As negotiators from the International fund try and talk of a bailout for the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka at talks in Washington, they’ll little doubt press the requirement for stringent economic reforms. Any such rescue action will ultimately fail unless political changes are made, too.
Politics helped create the country’s current crisis. An earlier government led by then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa borrowed heavily from China et al. to finance ambitious infrastructure projects, saddling states with unsustainable debts. His brother, former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then swept to power in 2019 and packed the govt.
With cronies and relatives, including Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and another brother as minister. In the subsequent year, the president pushed through constitutional changes giving himself sweeping new powers.
Rajapaksa has made a series of economic blunders which are making the public suffer severely. He slashed taxes just before the coronavirus pandemic exhausted tourism revenue and remittances. After a ratings downgrade squeezed off access to credit markets, he tried to avoid wasting dollars by banning chemical fertilizer imports in favour of organic farming, devastating the country’s crucial tea and rice harvests.
He resisted turning to the IMF for months, instead of spending rapidly dwindling currency reserves on a futile effort to shore up the rupee and searching to India and China for assistance.
Yet any cater to the IMF would force a commitment to painful austerity measures, including tax hikes and spending cuts. An embattled government that lacks broad-based political legitimacy will have a tough time convincing the fund that its pledges are believable. Meanwhile, the probabilities of bringing opposition parties into a national-unity government remain slim as long as the president continues to wield such vast powers.
Rajapaksa shows no signs of resigning, and any attempt to impeach him looks likely to fail. The opposition would be wiser to focus on stripping the presidency of its executive powers, effectively making the position ceremonial and moving the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to a standard parliamentary system.
Voters have backed such reforms in the past, and therefore the president himself has now suggested he’s hospitable changes. They might open the door to a unity government that might seal a handle on the IMF, negotiate credibly with overseas creditors, and implement needed structural reforms before calling for fresh elections.
If a full rollback of the president’s role proves impossible, Parliament should a minimum of eliminating the added powers Rajapaksa won in 2020 and restore the independence of key and crucial institutions, which generally includes those meant to oversee elections, public services, the police and anti-corruption investigations.
Even under the most effective of circumstances, ordinary citizens will face widespread suffering before Ceylon emerges from this crisis. Partners including the U.S. and India should try to ease their pain with much-needed food aid, fuel, relief package and medicines while pressing for political reforms. Sri Lankans shouldn’t need to pay so high a price for the mistakes of their leaders