The Phoenix rises again; For the sixth time
Posted on May 14th, 2022

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The phoenix is an immortal bird associated with Greek mythology (with analogs in many cultures) that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. Some legends say it dies in a show of flames and combustion, others that it simply dies and decomposes before being born again -Wikipedia

Sri Lanka’s political equivalent to the mythological Phoenix, Ranil Wickremasinghe, has risen again to become the Prime Minister of the country for the sixth time. The challenge before him on this occasion perhaps is the biggest that he will encounter and his ability to deliver some redress to the country now in economic ruin and social disarray will surely test his mettle as a leader.

He comes back to the hall of power with strange credentials. He is the only UNP member of the Parliament and that too from its national list. The UNP he led at the last election polled less than 250,000 notes nationally and did not win a single seat. Wickremasinghe himself did not get elected. He still leads the party, and has done so since 1994 and he and his party have lost all elections they contested bar two.

In terms of his economic management credentials, during his time as the Prime Minister from 2015 to 2019, and with constitutional powers vested in the Prime Minister and the Parliament under the 19th amendment, he presided over a less than impressive economic performance that saw the GDP growth falling from nearly 7% when he took office, to 2.75% when he left office. Similarly, what now has come to sink the country, the foreign debt as a percentage of GDP increased from 70% to 96% when he left office. It is reported that the component within this debt that is the rope that is strangling the country, the International Sovereign Bond component, rose from USD 5 Billion in 2015 to USD 17 Billion by 2019.

Wickremasinghe takes office within the backdrop of the worst economic situation the country has ever faced, which he too has never faced, and takes on a massively daunting task to initially provide relief to millions of people whose life has been so adversely affected, so much so that they collectively feel they cannot fall further into an abyss as they already are in one without a bottom.

His task has been made even more daunting considering that he will not be leading a multi-party government that includes the SJB, JVP, the SLFP and the 11 independents who have placed their parties above the interests of the country. The SLPP has assured support although whether this is the entirety of the SLPP is not yet known. All parties however have assured Wickremasinghe their support for policies that are in the best interest of the country.

At this juncture, Wickremasinghe’s not so impressive credentials mentioned above and thus his weaknesses, could well be his strengths. The UNP is in doldrums, and it is unlikely it can make a comeback to the national limelight before the next election. This could be the first phase of such a comeback, but certainly will not be sufficient to elevate it past the SLPP, SLFP or the SJB, and of course the JVP. So, one could take it that the UNP leader has placed the country above his party and taken on this almost impossible and some say even suicidal task to bring some life back to a dying Sri Lanka.

Wickremasinghe also has an advantage in not having ministers in his cabinet from the SJB, SLFP and the JVP, and therefore a freer hand to operate and steer economic policies that could rejuvenate the country. He could, if he is wise as many seem to claim, seek advice and counsel from experts rather than politicians to guide the country’s destiny.

Some of his first acts point to the right direction. The immediacy and absolute urgency of finding solutions to overcome gas, diesel, medicine, and food shortages is one. Discussing the convening of a donor consortium with diplomatic heads from China, India, USA, UK amongst others is another.

As the writer mentioned in an earlier article, the chance of raising as much as a USD 10 billion donor funded relief package is within the realm of a possibility. This coupled with an IMF intervention to restructure the country’s debt, in particular the suffocating ISB debt, could be the basis to give life to the country and its people.

Wickremasinghe has also signaled clearly that he wishes for the Galle Face confab to continue. This is welcome. It has been incorrectly touted as a protest, although it did commence as one. It has now gone beyond that, and it is a venue for ideas on the future direction of the country. It is therefore a confab and not a protest, a word that can be misinterpreted and misunderstood easily. These types of civil confabs should be encouraged not just in Galle Face but throughout the country, so that the prevailing political system would change and a new system that stops producing the caliber of politicians who have brought the country to its knees is introduced.

Something the Prime Minister has not stated yet, but what he should advocate without interfering in the activities of the Central Bank that is responsible for monetary policy, is the question of currency stability. Consideration should be given to ending the floating of the rupee, an exchange rate fixed and to be reviewed every 6 months. Some amount of price stability of essential goods, a greater chance of more remittances flowing into the country could be the outcome of such a shift in policy.

These measures, if rightly handled and successful, will restore the confidence of possible investors, both overseas and local, the country’s export industry, and import substitution industries. Mr Wickremasinghe should not discount and overlook the many positive features and proposals contained in President Rajapaksa’s own election manifesto and not take a partisan attitude towards them. If he remains true to his stated objective of rising above politics to find solutions, he should consider these and others from other political parties.

It should not be the UNP in the driving seat but Ranil Wickremasinghe, who now has to work with all political parties. His task will be doomed should he be seen to be partisan. In fact if he is wise, and wishes to be the Statesman who guided Sri Lanka to safety, he should temporally step down as the leader of the UNP distancing himself from party politics involving his own party.

There is an abundance of criticisms of what President Rajapaksa has done, why he has not resigned and why he selected Ranil Wickremasinghe. All these may have justifications.  However, what is paramount to many ordinary people is about their day to day lives, how they are going to cook their next meal, and how long they will have to wait in queues to get gas, diesel, and when power cuts will end so that they can have a modicum of normalcy in their homes and small-scale entrepreneurs could resume their business activities to make a living. They are wondering how much more they could stretch their meagre savings or what they are borrowing to meet the high prices of basic food items and medicine, gas and fuel. They are wondering what will happen to a sick person in their family should a need arise for that person to be taken to hospital that does not have drugs to treat them and even pharmacies that do not have medicines. They do not hear of solutions from the politicians from all sides, but only about conditions to be met to even begin thinking of solutions. Politicians hunger for power has exceeded the hunger felt by millions of ordinary people for basic foods and how they could cook that food even if they have it.

In this context Prime Minister Wickremasinghe has to be given a chance to deliver some immediate solutions to the people whose limit of suffering is probably past its boiling point and also work on a futuristic, sustainable economic strategy supported by all political parties and civil society.

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