Sri Lanka’s challenges brought forward?!

New Year has just dawned and this is also the time for personal resolutions, new expectations and beginnings. Looking back at 2015 and the way forward for Sri Lankan state, it continues to remain challenging! In this article, I would like to take stock of the challenges faced by us as a country in 2015 and assess whether they will ease or get worse in this New Year!

2015: Change of leadership

Hon. Maithripala Sirisena, Health Minister of the former government and one of the senior leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), took office of President over the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Sri Lanka Presidential election on January 08 2015. President Sirisena presented the 100-day Action Plan as promised in the common opposition front election manifesto. Immediately after taking office as the President, he appointed Hon Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister, irrespective of the power structure in Parliament at the time. The newly appointed leaders committed to bring a list of radical changes, including[1];

  • A Bill to transfer the executive powers of the President to Parliament through the Cabinet of Ministers.
  • Enact the 19th Amendment to the Constitution repealing the provisions of the 18th Amendment and to establish independent commissions.
  • Appointing a Cabinet of not more than 25 members, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament
  • Introducing amendments to the Standing Orders and Ethical Code of Conduct for peoples representatives
  • Establishment of a Commission to Investigate Corruption

Parliamentary Elections held in August 2015 subsequently changed the power structure in the House leading to a formation of a National Government at a time where either party failed to secure a majority[2], and pledged to continue the implementation of the 100 days plan.

This newly appointed Government in 2015, primarily attempted to ease the economic burden through the interim budget by introducing salary increments and reducing the cost of essential items to a certain degree. Democratic values in the society including establishing law and order, assuring freedom of expression and introduction of new policy measures to promote reconciliation are some of the key successes of the government during the past year!

Inevitably, the government have also faced a series of internal challenges and external threats during this year.

Internal Challenges:

Although President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe together with other partners have managed to set up a government, it lacks a clear vision and the ability to build consensus among the government members on important policy matters. The budget proposals 2015 was the best example which failed to draw consensus within the government and ended up totally deviated to the economic plan presented by the Prime Minister in Parliament.

On the other hand, the fate of any coherent, coordinated plan around reconciliation further highlights policy incoherence and confusion within the government[3].

The clear crisis of prioritisation and its growing apace have further caused inefficiencies in delivering the promised changes with the progress made with the 100 days plan itself during the last 365 days has been extremely slow.

While law and order, freedom of expression and other democratic values have somewhat regained with the changes in 2015, the economy during the year aggravated the fundamental weaknesses of the economic legacy the country inherited weakening the economy further to fragile proportions[4].

Both at presidential and parliamentary polls last year government assured to deal with bribery, corruption and other malpractices of the previous government. The government stakeholders themselves were accused of committing such acts and protecting those who committed them during the previous government. Parties to the coalition government also express their displeasure on the pace at which things have moved in this regard[5].

For President Sirisena, the inability to secure his power within SLFP remains the most important of all these challenges which he has inevitably brought-forward to the New Year.

External Challenges:

Year 2015 brought equally tricky external challenges to the newly appointed government including managing the competing relationship of India and China, and Sri Lanka’s accountability for the alleged human rights excesses issue at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

India’s expectations from Sri Lanka after the War were four-fold: maintain their close strategic security bonds, trigger the reconciliation process starting with the Tamil leaders by implementing the 13th Amendment in full; correct the tilt in favour of China to provide a level platform for Indian trade and investment; and resolve the Tamil Nadu fishermen’s issue amicably while respecting Sri Lankan sovereignty[6]. Whilst President Sirisena has distanced himself from China he chose New Delhi to be the first overseas port of call after assuming office and continued to maintain healthy ties with India.

Government proudly announced its success at the UNHRC in September last year. The HRC’s 30th session ended with another HRC Resolution supported by the Government to promote human rights, justice and reconciliation in the island nation that’s still recovering from a civil war that spanned nearly three decades. I would like to consider this move as a success for the 2015 where actually the challenges are yet to be faced with the implementation of what was promised in the resolution, in the years to come.

2016: Challenges brought forward?!

The National Government is expecting another challenging year ahead with continuing investigations on bribery and corruption, getting ready to introduce a new constitution, implementation of the co-sponsored resolution at the UNHRC and putting the economy on the right track. Most of these brought forward from 2015 and/or before to the New Year. Out of them the most concerning areas as I see are;

  1. Economic Challenges
  2. Policy inconsistency and lack of prioritising within the government &
  3. Slow pace of delivery/policy implementation
  4. Dialogue with the people

Economic Challenges:

The attention of most middle class citizens is drawn by the contemporary economic situation of the country. Some even call it an “economic crisis”. The fundamental macroeconomic indicators seem to have reached a crisis level. The fiscal deficit is increasing, the current account in the balance of payments is widening due to poor performance of exports and increased expenditure on imports, and foreign reserves are at a low level inadequate to service the country’s foreign debt obligations[7].

The government has few challenges in this front: weak fundamentals have to be strengthened by corrective economic policy measures. This includes taking immediate rationale actions that are politically difficult to avoid it falling further into crisis.

Government need to put the economy on track to remain politically legitimate as well. If the corruption in the previous regime exacerbated the economic crisis and the new government came to end such mal practices and turn the economy right, they cannot afford to fail in their theory in the face of the public.  In the event of a failure to deliver on the economic front would be much more painful and politically catastrophic.

  1. Policy Inconsistency and lack of prioritising within the government

One may point out this more as a weakness of the government more than a challenge. For me this poses serious challenges for the government in the New Year. Government needs to master in prioritising and clear delegation of work. Particularly given it is a coalition or as they call it a National Government.

Taking back the example on the economic policy, government could not have afforded to have an inconsistency between its economic policy and the budget proposals, understanding the importance of prioritising the need to put economy on the right track things. This goes beyond the economic policy leading to most other key policy areas including reconciliation.

  1. Slow Pace of delivery/policy implementation

Lack of a clear vision coupled with the policy inconsistency and no ability to prioritising within the government inevitably cause slow paced delivery or inefficiencies. The inability to build consensus among the key stakeholders in the government has worsened it. The government will continue to experience this and will clearly expected to be visible during the constitution making process in the New Year.

Government’s slow pace delivery can hurt not only themselves but also the people if continued in this year as well. Hence it needs serious measures taken to avoid the country leading to further catastrophe.

Educating people on the challenges ahead

Considering the risks and immense challenges ahead of the government in the year, it is imperative to continue a constant dialogue between the people and the government. This needs to go beyond responding to the questions of the people. The government is also expected to educate the people on their policy priorities and how they intend addressing some of the above listed challenges.

There is growing polarisation on ethnic lines in Sri Lanka. The government has sweat over the last year to promote reconciliation without explaining the people the need and rationale for most of the action undertaken by them. There has been little in terms of explaining the UNHRC resolution to the people[8]. There is equally low explanation as in why they had to present the initial budget proposals.

Instead, different stakeholders in government share their own interpretation to the context. The best is when they interpret the UNHRC resolution it co-sponsored in a way that suits its political interests. In this regard, as Ruki (Fernando) clearly points out, government could deftly explain that while the country’s plans for transitional justice will be uniquely Sri Lankan, international assistance is advantageous to ensure a truly credible, inclusive process. “A major part of this will be to explain to the Sinhalese population why independent mechanisms are important, and why [a] significant degree of actual international participation – beyond monitoring, advising, offering finances and training – is important to ensure independence and effectiveness of transitional justice mechanisms,”[9].

In the New Year, it is important for the government therefore to overcome this challenge and have a vision and courage to be transparent and honest about intentions and plans and do the correct thing, even if it may not be the most popular and politically convenient.

 

 

 

[1] http://100days.lk/

[2] http://www.themalaymailonline.com/world/article/rajapakses-opposition-party-joins-sri-lanka-government

[3] https://sanjanah.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/the-bra-effect/

[4] http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160103/columns/2016-the-year-of-the-bitter-pill-hard-times-and-no-great-expectations-177316.html

[5] http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160103/columns/as-2016-dawns-unp-and-slfp-face-internal-crises-177337.html

[6] http://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/611870433_RHariharan.pdf

[7] http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160103/columns/2016-the-year-of-the-bitter-pill-hard-times-and-no-great-expectations-177316.html & https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/sri-lankas-looming-economic-crisis/

[8] http://thediplomat.com/2015/11/sri-lankas-unexpected-political-opening-wont-last-forever/

[9] Ibid

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