With the country already in peril due to recurring economic downturns, an alliance of trade unions from the ports, power, water, banking and railways launched a countrywide strike on Wednesday.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe responded in advance by declaring many services essential to maintaining public life.

The main grievance of the working class is to do away with the repugnant tax regime which the government claims is being insisted on by the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF).  The new tax rates have caused a drastic reduction in wages and the purchasing power of the working class, causing immeasurable damage to society at large. The pain-inflicting electricity tariff hike which has sent household economies reeling to a level of complete collapse has exacerbated their financial hardships.

The cost of living has skyrocketed, leading to a significant drop in the quality of life for the working classes. People plunge into virtual bewilderment when they learn about the prices of commodities. An average worker earning less than 40,000 rupees a month finds it extremely difficult to make ends meet with the current economic situation in the country.

A demand for a reduction in taxes is therefore reasonable and most appropriate at the moment.

President Wickremesinghe is unmoved by public agitation. This is because he fears any amendment to the tax regime would put him in an awkward position as far as the IMF is concerned. The IMF’s assistance is essential right now. This is because the IMF move will enable Sri Lanka to tap other sources for help, such as Japan, India, and China, the European Union, and other financial institutions that are ready to lend a helping hand.

Will the people allow the Wickremesinghe government breathing room to achieve its target of securing the IMF financial package and then take some relief measures?

The masses have come to a point where they can no longer tolerate the strict economic restrictions imposed by the government and are trying to take to the streets with some sort of backing from political parties. The government is employing its blatant force to suppress it, drawing condemnation from democratic forces around the world, including western democracies.

As expected, the west as well as the USA and its allies always extend their support to democratic discourse and human rights. The main contention of western countries is that there should be a democratic space for peaceful dissent as an essential ingredient of democracy. Western countries believe that a  democratic space allows citizens to express their opinions and views while also giving them the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives. This creates a more equitable and transparent society, which is seen as essential for the growth and stability of any democracy.

The other point of contention where the opposition parties and the people are similarly perturbed is the government’s move to put off the local authorities’ election. The government’s reluctance to hold the election, citing that the state does not have adequate funds, is being contested by many. There was a heated exchange of words in parliament on the matter after the President took some of the opposition members to task.  The President himself is still being lampooned after earning the ire of the people for his crass and unstatesmanlike comment in parliament last week where he was dismissive of elections. ‘What elections’, he asked the House flippantly, referring to the local authorities’ election. ‘There are no elections to postpone’, he mocked.  Tamil National Alliance MP M. A Sumanthiran saw the President’s behaviour in parliament as the act of a clown in a circus.

Almost all opposition parties held massive political rallies, demanding the government hold the election without delay. However, the government still maintains that there are no adequate funds and is unable to pay an eighty thousand-strong membership representing the local councils. This is despite parliament having authorised Rs.10,903,660,000.00 under the Appropriation Act No. 43 of 2022 for the Election Commission as recurrent expenditure for this year.

Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Bala Wegaya, filed a fundamental rights petition against the Treasury Secretary, who maintained there were no funds available for the election and that the Finance Minister’s approval has to be obtained for non-essential expenditures. In this case, the Finance Minister is President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The petitioner in this case, the secretary of the SJB, is challenging the alleged illegal and unlawful decisions of the Treasury Secretary to not provide adequate funds to the Election Commission for the purpose of conducting the local authorities’ elections, in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed to the petitioner and to all citizens of Sri Lanka by Articles 12(1) and 14(1)(a) of the Constitution, and in violation of their right to exercise their franchise guaranteed to them by Articles 03 and 04 of the Constitution.

Having learned about the situation in Sri Lanka and the government’s attempts to pervert the local authorities’ elections, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee aired its concerns in a Twitter message.

The message said that any attempt to silence the voice of the people of Sri Lanka is undeniably undemocratic and a direct violation of Sri Lankans’ rights. I urge the government of Sri Lanka to hold free and fair local elections without further delay.

Meanwhile, Sarah Hulton, the UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka is reported to have met with the Minister for Public Security Tiran Alles to convey to the government of Sri Lanka the importance of the right to peaceful protest and UK cooperation.

The Center for Policy Alternatives also filed a Fundamental Rights case in the Supreme Court, citing all departments connected with the postponement of the elections as respondents.  Among them were the Government Printer, The Election Commission, the Prime Minister, the Treasury Secretary, the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Provincial Councils and Local Government and the Inspector General of Police (IGP).

The petitioners, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and its Executive Director Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the CPA being a constituent of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, claim that the conduct of the Government Printer and IGP is indicative of collusive action or a coordinated campaign to delay the holding of the local authority elections and that such actions are prejudicial to the fundamental rights of the petitioners and citizens of Sri Lanka.

They state that the President, in his capacity as Minister of Finance, and the Secretary to the Treasury have not, until the very last minute on February 23, 2023, indicated that there is a challenge to the allocation of funds to conduct the elections.

The government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe is coming under enormous pressure from every corner that respects democratic rule, even though the government may be facing difficulties in maintaining 8000 members countrywide. However, the government is now compelled to conduct elections to safeguard the universal adult franchise enjoyed by the people since 1931. Hence, it is imperative that the government acknowledge the people’s right to vote and calls for an election at the earliest possible time. This will ensure that people’s voices are heard and their fundamental rights are respected. It is imperative to hold elections so that voters can choose the representatives they believe will serve them best. Holding an election also helps to maintain democratic rule, as it allows the people to choose their government and hold them accountable for their decisions.

The sentiments expressed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe in parliament, where he found fault with the former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Saliya Peiris, for appearing on behalf of the Election Commission in the Supreme Court, raised a hornet’s nest. This was the subject of discussion in many circles as the president was trying to infringe on the personal liberties of Saliya Peiris. Many organisations, including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, condemned the president’s stance. The President described Saliya Peris as a party lawyer and argued that it would have been better if the Election Commission retained a lawyer, either from the Samagi Jana Bala Wegaya or the JVP-backed Jathika Jana Bala Wegaya. The president said members of the government group complained about the matter. They explored the possibility of retaining the Attorney General for the Election Commission. He said he ruled it out.

Saliya Preis, individually, and the Bar Association as the apex body of lawyers, responded to the president.

The Bar Council of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL)  passed a resolution condemning the sentiments expressed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The BASL took a unanimous decision to express its grave concern regarding the speech made by President Ranil Wickremesinghe in parliament, referring to President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris, who appeared for the Election Commission in the Supreme Court in a case connected with the elections for local authorities.

The BASL statement said its decision to express grave concern regarding the president’s statements, which pose a serious threat to the rule of law, was unanimously adopted on a motion moved by the Deputy President, Anura Meddegoda PC.

The fact that a senior member of the legal profession in Sri Lanka has been subjected to personal attacks for representing clients, more so for being called a “political lawyer” by the Head of State under the cover of immunity and privilege, is a matter of serious concern, the BASL statement said.

It is a basic right of any individual or corporate body to retain an attorney-at-law of their choice to represent their interests in legal proceedings, and members of the bar have a duty to assist their clients before courts and other tribunals. This is a right of any person before the law, a professional duty of attorneys at law, and a vital function to preserve the rule of law and the proper functioning of the legal system.

The BASL is urging the President and Members of Parliament to “exercise self-restraint” and to desist from making statements that will erode the confidence of the public in the legal system and undermine the independence of the judiciary, both of which would ultimately lead to a serious erosion of the Rule of Law.

When the public’s confidence in the legal system is eroded and the independence of the judiciary is undermined, it weakens the Rule of Law, as people are less likely to follow the laws if they don’t trust them or the people enforcing them. This would lead to a chaotic society where the rights of citizens are not respected or protected.

Be that as it may, the IMF is now planning to unlock the financial package for Sri Lanka this month. IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva had a Zoom meeting with President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday night, and an optimistic outlook exists among all parties involved in Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring and financial facility, the president’s media division said. The rupee also appreciated against this backdrop, with the influx of tourists increasing month by month and the foreign remittances also showing a significant improvement. There is a glimmer of hope that the government is making headway in the right direction. The Governor of the Central Bank was also optimistic about the emerging situation when he said that Sri Lanka has now completed all prior actions required to receive much-awaited assistance from the IMF.



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