By Vishvanath

The Colombo-based commentariat is speculating that the SLPP is not likely to field a member of the Rajapaksa family as its presidential candidate, and therefore, business tycoon, Dhammika Perera, stands a better chance of running for President with the SLPP’s backing. 

The SLPP has said there are four presidential hopefuls within its ranks, and it will choose one of them come the next presidential election. Perera is among them. 

It is thought that the Rajapaksa family might try to retain their hold on power by throwing in its lot with Perera at the next presidential election and thereafter riding his coattails to regain control of the parliament in case of his victory. Unless the President’s own party has a parliamentary majority, he or she is at the mercy of the party that controls the parliament. This is said to be the Rajapaksas’ battle plan, which however is full of ‘ifs’. 

It has now become clear that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa will enter the presidential fray from the SJB, Anura Kumara Dissanayake from the JVP-led NPP, and Ranil Wickremesinghe from the UNP with or with the SLPP’s backing. Only the SLPP remains indecisive, but it will have to make up its mind early next year. So, Perera has gone into overdrive to promote himself as an innovative entrepreneur capable of making a difference in politics and turning the economy around. He is planning to use his educational channel, ‘DP Education’, which has benefited a large number of students and become very popular, other social responsibility projects and his entrepreneurial skills to win over popular support. 

Macron’s inspiration

Some of the presidential hopefuls including the Republican Party leader Champika Ranawaka have been inspired by Emmanuel Macron, a banker and politician, who secured the French presidency in 2017 as a political greenhorn and went on to be re-elected. 

Macron is one of the four re-elected French Presidents, the others being de Gaulle, Mitterrand and Chirac. He is the first French President in the Fifth Republic to have been elected without the support of socialists and Gaullists. After winning the presidency for the first time, Macron had his newly-formed party, En Marche voted into office. So, some of the presidential aspirants here without the backing of the UNP, the SLFP, the SLPP, the JVP, the SJB, etc., seem to think they can do a Macron. Perhaps, leader of the Mawbima Janata Party and business magnate, Dilith Jayaweera, too, has drawn inspiration from the incumbent French President.

Milei of Argentina 

However, the country that Sri Lanka bears more resemblance to, where economic factors and the daunting challenges that the next President will face are concerned, is Argentina, which is also beset with the fallout of an IMF bailout. Argentina secured a pledge of 144 billion US dollars from the IMF in 2018. 

The IMF programme has since been a main plank of every party’s election platform. In 2019, centre-left politician Alberto Fernandez, a bitter critic of the IMF, won the presidency by defeating Mauricio Macri, who was accused of toeing the IMF line servilely. There were public protests and Fernandez found it easy to score a comfortable win. 

But the sobering economic reality dawned on him, and he had to soften his stand somewhat on the IMF programme while being critical of it so much so that he too had to face public protests. Eventually, he decided against seeking re-election, and his Finance Minister Sergio Massa, who contested the presidential election, lost to the incumbent President, Javier Milei, 53, a right-wing libertarian, economist and author, obtained 56% of the votes in October 2023.  

Intriguingly, the Argentinians preferred Fernandes, who willingly followed the IMF dictates, to Macri, who lambasted the IMF and offered to renegotiate the loan conditions (just like SJB and Opposition Leader Premadasa!). Then, they rose against Fernandes, prompting him not to seek a second term. Thereafter, they elected as their President, Congressman Milei, who undertook to do more than the IMF expected of Argentina as loan conditions! He even vowed to slash public spending, and move Argentina away from the battered peso to the US dollar. The proposed dollarization of the Argentinian economy is the remedy Milei has in mind as a remedy for what he calls the cancer of inflation, which has risen to a staggering 140%. He obviously has not factored in the practical difficulties and negatives associated with the dollarization of an economy. His proposal has already run into stiff resistance from the Argentinians, who argue that they don’t want their economic sovereignty which is dependent on the peso compromised. 

IMF factor

Sri Lanka is likely to experience something similar to Argentinian situation in the run-up to and after the next presidential election. The central issue at the crucial contest will be how to revive the economy as well as whether to leave the IMF program unchanged or to renegotiate it. 

Only President Ranil Wickremesinghe will offer something similar to Milei’s agenda, where the curtailment of public spending, and the divestiture of state ventures are concerned. Milei and his allies have undertaken to slash public spending and reduce welfare and subsidies while protecting the most vulnerable to turn the Argentinian economy around. However, President Wickremesinghe has come under fire for some politically-motivated expenditure. The allocation of as much as Rs 11.25 billion to District Secretariats for development work in a hurry is said to be aimed at shoring up the image of the President in time for the next presidential election. The selection of the beneficiaries of the new social welfare programme, Aswesuma, has also come under criticism. 

There is however a striking dissimilarity between Milei and Wickremesinghe. The latter won Argentina’s presidential election following an anti-establishment campaign, which political analysts likened to that of US President Donald Trump. Wickremesinghe is very much a part of the establishment. 

Premadasa has undertaken to do a Fernandez, who chose to renegotiate the IMF conditions. Perera, if fielded by the SLPP as its presidential candidate, will find himself in a quandary, for the Rajapaksas are critical of the IMF conditions, but a future President will have to keep the IMF bailout on track if the economy is not to crash again. 

The IMF is also concerned about the coming elections because its programme is likely to suffer a setback or face unforeseen issues in case of a change of government. It would rather the status quo remained under the President to be elected. 

Other candidates, such as Jayaweera, Dissanayake and Ranawaka, will be free from such policy encumbrances. They will be able to be critical of the IMF programme, especially its social costs, and make promises in a bid to endear themselves to the masses and garner votes. But they will have to ensure that their pledges and programs will be realistic and pragmatic if they are to be acceptable to the people, who have learnt from their past mistakes like expecting relief at the expense of the country’s economic well-being. Sri Lankans have learnt it the hard way that there is nothing called government funds, and all the money that the government handles belongs to them and the mismanagement of the state coffers affects their collective future. So, conventional election gimmicks and tactics are not likely to work at future electoral contests. 


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