‘MS-Ranil govt. on firm ground: time to focus on getting things done’

‘MS-Ranil govt. on firm ground: time to focus on getting things done’

By Dinesh Weerakkody

To those public servants, businessman and politicians sitting on the fence waiting for the unexpected, President Maithripala Sirisena at the breakfast meeting with the editors on Wednesday fired on all cylinders at certain MPs and the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, exposing the latter’s intentions and warned any comeback bid would be a pipe-dream and strongly thwarted.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe has expressed similar views publicly many times that the government is here to stay and would complete the full term. President had further observed that there is no room for a parliamentary coup and even if Rajapaksa conspires and secures 50 MPs out of 95, he cannot get the 113 majority.

Neither the TNA nor the JVP will support the return of the former president, President Sirisena had inquired from the media heads present whether anyone had asked Rajapaksa why he decided to call for a presidential poll two years ahead or whether the former President had explained his reasons. The President had said that the former President was fully aware that a global economic crisis was in the horizon and effects of a crisis would negatively impact Sri Lanka, given the massive debt burden of Sri Lanka and the strained relationship with the West. The President had also articulated very strongly that the lack of a clear majority at the 17 th August general election was a message from the people for the two major political parties to work together in the national interest to ensure good governance and equitable development.

15 months have passed since Maithripala Sirisena, with the support of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, the country’s largest political party, won the election on the promise of “Yaha Palanaya” or good governance. The passing of the 19th Amendment facilitated the establishment of the Constitutional Council and independent commissions to ensure democracy, good governance, meritocracy, transparency and accountability . This was a key achievement for the Maithri-Ranil duo and the impact of that can never be underestimated.

If unemployment, was one of the reasons for MR’s defeat, the increase from 4.3% at the end of MR’s term to 4.5% in the 12 months to the Maithri-Ranil duo’s term in office doesn’t augur well for the economy at large. Enhanced foreign direct investments (FDI) or public investments, or a mix of both may be the solution. While FDI has been revolving round the pathetic 1% GDP figure despite the war ending more than seven years ago, with seemingly not much of a change despite the regime change 15 months ago, also public investments however have fallen short. On the other hand current (consumption) expenditure had zoomed in the comparative period, while revenue has lagged behind, though growing, yet not sufficient to meet the state’s total current account bill, leave alone its capital account bill.

It is said that one reason why the UNP lost the April 2004 general election was because the UNP was unable to launch a massive infrastructure development project like the Accelerated Mahaweli Development scheme which provided employment to thousands. It was possible for Jayewardene to implement the Accelerated Mahaweli because of the grant aid he got from the West and at the very worst, concessional aid (as opposed to foreign commercial loans) from the First World countries. J.R. said that his first priority was jobs, his second priority was jobs and his third priority was also jobs. At the time of his election, Sri Lanka’s unemployment was virtually at the double-digit range. He knew that it was only through the opening up of the economy, inviting foreign investments and embarking on massive infrastructure projects like the Mahaweli with foreign aid (as Sri Lanka lacked the capital), could the country’s unemployment rate be reduced. And he did just that.

MS and RW, like JRJ are looked upon favourably by the West. It’s up to them to leverage on those advantages in order to get the economy going at full steam. It may be argued that as Sri Lanka has now graduated to a lower middle income country, it doesn’t qualify itself for any bilateral or multilateral assistance. But then look at a country like Greece, classified as a high income country by the World Bank (as opposed to Sri Lanka being classified as a low middle income country), it’s still getting billions of dollars worth of aid from the IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank to bail out its economy? Why cannot Sri Lanka also receive at least a fraction of that aid?

The proposed lifting of the ban of fish exports to the EU would certainly help our exports to grow. The restoration of GSP +, support for our infrastructure development programme, balance of payments support and support to build public service capacity is what Sri Lanka needs from our friends. One of the first things that the government did after it was elected to power was to suspend the Chinese funded US$ one billion plus Colombo Port City Project( now restarted).

The renegotiation with China over Port City was necessary. Sovereign rights to perpetual ownership, sea rights and airspace had been bartered away on a platter. This was unacceptable. China has been a friend and stood by us in our time of need. So, has Japan, the West and India. This is the time for our friends to stand up and be counted and be noticed by the public.

No major tangible benefits have yet been forthcoming to the real economy according to the joint opposition as a result some people are claiming openly that nothing is happening. Many good things are getting done in systematic way, but the government is not telling the public what they have achieved in the last 15 months.

There are also a few key things that Ranil and Maithri will have to put right on the policy front and in the adminstration. They need to be charming and forceful like J.R. to ensure that the economy gets what it needs. Go beyond J.R. to the realm of moral power (“just and righteous society”) to “Yahapalanaya” (Good Governance) which became the winning factor at the 2015 January election.

Be strong like Lee Kuan Yew against corruption, conflict of interest and nepotism. If not now, later, but sooner rather than never. In the final analysis, the government needs to build a good team. They need to have a good team in place, another “Ronnie de Mel, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Ranil combination”, not infighting and disunity.

A house divided is bound to fall. Build the house on a firm foundation of good governance in deed as much as in word – that will surely and steadily deliver the promised Yahapalanay.

(The writer is a thought leader)