The dissenting SLFP MPs and ministers are not exactly interested in the pros and cons of the leasing of the Hambantota Port to the Chinese or the joint-venture with India to develop the Trincomalee Port
President Maithripala Sirisena has decided to set up a National Economic Council (NEC) which will become the apex body tasked to formulate and implement the government’s economic and development policy. The new venture is in part an attempt by the President to claw back some control of the economic policy, which was hitherto under the purview of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his economic advisers. However, the plus side is that it would inject a degree of certainty to the government’s policy and mitigate the effects of the obstructionist tactics resorted to by the SLFP partner in the yahapalana government.
What has left the government dilly dallying on many of the major development projects is not so much the opposition by the joint opposition, but obstructionism by the government’s own junior partner, the SLFP, whose opposition is neither principled nor fact-driven. Rather, it is driven by calculated political opportunism. It is also an overt pretest by the SLFP members against the UNP which had sidelined them in the decision-making process and thus depriving them of perks generally associated with being part of the government.
"Proposing amendments to the already signed and sealed Hambantota Port deal was not just ridiculous it also sent wrong signals to the prospective investors"
The dissenting SLFP MPs and ministers are not exactly interested in the pros and cons of the leasing of the Hambantota Port to the Chinese or the joint-venture with India to develop the Trincomalee Port. They are bitter about the fact that they cannot get government jobs and contracts for their henchmen. To rub it in, their counterparts in the UNP are filling government jobs with their stooges. This unfair status quo which is a life and death matter in their re-election prospects is dissuading the SLFP junior partner from wholeheartedly supporting any government decision.
To make matters worse, the President until recently kept away from economic matters. The absence of a clear party line created by that vacuum provided further incentive to the SLFP’s less than cooperative attitude. Also, that the President himself was sending contradictory signals was of little help. Proposing amendments to the already signed and sealed Hambantota Port deal was not just ridiculous it also sent wrong signals to the prospective investors.
In fact, inner contradictions within the government are not confined to the economy alone. The recent controversy over the Foreign Ministry condemning the North Korean missile tests, which is the right thing to do if Sri Lanka is to assert a role for itself in international politics, is a pointer to those contradictions spilling into other areas. At times, the President himself seems not to be in full control. A case in point is that of the SLFP parliamentary group which decided to support the 20th Amendment at a meeting chaired by the President going back on their decision the following day.
"However, those democratic gains cannot supplant the absence of a cohesive economic strategy. The failure to create prosperity could overtime undermine the painstakingly achieved democratic gains"
It is a miracle that despite those disagreements, the UNP and the SLFP could agree to introduce some of the far-reaching democratic reforms, ranging from the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, to the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons, the Right to Information Act, etc. Those are salutary achievements in a political system that has seen the concentration of power by political leaders, beginning from the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Administration in 1970-77.
However, those democratic gains cannot supplant the absence of a cohesive economic strategy. The failure to create prosperity could overtime undermine the painstakingly achieved democratic gains.
The proposed NEC, “Will be a professionally-managed by a high level, national advisory institution reporting directly to the President”.
It will include the Prime Minister, their respective Secretaries, the Finance Minister, Secretary to the Cabinet, Governor of the Central Bank, Treasury Secretary and Secretary to the Ministry of National Policy and Economic Affairs. It will function in conjunction with another committee, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Development (CCEM). How the decisions of the CCEM would finally be channelled through the NEC is yet to be worked out.
"The dissenting SLFP MPs and ministers are not exactly interested in the pros and cons of the leasing of the Hambantota Port to the Chinese or the joint-venture with India to develop the Trincomalee Port"
What is imperative is that the new council should aim to end the policy paralysis in the government and fast track the implementation of high profile development projects. Those development projects are held in abeyance because of a myriad of reasons, such as the policy paralysis in the government, absence of land allocation, uncertainty over their legal status and investment conditions, etc.
The government should allocate additional resources and personnel to cross-ministerial sub committees to clear up those impediments within set deadlines. Those officials ought to act with as much enthusiasm as the bond commission which meets every day to complete the investigation within a three-month deadline. The problem in Sri Lanka, and much of South Asia, is of officials being obsessed with the intricacies of the process and not the outcome. Thus petty differences result in the procrastination of the the process and often the cost of the delay is exorbitant. That there is no electoral imperative for a higher economic growth has not helped, partly because, Sri Lanka in the first place had not experienced the full force of development. Thus this is a vicious cycle.
The proposed NEC would hopefully restore the balance of political power between the UNP and the SLFP. That should make the SLFP more integral in the decision making process of the government, and thus amend their behaviour to be more cooperative. However, to make sure that those agreed economic decisions are implemented and impediments on their path are removed, the government will also need a mechanism that can implement its mandate efficiently and where the need arises, even forcefully.
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