President Ranil Wickremesinghe is using everything at his disposal to gain maximum possible political mileage and increase the momentum of his presidential election campaign, which commenced in earnest last month. He came under heavy fire for proroguing the parliament, but the inauguration of fifth session of the current parliamentary session on Wednesday (Feb. 07) provided him with an opportunity to grab the attention of the media and the public and lay out his report card. In politics, self-interest takes precedence over everything else.
Delivering the policy statement of the government, formerly known as the Throne Speech, President Wickremesinghe highlighted the progress in the economic recovery process, announced social and economic benefits that had accrued to the needy from the government’s social welfare programs, promised relief to others and, above all, infused the public with some hope that it would be possible to ease their tax burden in time to come.
In a bid to drive home his point that the government under his leadership had been able to break the back of the economic crisis and full recovery was possible, Wickremesinghe recalled what the people had experienced in 2002, when he took over as the President; there were long queues for fuel and other essentials, which were in short supply for want of foreign exchange, and power cuts lasting as long as 13 hours a day. According to him, inflation rose to over 50% with the US dollar reaching as much as Rs. 380 in 2022, but it has dropped to 6.5%; food inflation is 3% at present, and US dollar has come down to Rs. 317, he said, noting that the economic crisis was under control, and the economy had expanded by 1.6% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2023. He added that despite a 3.7 per cent budget primary deficit in 2022, the country had achieved a significant turnaround in 2023, with a primary budget surplus. That marked the sixth instance of Sri Lanka achieving such a surplus in the 76 years since Independence, he said. In 2022, the balance of payments deficit was 1.9 percent of GDP, but by the end of 2023, the country had achieved a surplus, a milestone not seen since 1977, he said.
Hope is said to keep everyone going. Acknowledging that VAT was a heavy burden on the public, the President said the government was addressing the issue in a systematic manner. “In 2022, there were 437,547 registered taxpayers, and that number had surged to 1,000,029 by the end of 2023—an impressive 130 percent increase. As the tax network expands, the burden on individuals and organizations will diminish,” he said, holding out hope to the public. He promised the needy 20 kilos of rice free of charge for the April festive season.
The President’s undertaking to reduce taxes must have struck a responsive chord with the public, who are undergoing untold hardships due to tax and tariff increases. It has the hallmarks of an election pledge.
Having analyzed the economic situation and supported his arguments with facts and figures, President Wickremesinghe made some political statements that smacked of an attempt to cast the JVP in a bad light as a party that prioritized political expediency over principle.
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is one of the bitterest critics of President Wickremesinghe and the government, and his frontal attacks on the government has helped the JVP improve its approval rating, according to some opinion surveys. Politicians do not keep secrets, which they are ready to reveal anytime to serve self-interest. The President said something that must have made the JVP MPs squirm in their seats.
Asking the SJB and the JVP to cooperate with the government for nation building, President Wickremesinghe said the JVP had fully cooperated with the Yahapalana government, and been a livewire of the Anti-Corruption Committee set up by that administration. He asked why the JVP could not do so at present for the sake of the country. Its honeymoon with the Yahapalana government is something that the JVP wants the public to forget.
JVP leader Dissanayake, the President said, had even got a person of his choice, Ananda Wijepala, appointed to head the office of the Anti-Corruption Committee, and the JVP had not returned some files it had taken away. The Yahapalana government became hugely unpopular, and the JVP MPs must have been really embarrassed when the President revealed their party’s collaboration with that administration.
Will the JVP respond to the President’s claim or just ignore it without provoking the President into making some more revelations about its deals with the Yahapalana government.
In fact, it was not the Yahapalana coalition that the JVP cooperated with but the UNP-led UNF, which it backed after President Maithripala Sirisena’s UPFA pulled out of the national unity government. The UNF government, which was left without a majority, would have collapsed if not for the support it received from the JVP and the TNA.
The SJB staged a walk out on Wednesday moments before President Wickremesinghe commenced his speech in the parliament. Subsequently, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella told the media that the SJB had done so in protest against the government’s undemocratic acts, which were legion. He said Bills were rushed through the House, and there was no way the SJB could cooperate with a government that suppressed democracy.
Boycotts of parliamentary debates, speeches, etc., are not uncommon in this country. The SJB’s protest prompted the President to say that he had groomed most of the SJB MPs, and they should cooperate with him for the common good. It was obvious that he was talking down to the SJB MPs.
Some SJB MPs, however, did not join the boycott of the President’s speech, and they even attended the President’s tea party, according to media reports. Political observers are of the view that Wednesday’s walk-out exposed the latest split in the SJB. Among those who remained in their seats during the President’s long speech were MPs Kumar Welgama, A. H. M. Fowzie and Rajitha Senaratne, who later criticized the SJB’s protest and paid some compliments to President Wickremesinghe for having managed the economic crisis.
It is being speculated in political circles that the SJB is likely to suffer another breakaway in time to come with several more MPs defecting to the UNP. MP Senaratne is one of them, but he insisted in a recent interview with Hiru TV that he had no intention of leaving the SJB. No politician shows his or her hand. In late 2014, the then SLFP General Secretary and Minister Sirisena swore blind that he would not leave the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. He said so when a group of senior Buddhist monks asked him, after a religious function at Temple Trees, whether he was planning to decamp and run for President. One of the monks said later that they had placed the sacred relic casket on Sirisena’s head when they posed that question to him to ensure that he was telling the truth.
All in all, President Wickremesinghe gained some political mileage from his policy statement on Wednesday although the wisdom of proroguing the parliament stands questioned.