DEALING WITH A NATIONAL FINANCIAL CRISIS LIKE NO OTHER – The Island

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by Rajan Phillips

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made another statement to parliament last Wednesday (22 June). Apparently, these are bi-weekly statements he has pledged to make “since he took over the reins of this government”, as he put it. With cynical self-mockery, he acknowledged the ridicule directed at him for making too many statements with too little action or results.

Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake have taken the criticism to another level by boycotting Parliament until the Prime Minister and the government present an action plan to deal with the economic crisis. This is the first time that the two leaders have reached common ground in the current parliament. Ironically, their agreement is not about a positive intervention but about an inexplicable abdication in the face of national suffering.

We appreciate the enormity of the challenge facing the Prime Minister and the government and the extremely limited and constantly diminishing assets at their disposal. People know that supplies are chronically insufficient and will get seriously worse. What no one understands is why can’t the government organize orderly distributions of limited supplies and spare those who are already suffering the added trauma of having to queue for something they won’t get anyway not.

An example is the supply of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. They have been rare since February and nothing has been done to regulate their distribution. Those who have little or nothing stand and suffer for not getting much, while those who can afford send proxies to collect more with the aim of hoarding and possibly reselling.

Confused young power and energy minister Kanchana Wijesekera has promised to introduce a quota system by July. It is already too late and it would also be far too little. The bigger question is why the prime minister and the government are not considering implementing a prioritization system for supply and distribution – food, medical supplies, cooking gas, and allocating fuel only to public transport (including three-wheelers) and to trucks involved in internal food. transportation. With all the shortages and closures, it makes no sense to continue the supply of fuel for private vehicles and transport.

Given that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe leads a cabinet of worn-out old men, it is incumbent on the opposition to constantly raise these issues in parliament and force the Prime Minister and the government to take concrete action. Instead, the SJB and JVP are fleeing parliament with the apparent intention of forcing the government to come up with a plan. JVP leader Dissanayake, who caused a stir in parliament last year and announced the JVP was ready for national leadership, is now missing and missing opportunities to demonstrate his and the JVP’s will to lead. Sajith Premadasa became the occasional opposition leader. After weeks of silence, he appeared in parliament only to announce his boycott of parliament.

Political opinion is divided, as the Prime Minister himself acknowledges, between those who ridicule his “declarations” and others who welcome his apparent openness and transparency. The problem is that Mr Wickremesinghe has been unable to dispel the perception that he is continuing to play his old political games while appearing to provide a new form of leadership. The Prime Minister and the President do not work together at all. It is the same as under the yahapalana administration, according to former president Maithripala Sirisena. There is a huge difference, of course. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were elected to work together, but between them they missed out on a joint venture that started with a lot of promise. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa came together by mutual consent and out of desperation. It makes no sense for them to work against the grain now. This only weakens the administration and adds to public cynicism.

There is no politics without gossip, and the ongoing gossip is that the Prime Minister tried to bring in one of his cronies as the new Governor of the Central Bank when the Governor’s current term expires. . It would mean replacing Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe, who emerged from early retirement from Australia to run the bank in crisis, with a rank outsider and a new Arjuna Mahendran. Why? Why would Mr Wickremesinghe repeat the same colossal gaffe that ended his legitimate political career? Luckily for the country and for himself, he may not succeed this time around. But this only shows that there is no end to playing political games even when the country’s economy is in flames.

Full mandate as PM

The prime minister’s statement last week included a startling hint that “his” caretaker government would continue until a firm economic recovery was achieved and only then would an election be called. In a relevant paragraph towards the end of the statement, the Prime Minister shifted his target audience from parliament to the people and said:

“Once we have established a solid economic base, you can hand over power to any political party you wish in an election and elect 225 suitable representatives to parliament. The responsibility and the power to do so rests with you, the citizens of this country. You will then have the opportunity to reject those whom you believe are responsible for the predicament facing Sri Lanka today. In turn, the new government will be given the mandate to bring those responsible to justice. But all this can only be achieved after the revival of the country.

“A solid economic base” will not be established in the next two to three years, which would mean that there will probably be no possibility of elections sooner than when they are normally due in 2025. That is the full term for the current parliament and nearly full term for Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The president has already indicated that he will fulfill his sole mandate in its entirety. If the Prime Minister also wants Parliament to continue in office, he must clearly and categorically express his intention to Parliament and the people. It should not be conveyed by hints in a single paragraph of a long statement. Without transparency, there will be no trust.

For example, the Prime Minister cannot extend his hand to the cooperation of the SJB and the JVP for an interim administration of less than one year at most, while seriously thinking about lasting the next three years. Among the general people, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is expected to stabilize the ship of state out of the chaos of Rajapaksa, reach an agreement with the IMF, implement the constitutional reforms as they are widely understood, then – in the space of about a year, the theater of general elections. Beyond Mr. Wickremesinghe’s role, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also expected to step down from office and abolish the elected executive presidency system. All of those expectations now seem to be water under the Aragalaya Bridge.

President Rajapaksa has announced that he will not step down until the end of his term, but will not run for a second term. With all the rumors of parliamentary elections, the Electoral Commission has started the process of updating the voter register and lists. This work should not be finalized until October. So virtually no elections until October. In any event, for an election to be called this year, Parliament must pass a resolution for it to be dissolved. This is unlikely given the current dynamics in parliament under the Ranil-Rajapaksa government.

After March 2023, the president will have the power to dissolve parliament and call an election. There have been high expectations for an election at some point in 2023. That might not happen if what Prime Minister Wickremesinghe suggested to parliament last Wednesday is also shared by the president and his cabinet of ministers. The prime minister may have very good reason to suggest that a fundamental economic recovery is needed before there can be a general election. But his reasons are not an open book unless he shares them with others. And there’s more.

It was the Prime Minister who kept saying that there is not only an economic crisis, but also a political crisis, and that the first cannot be treated in isolation from the second. If a full legislature is needed to deal with the economic crisis, what will be the implication for the political crisis?

Can the current parliament continue as it is for another three years? Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s 21st Amendment might be acceptable as an interim measure for a limited period, but can it meet all expectations of constitutional reform over a longer period? How will the government manage the next presidential election which will take place before the legislative election, if the mode of election of the head of state is not changed beforehand?

Specific to the executive presidency, how will Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Rajapaksa deal with the issue of abolishing the elected presidential system over an extended period of three years? The Supreme Court has again stipulated, in its judgment on the SJB’s (mis-rushed) 21st Amendment, that a referendum will be required to abolish the presidential system or to change the method of presidential election. This is unfortunate as the court may not have been sufficiently presented with the benefit of strong legal arguments questioning the advisability of extending the referendum requirement to matters not specifically included in the referendum provision of the constitution. Professor Savitri Goonesekere and Dr Nihal Jayawickrama have both expressed this opinion many times in the public domain, and no less than Dr Colvin R de Silva expressed the same opinion 35 years ago during medical debates. legal on the 13th amendment.

Regardless of the legal situation, it would be politically conclusive to decide the future of the executive presidency in a popular referendum. That’s what Professor Savitri Goonesekere suggested in this newspaper a few weeks ago – to bite the bullet and ask the people. But the heads of government and the current Minister of Justice do not have the courage and hide behind the referendum scarecrow to perpetuate the presidential system. The question will become a hot potato for the Prime Minister. It will be on a full term which he seems to want now, and not just in the interim as others understand it.

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