By Vishvanath

Politics and rhetoric are inseparable, especially in Sri Lanka, where politicians are never short of excuses and try to defend the indefensible. This is what the SLPP leaders do whenever they meet the press; they invariably sound unconvincing but they do not care. In a way, they cannot be expected to do otherwise in an election year, when no party wants to own up to its failings and mistakes when elections approach.

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, taking part in an interview with Sirasa on Wednesday, sought to construct a somewhat positive narrative of what the country has been witnessing during recent years. He is a mouthpiece for the de facto leader of the SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa, and therefore what he says in media interviews and at press conferences can be thought to provide noteworthy insights into the thinking of the SLPP leadership.  

Kariyawasam sought to trace the genesis of the present economic crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic and its debilitating impact on the economy, especially the country’s foreign reserves, during the early stages of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) presidency. His line of reasoning went like this: Sri Lanka is dependent on tourism, workers’ remittances, foreign investment, and exports to maintain its foreign exchange reserves. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, President GR had a choice between closing the country to save the people’s lives and keeping it open at the expense of the public. He chose to impose lockdowns; the media, religious leaders, medical experts and the Opposition urged him to close the country, and prevented him from reopening it even when there were discernible caseload decreases. He had no way of shoring up foreign exchange reserves because tourist arrivals had dropped to zero; many expatriate workers had to be brought back to Sri Lanka; no foreign investors came and lockdowns crippled the export sector. On top of those factors, the government had to import vaccines, grant pandemic relief to the public and run Covid-19 treatment centres.

All the heads of government in the countries that prioritized saving lives over economic activity during the pandemic had been compelled to resign, Kariyawasam said citing, as examples, the resignations of President GR, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

When it was pointed out by the interviewer that other countries had not faced economic crises due to the pandemic, Kariyawasam argued that Sri Lanka had been without sufficient foreign currency reserves to absorb the shock at the time. It was obvious that he was stretching the truth and trying to pass the blame for the crisis on to those who had called for lockdowns during the pandemic. He also said that an organized group had propagated a blatant lie that the Rajapaksas were stealing dollars and transporting them to Uganda, and had succeeded in preventing many Sri Lankans from sending remittances through the local banking system. He tried to make the GR government out to be a victim of circumstances.  

What one has gathered from Kariyawasam’s responses in Wednesday’s Sirasa interview is that the SLPP is not willing to admit its failure to have steered the economy through the pandemic safely; it is even trying to justify the ill-conceived tax cuts, which the Supreme Court has adduced as one of the reasons for the economic crisis. Kariyawasam tried to have the public believe that the SLPP leaders had got into trouble by granting tax relief to the public. What he left unsaid was that those tax reductions were politically-motivated; they were aimed at helping the SLPP win the 2020 general election, and state revenue dropped drastically as a result. If taxes had been kept at an affordable level, the impact of the pandemic, etc., could have been mitigated. Kariyawasam stopped short of addressing the other causes of the crisis, especially the GR government’s refusal to seek IMF assistance at the first signs of the economic crisis; President Mahinda Rajapaksa averted an economic crisis with the help of the IMF in 2009 while the Vanni war was raging.

Another cause of the current economic crisis was excessive money printing, which led to an increase in inflation and the devaluation of the Sri Lankan rupee against all major foreign currencies, worsening the country’s balance of payment woes.

Kariyawasam asserted that GR had failed to manage the economic crisis because he lacked experience as a politician and had not sought the advice of political veterans in the SLPP, such as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil. This contention runs counter to the position of the loyalists of Gotabaya.

Entrepreneur and lawyer Dilith Jayaweera, who was very close to President GR said in an interview with Derana TV on Monday (Jan. 22) argued that GR had failed because he had become a prisoner of his brothers, especially Basil. The appointment of Dr. P. B. Jayasundera as the Secretary to the President at the behest of the Rajapaksa family had come as a big surprise to all those who had expected GR to free himself from the clutches of his family, Dilith said, revealing that he had personally asked GR what had made the latter agree to make that appointment but had not received a clear answer, and that was the day he realized GR would be in trouble. He said he had opposed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution because he was for the continuation of the ban on dual citizens, especially Basil, from entering the parliament.

Who is telling us the truth, Dilith or Sagara?

Kariyawasam argued on Wednesday that the SLPP remained a force to be reckoned with although social media tried to convince the public otherwise. What mattered was ground reality and not the blatant lies being disseminated via social media, he said, claiming that a certain group was carrying out a hostile propaganda campaign against the SLPP by manipulating social media. He accused the opponents of the SLPP of using fake accounts to post news and comments critical of the SLPP on social media platforms.

The SLPP is seeking to absolve itself of responsibility for the adverse impact of the IMF-recommended economic recovery plan, which President Ranil Wickremesinghe has undertaken to implement fully. Kariyawasam said it was unfortunate that credit for the success of the economic recovery efforts went to the President, and the SLPP was blamed for all their ill-effects. Both credit and blame should go to the President who was managing the economy, he said.

Kariyawasam said the SLPP would contest the future elections, but had not decided on a presidential candidate. There were several contenders, and the best one would be nominated, he said, admitting that business tycoon Dhammika Perera was one of the SLPP’s presidential hopefuls.

The public is reeling from unbearable economic hardships aggravated by tax and tariff hikes. The Central Bank has said inflation could go up to 7% towards the end of the current month due to VAT increase and inclement weather, which has taken its toll on the agricultural sector. This situation is bound to go against the SLPP at elections.

The SLPP’s support base is eroding. The UNP has already won over a section of the SLPP’s parliamentary group, including some staunch supporters of the Rajapaksa family, such as Nimal Lanza, who used to be a diehard loyalist of Basil.

The SLPP’s efforts to have President Wickremesinghe on a string have failed although he is still dependent on the SLPP MPs for parliamentary support; he has only a single UNP member in the current parliament. The SLPP has failed to have him appoint some of its district leaders to the Cabinet.

Will the SLPP have to back President Wickremesinghe in the coming presidential contest for want of a better alternative? This is an option the SLPP has not ruled out. Kariyawasam remained non-committal when a question to that effect was posed to him in the Sirasa interview; he gave an evasive answer, which left the viewers none the wiser.  

If the SLPP throws in its lot with President Wickremesinghe, it will lose some more of its MPs to the UNP, and the SLPP will be reduced to a mere appendage of a UNP-led coalition come the next parliamentary election.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here