo on July 22.
Demonstrators take part in a protest march against Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe towards the Presidential secretariat office in Colombo on July 22. | Photo Credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

The fuel crisis has also affected the area’s small fisherfolk who are unable to source enough kerosene for their boats, and when they cannot put out to sea it also affects the women engaged in dry-fish production. Ulakentheran said that most families in the rural north eat one meal a day and added that in some areas primary schools provide mid-day meals for their children. “Families find it difficult to arrange one meal a day, let alone a nutritious meal. Children are starving. The vulnerable communities in the rural north are struggling to survive with the loss of livelihoods and rising cost of living. They have no savings to fall back on,” Ulakentheran said.

Education and health sectors in limbo

The crisis has caused a breakdown in the education and health sectors too. Schools in Colombo and neighbouring areas face frequent closures because of the fuel crisis. Even though schools switch to online teaching, not every child can afford a device to attend classes online. According to the Computer Literacy Statistics of 2020, only 22.2 per cent of households in the country own a desktop or a laptop. In families with multiple school-going children, it is impossible for every child to attend all the online classes when there are not enough devices to go around. The case of Zahra, whose household has one smartphone, is typical: “I have three children, the oldest has his Ordinary Level [OL] exams this year. So, I let him attend all his classes. The younger ones are in Grade 8 and Grade 2; they only attend the classes held when my oldest doesn’t have class. They take turns in attending classes.”

On July 15, the Health Ministry released a circular requesting hospitals to prioritise essential and life-saving services because the fuel crisis was making it impossible for health workers to report for work. In previous months, many hospitals suspended routine surgeries and stopped routine lab tests. Long power outages, lack of fuel for generators, lack of transportation, and shortage of medicines and medical equipment have crippled the health care system. The emergency ambulance service “1990 Suwa Seriya” was temporarily suspended in certain areas because there was no fuel to run it. Recently, the services recommenced.

Dr Yasuni Manikkage, a doctor working in Colombo, said that life-saving and essential drugs such as medicines for heart attack, anti-rabies vaccines, and dialysis fluid were in short supply. She said routine surgeries could not be carried out because of shortage of anesthetic drugs, basic equipment such as catheters, nasal-gastric (NG) tubes, suture material and gloves. “Donations are helpful, but they cannot sustain a health care system like ours because it’s difficult to maintain health equity. We are facing an acute shortage of drugs and medical equipment. In some instances, the drug is not even available in the country,” she said.  

How did the economy crash?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa sent in his resignation from Singapore. Here, in happier times, waving at party members during the launching ceremony of his election manifesto in Colombo in October 2019.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa sent in his resignation from Singapore. Here, in happier times, waving at party members during the launching ceremony of his election manifesto in Colombo in October 2019. | Photo Credit: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS

The tax cuts imposed by Rajapaksa when he came to power in 2019 and the depletion of foreign exchange reserves aggravated the economic crisis which was the culmination of decades of economic mismanagement. Among the issues Sri Lanka has grappled with for decades are low taxes and low interest rates resulting in low government revenue; subsidised pricing that caused state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to make massive losses; twin deficits (budget deficits and current account deficits) caused by high government expenditure; and import-export imbalance.

Umesh Moramudali, an economist and a lecturer at the University of Colombo, said: “In 2007-2008, we started borrowing from international capital markets. Sri Lanka borrowed heavily for infrastructure projects and repayments started around 2010. The borrowings significantly increased the foreign debt repayments. However, the country was able to get through with IMF packages and further borrowings to manage the deficits. But the Rajapaksa government ignored the economic issues and made several policy blunders that led to the current situation.”  

The 2019 tax cuts caused a 30 per cent reduction in government revenue and led to a downgrading of Sri Lanka’s credit ratings. This meant Sri Lanka was locked out of international capital markets even as tourist arrivals dropped drastically because of the pandemic. Against this backdrop, the country found itself short of foreign exchange to pay back its foreign debts. When the government used up its foreign exchange reserves to repay the debts, the country ran out of resources to purchase essentials such as gas, fuel, food and medicines. In May 2022, the usable foreign exchange reserves stood at under $50 million.

“Rajapaksa’s tax cuts and the depletion of foreign exchange reserves aggravated the economic crisis. ”

Meanwhile, the government also printed more money, contributing to inflation. In early July, Wickremesinghe said inflation was expected to hit 60 per cent soon.

Maintaining a fixed exchange rate was another policy blunder. The exchange rate was approximately SLR 200/USD until March 2022, whereas in informal channels such as Undiyal/Hawala systems, the exchange rate was flexible and approximately over SLR 250/USD in March. Many migrant workers chose these better paying informal channels to send in their remittances.  As a result the formal banking system lost approximately $1.6 billion in worker remittance inflows. With inadequate forex inflow and forex reserves, Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in May. Many experts believe that if the government had sought IMF assistance much earlier, the crisis would not have become so unmanageable. But the government maintained an anti-IMF stance until April, ignoring expert advice.

Is it a purely economic crisis?

Ambika Satkunanathan, a human rights advocate and former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, believes that the economic crisis is a fallout of Sri Lanka’s political dysfunctionality. She said: “One of the key political factors that has led to this crisis is the executive presidency; the all-powerful nature of it, the fact that you can’t hold the Executive President accountable, and the lack of checks and balances. The 20 A [20th Amendment to the Constitution] passed during Rajapaksa’s time [in October 2020] made the Executive President more powerful, and he was able to take these key decisions arbitrarily. Therefore, political factors are very much a root cause of this crisis along with the economic policy errors and economic mismanagement.” She felt that the system can change if the public recognise the flaws in the social-political culture, perform their civic duty and hold politicians accountable.

A survey done by Verite Research, an independent interdisciplinary think tank in Sri Lanka, showed that 70 per cent of Sri Lankans wanted the executive presidency abolished. Presidential candidates in the past have promised to abolish it, but no one did.

A queue for kerosene at a gas station in Kandy in June. The fuel shortage affected diverse sections and destroyed livelihoods.
A queue for kerosene at a gas station in Kandy in June. The fuel shortage affected diverse sections and destroyed livelihoods. | Photo Credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/BLOOMBERG

Satkunanathan said Wickremesinghe had lost the trust of the people. “He lost the elections in 2020 and entered the parliament via National List. People protested against him being Prime Minister, they protested against him contesting in the presidential election. It shows he never had the public mandate. People don’t want him as Prime Minister or President, as they believe he is a proxy of the Rajapaksas,” she said. On the July 22 raid on protesters, she tweeted that Wickremesinghe was responsible for the “violence unleashed on protesters” and the executive presidency enabled the act as it gave him “power and impunity”. 

Satkunanathan is not alone in her reservations about the new President. There is a widespread opinion that political instability will continue with him at the helm and the economic crisis will only worsen. Satkunanathan said a general election should be held by early 2023 and in the meantime, parties should come together and abolish the executive presidency.

Umesh Moramudali said the country could afford an election. “We should go for a general election to prevent worsening of the economic crisis due to political instability and public displeasure, as the parliament has lost the public mandate. The IMF negotiations could be finalised in a few months and then the country could go for a general election”, he added.

SLR 5,724 million was reported as the expected expenditure for the 2020 general election in the Elections Commission report. In 2015, SLR 2,975 million was spent on conducting the general election. Precautionary measures to prevent COVID reportedly made the 2020 election even costlier.

Way forward

Sri Lanka is yet to resume talks with the IMF to reach a staff-level agreement. The government should implement policies and take action to strengthen the economy. Improving public financial administration, increasing taxes, bringing about tax administration reforms, reducing the budget deficit, selling fuel and electricity at the market price instead of subsidising them, cutting down on infrastructure spending, increasing exports by encouraging more businesses to engage in export, reducing luxury imports, attracting foreign investment, and taking action to restructure the debt burden are some ways in which Sri Lanka can address its structural economic weaknesses. “It’s not going to be easy. It will be a gradual and lengthy process,” Moramudali remarked. He said improving public transport would reduce fuel consumption, reducing the amount of fuel imported in the long run. Sri Lanka has a long way to go in terms of resolving the economic crisis, and public trust in the parliament plays a crucial role. The breakdown of the economy has shattered public confidence in the government.  

Muqaddasa Wahid is a freelance journalist based in Colombo.