President Maithripala Sirisena hails from the North Central Province. He is an agriculturist by vocation. He joined mainstream politics in 1989 as an MP and has held several ministries since 1994. He was General-Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Health Minister until November 2014 when he announced his candidacy for the 2015 presidential election.
After being sworn in, Sirisena stated that he would only serve one term. On April 28, 2015, Sirisena voluntarily transferred significant presidential powers to parliament unlike any other president before. Sirisena’s simplicity has certainly won the support of many people and put all the politicians in the country under pressure to follow his example. Unlike most of his ministers, he himself takes his phone calls and returns his calls. Leo Tolstoy once said, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity.” Maithri is certainly a humble man with a very strong resolve, a very refreshing change for the country. Two years into his term, while democracy has got strengthened, there has hardly been any meaningful reform. His third year in office commences with strong evidence of the president getting ready to play a bigger role in the government and will no longer allow political scoundrels past and present to cut deals with the government to abscond their place at Welikada.
To the vast majority in the country, his government often sounds very offhandish and removed from reality. Therefore, the president needs to act fast to consolidate the goodwill he has earned and his mission from now on should be to get the right people on board and create a culture of discipline for his government to deliver. Because trust and respect for him and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe are key to push through the reform agenda they both promised in January 2015.
Move into 2017
Therefore, as we move into 2017, the future of Sri Lanka’s economic health will largely depend on political stability, technocratic efficiency, return to genuine peace, good governance and continued policy reforms – particularly in the area of fiscal discipline and management. The 30-year conflict and high government expenditure had contributed to Sri Lanka’s high public debt load – 86 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 and 75 percent in 2015. Sri Lanka from now on would need an economic growth rate of around 7 percent to 8 percent and investment levels of about 30 percent of GDP for a sustainable reduction in poverty. In the past 10 years, investment levels have averaged around 25 percent of GDP. Sri Lanka depends on a strong global economy for investment and for expansion of its export base and the global slowdown has proved to be detrimental to economic growth.
Sri Lanka’s exports to the European Union (EU) increased sharply between 2006 and 2008 under the EU GSP Plus market access programme, granted in 2005 to help Sri Lanka rebuild after the 2004 tsunami. However, after a protracted review process, the EU decided in February 2010 to withdraw the GSP Plus market access benefit due to Sri Lanka’s alleged poor human rights record.
GSP Plus had allowed for the duty-free export of Sri Lankan goods into European markets. Sri Lankan exporters have however improved their productivity and remained competitive. But certainly the improvement in the EU-Sri Lanka relations has helped to strengthen trade between the EU and Sri Lanka. However, there is no dispute that Sri Lanka needs to strengthen the country’s economic links with the Asian and Middle East countries in general and fast growing large economies such as India and China.
Sri Lanka’s exports, mainly apparel, tea, rubber and jewellery, were around US $ 10 billion and imports (mainly oil, textiles, food and machinery) were around US $ 18 billion for 2015 and expected to be in excess of that in 2016. The resulting large trade deficit was financed primarily by remittances from Sri Lankan expatriate workers, tourism, foreign assistance and commercial borrowing. Sri Lanka must diversify its exports beyond garments and tea. Garment exports face increased competition since the expiration of the worldwide Multi-Fibre Arrangement.
The tea industry is challenged by a shortage of plantation workers and by growing competition, not to mention the constant political pressure to increase wages in a sector where we are at the mercy of international market forces. Sri Lanka is a large recipient of foreign assistance, with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank, Japan and other donors disbursing loans.
China has also become a major lender for infrastructure projects, such as a new port, roads and power plants and also with the proposed new investments in Hambantota. Therefore, Sri Lanka’s dependence on foreign assistance and support would continue and that would depend to some extent on how the government continues to manage the political reconciliation in the country and its ability to balance global powers.
However, for the government of Sri Lanka, there is the challenge of resettlement and reconciliation. But neither of these can be seen in just the political context or in the limited framing of ethnic harmony. They are both related to a process of democratization, a political settlement and also good governance. On the other hand, good governance is not an abstract principle but a practice. The proposed constitutional reforms will not be endorsed by an electorate that is deeply sceptical of its leaders.
During the decades of war, the problem in Sri Lanka was construed as an ethnic problem. Indeed the political problems of Lanka cannot be limited to one of ethnicity. The most serious challenge in Sri Lanka has been a problem of democratization. Social exclusion also follows a lack of a balanced democracy. Democratization needs to distance itself from excesses of power and authoritarianism and the need is for liberal democracy in Sri Lanka.
A process of political reconciliation centred on democratization would have to involve reforming the state through a new constitution that allows for the devolution of power to the regions with power sharing at the centre. It would have to advance the devolution debate in ways to address class, caste, gender and the rural-urban divide.
There needs to be substantive demilitarization involving not only demobilization and reduction of the size of the military. This is not easy to accomplish and strategies have to be planned for absorbing the demobbed forces into civil society through adult education programmes as well as skills training. Thus, political reconciliation cannot just be about humanitarian issues and ethnic harmony, nor can it be limited to a narrow vision of reconstruction and economic development. Rather it has to take seriously the challenges of democratization and a political settlement.
Such political reconciliation will not be possible without constructive debate and the free expression of opinion that challenges the Sri Lankan state and the ruling regime and the implementation of our national plans, that openness and engagement could make Sirisena even more popular in the electorate. In this backdrop, the president must engage and understand the problems of the underprivileged and promote political reconciliation and help all communities to work together as one nation to ensure that as a country we can realize our full potential. The opportunity to do that is now.
(Dinesh Weerakkody is a