The balancing act of the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government, which it has been carrying out for over a year, will be subjected to a litmus test in the next few months as tensions have begun to rise within the government.
While President Wickremesinghe’s main focus has been on pushing the economic recovery programme and addressing geopolitical concerns amidst the lack of a clear foreign policy, the growing displeasure of his main ally, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), has resulted in cracks appearing within the government.
The continuously widening gap between Cabinet and state ministers, the displeasure among a group of senior SLPPers over non-appointment to ministerial portfolios, and the agitated SLPP backbenchers who are disgruntled over divisions within their party propelled by Wickremesinghe’s actions seem to be coming to a head.
A look at the political meetings being carried out by the ruling SLPP where there are contradicting statements being made by senior SLPPers—sometimes on the same stage—and the statements being made by SLPP backbenchers at the government parliamentary group meeting are all indicative of trouble brewing within the government.
President Wickremesinghe and a few of his loyalists in the government seem to be focused on preparing for next month’s International Monetary Fund (IMF) review of the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) in order to secure the second tranche of the financial package while moving ahead with the debt restructuring programme.
Be that as it may, it is interesting to see if Wickremesinghe has learnt any lessons from his past mistakes, where he was focused on a particular area while letting all others run amok.
Singh And Shi Yan 6
Amidst the growing crisis within the government, Sri Lanka continues to be in the middle of the growing geopolitical tensions between India and China.
Chinese military or research vessels calling at Sri Lanka’s ports have been a cause for concern for the Indian Government through the years. One of the key incidents where India expressed objections over Chinese military vessels in Sri Lankan waters was during the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, when a Chinese submarine arrived in Colombo. The next significant incident was when the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese tracking vessel, called at the Hambantota Port last year.
Despite finding itself once again in a difficult spot with the Chinese surveying vessel, Shi Yan 6, seeking permission to dock in Colombo this October, Sri Lanka has just granted approval for it to do so.
Last week, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry stated that Beijing had sought permission for the Shi Yan 6 to dock but that no date had been set and that the request was being processed, but granted permission late in the week.
Chinese State broadcaster China Global Television Network has called the 60-crewed Shi Yan 6 a “scientific research vessel,” stating that it carries out oceanography, marine geology, and marine ecology tests.
It is also learnt that while the Chinese vessel had sought permission to survey a vast extent of Sri Lanka’s coastline, the Sri Lankan Government is currently looking at the possibility of permitting the Chinese vessel to survey the coastline from the west to the south.
In the backdrop of controversy over the request by Shi Yan 6 to dock in Colombo in October to conduct surveying work, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is expected to visit Sri Lanka next month. It is learnt that Singh will visit Sri Lanka early September, most likely during next weekend.
It is interesting that the Indian Defence Minister will be visiting Sri Lanka prior to the Chinese vessel’s expected visit to Sri Lanka. While initial reports stated that Singh would visit Trincomalee during his Sri Lanka visit to inspect the area where India is expected to set up an industrial zone, it is learnt that Sri Lankan authorities were a little wary of the Indian Defence Minister visiting the Eastern Province. However, the agenda of the visit is unknown yet.
Meanwhile, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar had last week informed members of the Sri Lankan Parliament through a video message that India would continue to support Sri Lanka’s development activities.
Another Chinese Vessel
Interestingly, another Chinese vessel is expected to visit Sri Lanka in a few months’ time after the conclusion of the Shi Yan 6’s visit. Although details of this Chinese vessel are unknown, it is expected to seek permission to visit Sri Lanka around December or January this year.
The Wickremesinghe Government will undoubtedly have a hard time balancing the Indians and the Chinese, especially at a time when Sri Lanka is dependent on both nations to finalise its debt restructuring programme.
While the government is currently focused on balancing economic recovery and the growing geopolitical tensions between India and China, trouble seems to be brewing within the government due to an ongoing cold war between Cabinet and state ministers.
A group of state ministers recently discussed issues faced by them when trying to carry out their duties and has decided to hand over a signed letter to President Wickremesinghe.
At last week’s news conference by State Minister Premalal Jayasekara, he had a ‘have at it’ moment, accusing senior ministry officials and the subject minister (Nimal Siripala de Silva) of obstructing him from carrying out his duties and sidelining him from ministry activities.
Jayasekara’s statement seems to be the tip of the iceberg, with a group of state ministers having formed what seems like a unit to discuss and seek action to resolve their grievances. The common grievance held by them is that the Cabinet ministers in their respective ministries have not provided them the space to carry out their duties and have sidelined them from official ministry work.
Another key grievance held by state ministers is that some of the institutions assigned to them have been shut down.
Meanwhile, Minister Jeevan Thondaman had last week noted that he was having difficulties working with the government. Thondaman had told Parliament that he was not getting the support he had expected from the government to address the core issues faced by the upcountry community. He had further called on Tamil MPs from the Opposition to support him to push for solutions to the issues faced by the upcountry Tamils.
The Opposition had then invited him to it if he could not work with the government. However, Thondaman had said that joining the Opposition would not help resolve the issues faced by his people.
The increasing displeasure among SLPP backbenchers over the Wickremesinghe Government was witnessed during last week’s government parliamentary group meeting. The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena since President Wickremesinghe was in Singapore on a two-day official visit.
Gunawardena informed the group that the government planned to present amendments to the Antiquities Ordinance to enable the granting of rewards to individuals who provide tips on archaeology sites. Officials from the Archaeology Department were present at the meeting to respond to questions that could be posed by the parliamentarians.
SLPP MP Madhura Withanage objected to the amendment, saying that if individuals providing tips should be granted rewards, there was no task left for the officials of the department to carry out. “First ask the officials to do their jobs. This is the same issue that has happened to several institutions, including the Customs. Since officials are being presented with rewards, they only work with that in mind and not to do their job,” he claimed.
Although several other parliamentarians agreed with Withanage, the Prime Minister said that the proposed amendments would have to be moved during that week’s Parliament sessions.
Withanage then said that some MPs of the SLPP were not prepared to vote with the government if such amendments were being forcibly moved in the House. Amidst growing objections, the Prime Minister said that the amendments would be taken up on a later date.
When the proposal on declaring Nuwara Eliya and the south as tourism zones was taken up for discussion, the SLPPers asked who would present the proposal since Tourism Minister Harin Fernando and State Minister Diana Gamage were not at the meeting.
SLPP Parliamentarian C.B. Ratnayake then pointed out that the programme would not be a success due to the failure of officials. He explained that an investor had expressed interest in building cable cars in Nuwara Eliya in 2012 and that the project could not move forward due to the failures of some officials. “The investor constructed cable cars in two other countries instead and over a decade later we are once again talking about this project,” he noted.
Minister Vidura Wickramanayaka walked into the meeting room just as the meeting was to be concluded. Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga also noted that it was time to proceed to the Chamber as Parliament sessions were about to start.
MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi stood up and said that there were some important questions to be directed to Wickramanayaka regarding the controversy surrounding the Kurundi temple, but Ranatunga said that the questions could be discussed on another occasion.
However, a group of SLPP backbenchers including Kuttiarachchi objected and demanded that the issue be taken up for discussion. “No, we need to discuss this now. Please ask the officials in the room to leave,” Kuttiarachchi said, adding that the government’s days would be numbered if it continued to operate in such a manner.
Prime Minister Gunawardena then asked everyone to return to their seats and allowed the discussion to continue.
During the discussion, several SLPP backbenchers threatened to act against ministers who continued to ignore them and who had forgotten that their votes were needed for the government to pass its proposals in the House.
Majority Against Devolution
Meanwhile, President Wickremesinghe’s move to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is facing a key stumbling block, with many mainstream political parties expressing that they are not in agreement on extensive devolution of powers.
Following the President’s call to political parties to submit their proposals on the implementation of the 13th Amendment, it is learnt that around 20 parties had submitted written proposals to the Presidential Secretariat.
Ruling SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has stated that his party insisted that devolving powers should not be taken up at a time when the country was facing a financial crisis and that they would oppose any move to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The SLPP has also noted that religious leaders, national organisations and intellectual groups should be consulted before making a final decision on the 13th Amendment.
Main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara has said that it is pointless for the government to seek opinions of other parties without presenting its own proposals on the matter.
Meanwhile, Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa has expressed willingness to work with the government to address the issues faced by the nation if the government is prepared to stop all political games and work genuinely towards the betterment of the nation.
“The country is in a crisis situation. We are facing a prolonged drought, approximately 5,000 school teachers have left the island, and a significant number of doctors has migrated. This country requires a comprehensive national plan. We need new irrigation projects to maximise the utilisation of water that flows into the sea. The SJB is prepared to offer its expertise and support to the government if it acts in good faith,” Premadasa noted in a special statement.
“We are ready to assist the government in implementing a national plan that addresses the challenges faced by our nation. However, we request that the government refrains from engaging in political games. We will not support the government if it continues to prioritise political gamesmanship and the pursuit of ministerial portfolios,” he added.
Meanwhile, the SJB parliamentary group that met last week approved the further expansion of the common Opposition alliance led by the party.
In a statement, the SJB said the party’s parliamentarians had agreed to implement an extensive national programme through the new alliance. It has already met with the Freedom People’s Council (FPC) led by Dullas Alahapperuma for discussions on forming an alliance for a common cause.
Meanwhile, a group of young SJB parliamentarians has demanded an immediate clarification from Party Chairman Sarath Fonseka with regard to his plans to form a new party as well as his claim that he is apolitical.
The young legislators have called on SJB seniors to question Fonseka over these remarks since he (Fonseka) could not make them while serving as the chairman of the party.
Fonseka’s absence from the SJB parliamentary group meetings has also irked these young parliamentarians, who have questioned how he could form another political party after being elected to Parliament from the SJB.
Basil Summons Meet
The ruling SLPP is also working to resolve the internal crisis that could result in splitting the party.
It is against such a backdrop that the party’s National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa summoned a group of senior SLPP parliamentarians for a meeting at the Party Headquarters at Nelum Mawatha, Battaramulla.
It is learnt that Basil noted the need for the party mechanism to be prepared for several elections likely to be held next year, starting from the first quarter.
Party seniors S.B. Dissanayake, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, and several others claimed that the meeting had been held to discuss the party’s political path and that the party had enough candidates who could contest the next Presidential election.
MP Shasheendra Rajapaksa, who addressed the media after the meeting, reiterated that the party would present a candidate at the next Presidential election and that the name would not be divulged until the appropriate time. “It could be someone with a three-letter name or a four-letter name. Wait and see,” he said in reference to the speculation over the candidate.
SLPP Writes To EC
The SLPP has, meanwhile, written to the Election Commission (EC), urging the holding of Local Government Elections as soon as possible.
This issue was also raised by SLPP General Secretary Kariyawasam and 30 former heads of Local Government bodies from the SLPP during a meeting with President Wickremesinghe recently. They explained in detail the difficulties faced by the candidates due to the postponement of polls after handing over nominations.
The SLPP has also called on the government and the Election Commission to at least annul the circulars that have laid down various restrictions on the candidates, if the election cannot be held.
Some party members have also taken up the issue with Party Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR), calling for action to address the grievances of former SLPP Local Government members.
Confident Of Solution
However, the SLPP has also stated that it believes President Wickremesinghe will provide an immediate solution to problems faced by candidates who have submitted nominations for the now delayed Local Government Elections.
Kariyawasam told the media that they had drawn the President’s attention to issues faced by candidates who have submitted nominations for the Local Government Elections due to election-related laws and circulars.
“We all know that these candidates are maintaining a sound relationship with the public. For that, they should attend functions and hold positions on various committees and organisations. However, from the day they submitted nominations, they have been restricted from these actions by election laws and relevant circulars. They cannot even hold a position on a rural-level committee. This situation has affected their daily life, and we have been pointing this out to the President for months,” he said.
Meanwhile, trouble also seems to be brewing in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) over the shifting of the venue for the party’s 72nd anniversary convention from Hettipola in Kurunegala district to Colombo.
SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara had mooted the idea to hold the party’s convention in Kurunegala district and has strongly objected to the decision pushed by a group of party members to hold the convention in Colombo.
The decision to hold the SLFP convention in Colombo had been pushed by the SLFP parliamentarians who had joined the government. These parliamentarians were suspended from the party following their decision to accept portfolios in the government and recently returned to the party fold following discussions with party leader Maithripala Sirisena.
It is learnt that some SLFPers, led by Ministers Mahinda Amaraweera and Nimal Siripala de Silva, had told the party leadership that this year’s convention should be held in Colombo on a grand scale to show that the party was united and stood strong to face any challenge. Accordingly, Sirisena had also agreed to hold the party convention at Monarch Imperial in Thalawathugoda on September 3.
Jayasekara noted that a committee headed by MP Shan Wijayalal de Silva had been appointed to organise the convention in Hettipola and that several meetings had been held under Sirisena’s patronage to plan the event. He expressed displeasure over the change of venue to Sirisena, saying that invitations for the Hettipola convention had been sent out when he learnt that the venue had been changed to Colombo.
According to Jayasekara, the SLFP needs to first decide whether it is in the Opposition or the government since the party is currently operating without a policy. The SLFP General Secretary also claimed that he would not attend the party convention in Colombo.
However, SLFP Leader Sirisena convened a meeting last week with a group of SLFPers led by Jayasekara to resolve the internal crisis over its convention. Jayasekara, de Silva, Sarathi Dushmantha and Angajan Ramanathan attended the meeting. They expressed their displeasure at Sirisena for permitting the party’s annual convention to be hijacked by individuals working according to a pro-government agenda.
Sirisena, it is learnt, pointed out to the parliamentarians the need for the SLFP to put forward a united front in order to recommence the party’s reforms programme. It is yet to be seen whether Jayasekara and co. will attend the party convention.
Udaya Writes to Ranil
Amidst the chaotic political scene in the country, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) Leader Parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila called on President Wickremesinghe recently to initiate steps for Sri Lanka to become a member of BRICS.
Gammanpila, in a letter to the President, stated that global economic and political trends had changed fast and that power was now shifting towards Asia. He noted that it was time for Sri Lanka to review its foreign policy, taking into account the latest developments, and reset it accordingly.
At the latest summit of BRICS in Johannesburg, South Africa, six more countries—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, the UAE, Egypt and Argentina—were invited to join the organisation from January 1, 2024, while a number of other countries have also sought to join it.
As an initiative of BRICS, a lending agency named the ‘New Development Bank’ was set up with an initial capital of $50 billion as an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank.
Gammanpila further explained that the U.S. Dollar, as an international currency, had dominated the global market with the backing of the G7 countries including the U.S. and that BRICS was now exploring a common approach for international transactions, independent of the dollar.
Focus On IMF Review
Meanwhile, State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe has said that Sri Lanka is ready for a ‘very successful’ review of the EFF under the IMF in September by following the most practical method in meeting the conditions agreed upon.
He told Parliament that the government would be able to receive the second disbursement of $330 million in October, which is to be followed by the first review, and that certain organisations were trying to convert the current positive situation into a negative situation.
However, Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) data has revealed that Sri Lanka has failed to achieve the tax revenue target of Rs 1,300 billion set out for the first half of 2023 by the IMF under the EFF, as the government has only managed to achieve 92% of the target.
According to the recent weekly report published by the CBSL, Sri Lanka has recorded a total revenue of Rs 1,317.05 billion for the first six months of 2023, recording a 43% increase Year-on-Year (YoY), out of which tax revenue amounts to Rs 1,198.85 billion.
The Staff Report of the IMF on Sri Lanka has set out a proposed indicative target for the Central Government tax revenue of Rs 1,300 billion for the first six months of 2023 and Rs 2,940 billion by the end of 2023.
However, Sri Lanka has recorded a primary surplus of Rs 30.72 billion for the first half of 2023, when the IMF target is a deficit of Rs 113 billion for the same period.
A statement released by the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) had stated that it had collected Rs 697 billion for the first half of 2023, which is a 93% increase compared to the corresponding period in 2022.
Meanwhile, Verité Research has stated that the share of Sri Lanka’s 100 trackable commitments in the IMF programme for which no data has been made available to assess progress—despite passing the agreed deadline—has increased from 9% in March to 15% in July.
Verité Research has pointed out that the rise in the number of commitments on which the achievement is ‘unknown’ could mean one of two things. One, the government has failed to meet these commitments and is not making the information public to delay the recognition of failure. Two, the government does not see the public or Parliament as important stakeholders in programme implementation and is uninterested in providing them with critical information.
Despite the challenging circumstances, the Dhaka Tribune has reported that Sri Lanka has repaid $50 million to Bangladesh out of the $ 200 million loan that it obtained under a currency swap mechanism two years ago.
Confirming the deposition of the first instalment by the Sri Lankan authorities, Bangladesh Bank (BB) Spokesperson Md Mezbaul Haque told the Dhaka Tribune that the instalment was received on August 17. He also informed that the amount had bumped up the country’s forex reserves.
“We’re expecting a second instalment within this month,” Haque, who is also an Executive Director of the Central Bank, had added. However, he declined to comment on how much the second instalment would amount to.
Bangladesh provided a loan amounting to $200 million from its foreign reserve to Sri Lanka in September 2021. The term of the one-year loan expired in September last year. It was then extended twice in three months until March this year.
(By arrangement with ‘The Morning’)