By Vishvanath

Experience is said to be the best teacher, but this adage does not hold true for the SLPP, which refuses to admit its mistakes, nay blunders, much less learn from them, repair its image by assuaging public anger, and recover lost ground. Some SLPP leaders have come out with statements which vaguely sound like apologies for the unprecedented hardships the people are facing due to their costly blunders, but, overall, they remain unremorseful for all practical purposes. Worse, they even try to justify their actions which led to the country’s worst ever economic crisis. This fact has been borne out by what the newly-appointed National Organizer of the SLPP, Namal Rajapaksa, MP, said in an interview with Derana TV on Monday night. His views can be thought to provide some insights into the thinking of the SLPP and its recovery strategy.

Namal basically repeated what his party’s spokespersons including Sagara Kariyawasam have been saying. He sought to attribute the economic crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic, the attendant lockdowns and their devastating impact on the country’ economy. He claimed that all countries which resorted to lockdowns to save lives during the pandemic had faced economic downturns. True, many countries suffered massive economic shocks from the pandemic, but the vast majority of them have not experienced prolonged economic crises as such because they have got their macroeconomic fundamentals right and maintained their foreign exchange reserves at healthy levels.

What went terribly wrong for Sri Lanka was the SLPP government’s refusal to come to terms with economic reality and take steps to prevent the onset of the economic crisis, the signs of which had been felt since early 2020. Politically-motivated tax cuts, pandemic relief geared for winning elections, widespread waste and corruption, etc., led to a huge revenue shortfall. Excessive money printing the government resorted to in a bid to meet the revenue gap resulted in high inflation and the devaluation of the rupee against all major foreign currencies; drops in foreign remittances, tourist arrivals and exports due to protracted lockdowns made foreign exchange reserves to diminish rapidly and worsened the external debt crisis. Namal left out the avoidable causative factors when he outlined what had brought about the current economic crisis. He only made some political statements devoid of any economic sense.  

The politico-economic crisis that culminated in 2022 and shook the country was also due to conspiracies, both internal and external, according to Namal. Some elements within the SLPP government had helped engineer the economic crisis, and external conspirators had done their part to destabilize the country and bring down the SLPP government, claimed Namal. He however stopped short of naming names maybe for fear of being challenged to substantiate his allegations. He claimed that the government’s efforts to manage the economic crisis with the help of India, China, etc., had been frustrated. He also spoke about preparations being made for the formulation of an economic plan at the time of the eruption of political trouble.

Instead of admitting that the SLPP government had mismanaged the country’s foreign reserves, which dwindled to a mere 25 million US dollars in early 2022, and failed to adopt remedial measures to strengthen the economy before it nosedived, Namal sought to shift the blame to the Finance Minister and Central Bank officials; he said they had not alerted the government to the impending crisis. Instead, they had declared the country bankrupt, he claimed. This claim is far from true in that the government was without any credible economic plan to secure foreign assistance and had obstinately refused to seek IMF assistance. It has now been revealed that the Central Bank economists had warned of an impending reserves crisis and called for an IMF intervention before the economy went into a tailspin, but the government did not heed their views and warnings.

Following the onset of the economic crisis, the public became resentful due to shortages of essentials, and long queues became the order of the day. Public unrest led to the Galle Face protest movement. With protests intensifying, the government was left with no alternative but to suspend debt repayment immediately and utilize the funds so saved for essential imports, and to appeal for an IMF bailout package. If the state officials concerned had erred or done something high-handed by declaring a soft default without the knowledge of the President, the Finance Minister and the Cabinet, as Namal claims, the government could have contradicted them, and taken punitive action against them. But nothing of the sort happened, and the government went along with the soft default, the basis of debt restructuring.  

Namal’s reading of the political upheavals, which came to be dubbed ‘Aragalaya’, can be considered somewhat accurate in some respects. He said the uprising had commenced as a series of agitations by the public incensed by shortages of essentials and other hardships. Their protest campaign was subsequently hijacked by disruptive political elements who scuttled the government’s economic recovery plan which was underway by driving away tourists and impeding the inflow of foreign remittances by propagating lies.

In fact, the people did not take to the streets to stage an uprising; they were already there in the streets, waiting for fuel, milk food, etc., and all that was necessary for the eruption of widespread riots was a trigger. If the government had managed the economy properly, asked for IMF assistance early before the situation got out of hand, managed the country’s foreign exchange reserves and taken action to make essentials freely available, there would have been no need for the people to hold streets protests, and the disruptive forces that made the most of the situation, according to Namal, would not have been able to achieve their sinister objectives.

When Namal was asked by the Derana interviewer why the SLPP had not engaged in self-criticism, he claimed that it had done so. However, the only instance he could cite in support of his claim was the SLPP’s expression of regret over its disastrous organic farming experience. Instead of critically evaluating its faults, shortcomings and blunders, the SLPP has been trying to justify its actions that went wrong, and shift the blame to others, such as its political rivals, state officials and unnamed conspirators.

As for the SLPP, a prerequisite for regaining popular support, if at all, is to own up to its lapses, oversights, mistakes and blunders and tender an unqualified apology to the public for them, and pledge that it will be careful not to repeat them in the future. Namal and other SLPP leaders have shown that they are not willing to do so. If they think they can regain popular support by defending the indefensible, they had better brace for a massive shock come the next election.