By Vishvanath

The  much-awaited debate between the leader of the JVP-led NPP, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP and Opposition and SJB leader, Sajith Premadasa, on the economy, has been scheduled for June 06 at long last. Dissanayake on Monday (20) informed Premadasa that he was willing to participate in the proposed debate on June 06,    

The SJB and the JVP-led NPP seem to be laboring under the perception that their leaders are the frontrunners in the presidential contest and others, including President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is expected to announce his candidature soon, will be also-rans. This is what months of campaigning and cheering crowds at political rallies do to political parties and their leaders; they become overconfident. But crowds rallies and increases in ratings in voting intention surveys could be misleading. In 2015, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was leading in all pre-polls surveys besides being the most popular political leader at that time, but Maithripala Sirisena came from behind to beat him in the presidential race. 

The JVP has been able to sustain the momentum of its election campaign which it launched for the Local Government elections, which were to be held early last year. It was sometime later that the SJB embarked on its campaign, which however is intensifying. President Wickremesinghe is also busy electioneering although he has not yet thrown his hat into the ring officially. There is ample time for him to do so; he is believed to be expecting some more crossovers and waiting to see whether he could secure the SLPP’s backing before announcing his candidature. Unpopular as the SLPP may be, it cannot be written off. 

The next election, presidential or parliamentary, will be contested on the economic front. Hence the efforts of the SJB and the NPP to have a debate on the economy in a bid to impress the people, who have realized that it is the country’s economic well-being that should take precedence over everything else, especially partisan politics. Nobody wants the country to revert to what was witnessed in 2022—acute shortages of essentials and winding queues. The economic crisis is far from over, and the person who is popularly thought to be able to manage the economy better than others will stand a better chance of winning the presidential election and steering his or her party to victory in a general election. 

Premadasa and Dissanayake are trying to outshine each other and attract votes. But there is reason to believe that some benefits would accrue to President Wickremesinghe from the proposed debate, regardless of who wins it. How so?

If the debate between Premadasa and Dissanayake takes place as scheduled, the two leaders’ strengths and weaknesses will be revealed months ahead of the presidential election. They have been thundering from political platforms, and their arguments, contentions and claims have, by and large, gone unchallenged, and only some of them have been subjected to public discussion. But they will have each other challenging, demolishing and even ridiculing their arguments and claims in a debate. They have no experience whatsoever in handling the economy however articulate they may be as critics, and this fact is likely to come to light during the debate. 

Premadasa and Dissanayake have been blowing hot and cold on the current IMF programme, which is crucial for economic recovery, and if the proposed debate happens, they will have to make their official positions on it known to the public. They are bound to find themselves in a dilemma. They have been left with only two choices where the IMF programme is concerned–continuing with it without any changes or renegotiating it. They are not likely to undertake to maintain the status quo because such an undertaking will amount to an unintended endorsement of President Wickremesinghe’s approach to economic recovery. If they promise to renegotiate the bailout programme, especially the conditions pertaining to taxes, and the curtailment of state expenditure, there will be enough time for the IMF’s views to be sought on the viability of such a course of action. They are bound to have their work cut out to prove the feasibility of their undertaking, for the IMF is not likely to soften its stand and compromise on its conditions, which have entailed hardships to the Sri Lankan public. The IMF holds the whip hand. 

No Sri Lankan in his or her proper senses will ever want the next President and/or government to leave the IMF programme and plunge the country into chaos again. IMF assistance is no silver bullet as such, but it is a prerequisite for economic recovery. Sri Lanka will not be able to draw any loans from external sources unless it follows the IMF guidelines and puts its economy on an even keel. President Wickremeisnghe remains unwaveringly committed to implementing the IMF programme, and there have been some tangible results despite the unprecedented hardships the public is facing, but the economic recovery process is still in a critical phase, and its progress hinges on external debt restructuring, which is yet to be concluded. 

If Sri Lankans have learnt from experience, they cannot be unaware that the consequences of an exit from the IMF programme will be far more dreadful than the ill-effects of the bailout conditions. The SJB and the NPP have been making numerous promises including relief to the public. The former has been making various donations, making the public expect much more in the event of the SJB forming a government. The NPP has undertaken to allocate more funds for improving services to the public and uplifting their living conditions. In the proposed debate, both parties will have to reveal how they propose to raise funds for such programmes. They will not be able to convince the public that if corruption and waste are eliminated, hey preto, there will be enough funds for their ambitious projects. There is no gainsaying that corruption and waste have to be rooted out for the economy to improve. But the elimination of them has been reduced to a mere political slogan, which political leaders have effectively used since 1994 to mislead the public. The SJB and the JVP have been in governments which earned notoriety for corruption, waste, and abuse of power. The SJB is an offshoot of the UNP, and the JVP was in the UPFA government under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Transparency is sadly lacking on the part of both parties where their funds are concerned. Neither of them has disclosed its funding sources. This fact is likely to be held against them in the run-up to the next election. 

The SJB and the NPP will commit themselves to their economic policies irrevocably during the debate to be held,and changes to them afterwards will be seen as about-turns. President Wickrmesinghe will have ample time to study their policies, pick holes in them, if any, and offer alternatives to them. He may even be able to implement some of them depending on their feasibility.

It defies comprehension why the SJB and the NPP have chosen to have a debate on the economy even before the submission of nominations for the next election, presidential or parliamentary. Perhaps, their interests would have been better served if they had waited a little longer.    


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