The latest Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey (SLOTS) taken in January, shows political disarray in the country even as it battles a severe financial crisis marked by a continuing shortage of foreign exchange and sky-high prices of essential commodities.

The survey found that even the front-runners in the political arena, namely, the National Peoples’ Power/Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (NPP-JVP) combine and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), got approval ratings of 32% and 31% respectively.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) got only 9%. And his support base in parliament, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by the Rajapaksas, got 8%.

Compared to the July 2022 SLOTS, Wickremesinghe’s UNP had improved by five points while the Rajapaksas’ SLPP had lost 11 points. This should be a matter of concern for the SLPP because Wickremesinghe, who is sustained by the SLPP in parliament, is making headway at its expense. If this trend continues, the SLPP may have to function as a junior partner of the UNP, and the mighty Rajapaksas may have to play second fiddle to Wickremesinghe.

Consequences of Disarray

Be that as it may, the absence of a dominant political force in Sri Lanka bodes ill for the country whose economy is hanging by the thinnest of threads. It is utterly dependent on the promised IMF bailout of US$ 2.9 billion. There is no policy clarity in the polity, with the President Wickremesinghe saying one thing and the opposition rejecting it completely.

The President is firmly pro-reform as per the IMF’s prescriptions. He sees no other way to pull the economy out of the woods, get much-needed foreign direct investment, and the support of international lending agencies. He has repeatedly challenged the opposition to come out with an alternative to his IMF-dependent plan, but none has been put forward thus far. All that the opposition says is that Wickremesinghe is wrong and that he should quit. Wickremesinghe’s answer to this has been that his quitting is not going to solve the economic problem. At any rate, he assumed the office of President at a very difficult time when no one else from the opposition, including the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa, came forward to take up the challenge.

Wickremesinghe blames the opposition for the delay in the arrival of the IMF’s much-needed bailout. He told businessmen in Kandy, that government had repeatedly missed the deadlines set by the IMF for bringing reforms because of opposition from some entrenched quarters within the system.

However, the President contends that despite the delays, his government has managed to meet all the 15 demands of the IMF and had notified the IMF about that on February 15. He expects the IMF to announce a favorable decision on the bailout in March.

Wickremesinghe has also decried the demand for local bodies elections at this juncture. These local elections costing LKR 10 billion are not only wasteful in these days of scarcity and want, but inconsequential as they will not change the government. His plan is to put the economy ticking again by December 2023 through the IMF-suggested reforms and then go for an early Presidential election in 2024.

But the opposition will not cease to slam his dependence on the IMF. The opposition contends that the people will not be able to bear the burden of higher taxes and workers/unions will not be able to tolerate job losses due to the inevitable public sector workforce rationalization.

The SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has gone to the extent of saying that he will not honour agreements signed by the Wickremesinghe government, including those with other countries and the IMF. The leftist-nationalist leader Wimal Weerawansa has said that Sri Lanka has been trapped in a Western conspiracy and that the country should get out of it.

The opposition, the media and civil society also contend that Wickremesinghe has no political legitimacy to take any decision. They point out that Wickremesinghe was not elected by the people directly but by parliament; that he depends on another party to manage his government’s affairs in parliament; and that he is but a front for the dangerous Rajapaksas, who are waiting in the wings to grab power when conditions are ripe.

Adding to the prevailing political instability is mutual recrimination in the opposition camp. The SJB is saying that the NPP/JVP will abolish private property as per its Marxist agenda. But the JVP leader A.K. Dissanayake has denied any such plan. The new-look JVP wants to convey the impression that it is not against private capital per se.

Though the Rajapaksas’ SLPP is supporting Wickremesinghe in parliament, it has differences with the latter. The SLPP wants more cabinet posts for its MPs so that it can increase its clout among the electorate using these offices. But Wickremesinghe has not obliged them completely. He is exercising his constitutional right to choose his cabinet team as per his political and administrative agenda.


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