Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena celebrated one year in office on January 8th. He was elected on a platform that promised to deliver, among other things, good governance, lower prices for food and other consumer essentials, economic development, and more jobs. He formed an interim administration that was followed by a parliamentary election in August. Since the August election Sirisena heads a “national unity” government that consists of the United National Party (UNP) that won 106 seats in the 225 strong parliament and about half of the members of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that won 95 seats. Sirisena heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that is the principal constituent party of the UPFA.
In the first year of Sirisena’s tenure, his major achievement was in the field of good governance. The 19th amendment to the constitution that he managed to get approved in parliament with 215 of the 225 members voting for it helped establish a Constitutional Council that in turn has established ten independent commissions to oversee the police, public service, human rights, bribery or corruption, elections, delimitation of electoral boundaries, government auditing, financing of provincial councils, university education, and national procurement.
Under the Sirisena administration media freedom that was severely limited during the Rajapaksa regime has been restored. There are no more security forces or unidentified gangs that came in white vans that bear no number plates to pick up critics of the administration.
The president and members of his government have been criticized for allowing nepotism that was rampant under the previous administration to creep in. Sirisena appointed his brother to head Sri Lanka Telecom, one of the largest state-owned enterprises in the country. Some diplomatic appointments are being given to individuals who are unqualified for the positions that they have taken.
Sirisena, with the support of his Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, this month got parliamentary approval to form a Constitutional Assembly that will consist of all 225 members of parliament to discuss and write a new constitution for the country. The announced main goal of the exercise is to produce a constitution that abolishes the current executive presidency and brings back the prime ministerial system of government that Sri Lanka had before 1978 that is accountable to parliament. No strict timeframe has been established to complete the task. It is expected that the new constitution will become operational only at the end of the term of office of president Sirisena.
Sirisena’s national unity government can be seen as a political marriage that lacks political cohesion. Sirisena’s SLFP and Wickamasinghe’s UNP are traditional rivals and have somewhat different political orientations. The former is more Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist. The latter is more liberal democratic. The local government elections that were due at the end of last year would have posed a serious challenge to both parties that have to satisfy their local level political aspirants. The elections were postponed to April 2016 and now there are signs that they may not be held at all this year. That buys time for Sirisena and Wickramasinghe to maintain a united front at the national level.
The 19th amendment to the constitution does not allow parliament to be dissolved for 4.5 years from the date of election. There is speculation that Sirisena might attempt to form a government of his own with a member of the SLFP as the prime minister. However, this would be possible only if the president is able to persuade at least about twenty UNP members of parliament to crossover to his camp.
It is in the interest of Sirisena and Wickramasinghe to keep the national unity government. Recent opinion polls suggest that Sirisena has the support of around 50% of the electorate with Wickramasinghe coming closely behind. If they break ranks, it may open a window of opportunity for the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to make a political comeback. It is unlikely that it would be in the long-term political interest of Sirisena and Wickramasinghe to make way for a such a development.
The major challenge that Sirisena’s government is facing is economic. Opinion polls clearly show that the high and rising cost of living is at the top of the people’s agenda. People are also concerned about jobs and development. The electorate appreciated the former president Rajapaksa mainly for two things. The first was defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and ending the 30-year-old civil war. The second was his high profile development projects. Many voters criticize the new administration for stopping Rajapaksa’s mega projects and for failing to get the economy moving.
Wickramasinghe and not Sirisena is the man considered to be in charge of the economy. However, things have so far not gone too well on that front. The 2016 budget presented to parliament in November was poorly conceived and provoked an adverse reaction from several quarters including key sections of government employees. The government had to withdraw several major tax proposals designed to reduce the budget deficit. The deficit was originally estimated to be 5.9% of GDP but after the withdrawal of some tax proposals and new commitments to increase government spending it is expected to rise to well above 6.0%
Earlier this month Wickramasinghe invited billionaire financier George Soros, Noble Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and several other development experts assembled by the Harvard Center for International Development to come to Sri Lanka for a two-day Sri Lanka Economic Forum. Speaking at the Forum Soros warned Sri Lanka not to be too optimistic about raising resources abroad for development in the current somewhat discouraging global economic and financial climate. Even if foreign finance is available Sri Lanka’s development effort is severely constrained by, among other things, a weak bureaucracy and poor physical infrastructure. Even more importantly, Sirisena and Wickramasinghe have failed to work out an effective method to mobilize local human and other resources to produce quick results that the voters anxiously want to see.